|The Synoptic Gospels such as the Gospel of Mark are full of accounts of Jesus’ healing miracles.|
HOMILY FOR THE FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY
Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Psalm 111; 1Corinthians 8: 1-13; Mark : 21-28
This morning’s Gospel reading from Mark follows Jesus as he begins his ministry in the towns of Galilee, especially around the Sea of Galilee. For those listening to him, he is a newcomer. Two things stand out: He teaches “as one having authority”. The other is that he has authority over and is obeyed even by the unclean spirits.
In a Gospel excerpt from the Gospel according to John, which we will not read until Year A comes around again. Andrew goes to find his brother Simon (later called Peter) and says to him “We have found the Messiah, (which is translated Anointed)”. Two Sundays ago, again as narrated by John, Philip finds Nathanael and says. “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth”. This account by John, although written later than the other three Gospels shows us the expectation of the coming of a Messiah, of one anointed by God. This arrival is based on scripture, specifically in the Book of Deuteronomy, but also in the writings of many of the prophets
This morning we read Deuteronomy 18: 15-20. Here we find what Moses is said to have written in Deuteronomy: “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet”. In many ways Deuteronomy is a recapitulation of laws and rules already enunciated in Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers. Together with Genesis these five books constitute the Pentateuch, or Torah as it is called in Hebrew.
Up until the 18th century the authorship of the five books was attributed to Moses. Then, based on the different literary styles discernible in the text, different words used for the Lord God (Yahweh, Elohim) in long passages of the texts, scholars began to openly doubt the unique authorship of Moses. One of the first incongruences to be pointed out is that the death of Moses and his burial is described in Deuteronomy. If he is the sole author, how came he to describe his own death and burial? In the Twentieth century a theory was widely held that ascribed the texts to four unnamed authors known collectively as JEDP. The initials stand for the Yawhist (J for Jehovah), the Elohimist after the name used for God in the passages attributed to him such as Genesis 1, the Deuteronomist, and a Priestly writer. The Pentateuch is thought to be the work of these persons or of likeminded schools that wrote at different times in one of the four styles mentioned above. Of course these tidy theories have been criticized, but that is not the object of my homily.
As you know from the readings, there were great hopes that the Messiah would come around the time Jesus was born. In the understanding of many, the Messiah would come and restore rule by a descendant of King David. He would also restore the independence of Israel by driving out the hated Roman occupiers. For others the prophecy in Deuteronomy indicated that the Messiah would be a law-giver and prophet like Moses, but also someone who would lead his people out of sin and captivity. Still others saw in passages from Isaiah indications that the Messiah would be a suffering servant. What kind of Messiah is Jesus??
Jesus begins his ministry in the cities and towns around the Sea of Galilee. On Saturdays he teaches in the synagogues. The authority with which he teaches amazes the listeners. Think about it: Jesus’ listeners are experiencing him for the first time. They were not present at his Baptism when the Spirit of God descended on him. If we listened to the Gospel proclamation concerning Jesus’ baptism we know more than his audience does. His wisdom appears to them to be astounding. Even more astounding is that unclean spirits recognize him and obey him.
The Synoptic Gospels such as the Gospel of Mark are full of accounts of Jesus’ healing miracles. Likewise his power as an exorcist is also very much evident. Many of us have seen the film “Rosemary’s Baby”, in which a priest struggles to free a girl from a demon that possesses her. The Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Church both acknowledge that there are cases of demonic possession, and there are prescribed rituals for exorcising them. You are not going to find these in your Book of Common Prayer. I would need to apply to the Bishop for access to the ritual. I have not had occasion to do so. Yet in Jesus’ times demoniac possession appears to be extremely common.
To understand the widespread nature of the phenomenon of possession by demons perhaps we need to look at the context in which they occurred. Galilee was a region where inequality was strongly manifest. People paid taxes to the Temple, to the Romans, and to Herod, the local kinglet. Under the weight of this triple taxation and crop failures, many small farmers had been forced off the land. They lived precariously and under great stress, working when they could. Poverty was increasing, and hunger was a reality for many. The condition of women and children was even more serious. Many women had no husband, either because he had died or they were unable to find a second husband to replace him. In other cases the woman had been repudiated because she could not bear children. No one wanted her, since her ability to bear children was what gave her value and status in the society of her time. The times were cruel, and they were cruelest to the weakest and the less defended. Under these circumstances nervous collapse and strange behavior brought on by unbearable stress were a way to evade the harsh reality of their lives.
If we hear little about demoniac possession today maybe it is because in the developed world we have mechanisms that alleviate the misery and poverty of many people such as welfare assistance programs. Many deal with the stress of daily life with the help of tranquilizers or products that reduce anxiety levels. Drug use, legal or not, is pretty widespread. Still a great many of the homeless in the United States are mentally ill, and it is a failure of our society that these persons do not receive the help they need and deserve. Our law and justice systems are better developed, and more people have recourse to them. So perhaps the stresses and injustices that provoked mental illness and the behaviors thought to indicate demonic possession are less, and the mechanisms for coping with them are better developed and more varied.
In his healings of the lame, the lepers and the blind, Jesus restores the sufferers to a state of physical wholeness. There is a spiritual component to this- the healings require faith. In the healing of the possessed Jesus is also cutting through the alienation that has made them behave as they do. In his compassionate dealings with the physically and mentally afflicted he addresses the whole person, and treats physical and spiritual needs. I think this is an aspect of Jesus’ ministry and miracles that cannot be emphasized too much. He addresses the whole person, body and soul. In addressing the spiritual needs of sufferers he is also bringing them closer to God.
We cannot just take care of our bodies. We have to take care of our spiritual side as well, and nurture it. I think Jesus shows us the path to better spiritual health and to better physical health as well. We know the two are intertwined. So let’s think of caring for our souls when we are working out or healing the body. And let’s remember too that spiritual well-being can be enhanced by taking care of the physical aspects of our health. Let’s walk those intertwined paths with Jesus as our companion.
PLANNING TRAVEL TO GUATEMALA?