Rev. Dr. Martha ter Kuile
4th Sunday after Epiphany
January 31, 2021
They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’ But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ And the unclean spirit, throwing him into convulsions and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.’ At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
May God bless to our understanding these words from Holy Scripture.
It’s a coincidence that we have this Gospel story in the same week as the Bell ‘Let’s Talk’ campaign has brought mental health awareness to the forefront. The idea of this decade-long effort is to talk about it – to encourage conversation that will remove stigma, and to find ways of supporting one another when our lives are challenged by mental health issues. These long and difficult months of pandemic have put a strain on everyone, so the need to speak openly and compassionately is especially relevant this year. To be gentle with ourselves and others.
Mental health is always a difficult topic, and the changing language we use reflects that. We don’t use words like crazy, or deranged, or lunatic anymore – and even euphemisms like mental hygiene or nervous breakdown lose currency over time. Different societies have a different take on the relationship of body, mind and spirit in human wellbeing. But it is a universal fact that there are ways of being unwell that seem not to be strictly physical, and are mysterious, and unnerving. The way they described it in the Bible was that the man was possessed by an unclean spirit. Some translators say an impure spirit, or a defiling spirit, or even simply, a demon. It is common, both in history and in various cultures around the world to understand what we call mental illness as possession by an outside force – a more concrete way of saying, as we might, ‘you are not yourself’. But the recalcitrance, and the pain, and the mystery of it remains.
So here is what we see in this story of Jesus:
First, we note its position in the overall narrative. This is the very first healing story, it’s the first miracle described in the Gospel of Mark, and it happens right within Jesus’ debut at the synagogue. How striking that Jesus starts with mental health. To him, mental health is foundational, it is the basis of relationships, of family life and work life, of community well-being – it is at the root of all wellness. Mental health is the starting point. The people gathered around Jesus have noted with awe that he speaks with authority, as if he really knows what he is talking about. As if he really is connected to God. And Jesus chooses to demonstrate that authority by integrating this healing into his first teachings.
Then, notice that we are told that the man is in the synagogue with the other people of the town. Though it is clear that he is living with a very severe condition, no-one has thought to exclude him from the community. Apparently they just work around his strange ravings and odd behaviour. He’s allowed to be there with them, and he is the first to have the insight that Jesus is the Holy One of God.
At the same time, it is clear from the story that Jesus does not patronize him. There is no romantic idea that his situation is glamourous, no expectation that it would be better to continue in his illness as some sort of shaman or prophet. Indeed, it is simply the relief of suffering that Jesus focusses on.
Finally, Jesus doesn’t ask the man to heal himself. He doesn’t say, cheer up, or tell the man to get a grip. This malady is not considered to be a matter of attitude or of positive self-talk. And this is in contrast to many of Jesus’ other healings. How often, as the Gospel unfolds, do we see him say, get up and walk, your faith has made you whole. But not here. Here Jesus rebukes the illness, and it departs.
Anyone who has struggled with mental illness, whether it is in yourself or in someone close to you, will read this story with some sadness. Some longing. If only it could be as easy as it seems to have been so long ago, in the synagogue at Capernaum. If only Jesus could just say, be gone. But there is an invitation here. Jesus invites us to acknowledge mental health as the starting point for wellness, for all of us. He reminds us that those who experience life-defining mental health challenges belong in the community and not outside it. And he demonstrates that mental health is not an exercise in self-help – everyone who suffers deserves support.
As we look around us, at our friends and neighbours, at family and strangers, and even at ourselves, may we have the compassion that Jesus had. May we make mental health and healing a starting point, as he did. May we remember that as we do this, we are not alone, and for this we give God thanks. Amen.
Image Credit: Capernaum – P. Goodwin (unsplash.com)