Tuesday, January 30, 2018


Landscape with Miracles -- Andre Bresson (1935)
A little unusually, the Gospel for this Sunday continues directly from the week before. It tells of many more cures, and more cases of "casting out of demons". Modern ways of thinking do not easily accommodate such language, and this passage serves to underline just how far we have moved away from New Testament times in our understanding of both physical and mental disease. 

There is no doubt that the modern understanding and treatment of physical illness is vastly improved 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 intellectual humility is in order before we too quickly discount the ways that people in times past (as well as people in other non-Western parts of the contemporary world), have dealt with disease, regarding them as practices born of superstitious ignorance. Humility, in fact, is the message that the wonderfully poetic passage from Isaiah invites.  The world in which we live is complex and mysterious. ‘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.’
Jesus heals Peter's Mother-in-law

More importantly, perhaps, we should not assume that "casting out demons" refers to healing psychological illness. An intriguing aspect of this Gospel is that when the sick gather to be healed, Jesus does not, as he might, set up some sort of clinic to deal with all the illness in the village. After a time, he goes off alone to pray, and then when the disciples tell him everyone (understandably) is looking for him, he resumes his journey to other places, leaving them disappointed presumably. Healing, it seems, is not part of his primary mission.  "Casting out demons", on the other hand, does appear to be part of what proclaiming the Gospel involves, because this is what he continues to do elsewhere. 
The freedom the Gospel offers, there is reason to surmise, is not freedom from sickness, physical or mental, but something quite different.

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