Monday, January 30, 2012


Icon of Jesus healing
  • Isaiah 40:21-31
  • Psalm 147:1-11, 20c
  • 1 Corinthians 9:16-23
  • Mark 1:29-39 

    What is a modern reader to make of the extended references to ‘demons’ in the Gospel for this Sunday? Does such a passage not reveal just how far we have moved away from New Testament times in our understanding of both physical and mental disease? Let us suppose that it does. What implications should we draw from this?

    One inference that seems obvious to many people is that the miracles attributed to Jesus didn’t actually happen, and that this is either a record of human credulity, or fanciful embroidery after the fact. But this is too hasty. There is no doubt that modern understanding and treatment of physical illness is vastly advanced on what it was even one hundred years ago. At the same time, there is much that remains mysterious to medical science. Furthermore the effectiveness of modern drug therapies is not as well established as it is often made out to be. And, when it comes to mental illness, our understanding has advanced surprisingly little, with effective treatments few and far between.

    So a measure of humility is in order before we too quickly relegate people in times past to superstitious ignorance. Humility, in fact, is the message that the wonderfully poetic passage from Isaiah invites. ‘Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. . . . his understanding is unsearchable.’

    If, as Christians believe, this everlasting God was uniquely incarnate in Jesus, there is no very great puzzle in claims that he had a dramatic effect on the physical and mental wellbeing of the people he encountered. We should not overlook this important fact, however. On this, as on many other occasions, Jesus quietly moves on elsewhere, lest he be seen primarily as a miracle worker. His first call is not to heal, but to “proclaim the message” of salvation  “for that is what I came out to do.”

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