Vol 40 No 2
THE CHALLENGE OF POSTMODERNISM
CATHOLICISM IN THE POSTMODERN WORLD
HEALTH AND ILLNESS IN MARK’S GOSPEL: Physical or Spiritual?
J O’Neill MSC
THE MINISTRY OF THE SKILLED STRANGER: Religion and Spirituality in Public
FROM FEAR TO LOVE: Building an Australian Culture of Hospitality
NEW RELIGIOUS BOOKS BY AUSTRALASIAN AUTHORS
and illness in Mark’s Gospel
Physical or Spiritual?
AS A PHYSICIAN who manages patients with cancer, I am witness
to the physical and spiritual loss suffered by these patients, their family
and staff, that often accompanies this dreaded illness. My own perspective
is influenced by todays western culture and understanding of illness,
and by my medical training. The emphasis has been on science, proof of
efficacy and patient care, and much less on spiritual loss. In the last
ten years most physicians, including myself, have increasingly appreciated
the importance of treating patients on an equal footing (and not only
because of litigation). Still, spiritual deficiencies have often been
neglected, or left to the often overburdened hospital pastor, and only
brought to the fore by patients able to discuss their inner concerns and
those who approach their illness and suffering through a spiritual veil.
Very few patients, in my opinion, will cope with life-threatening illnesses
such as cancer, without both medical and spiritual support. As their physician
I would be in an ideal position to do so in light of what has been written
by the evangelists.
The evangelists were also influenced by their own cultural beliefs. Their
Gospels were written for varied communities around 60-120 CE, when the
understanding of illness was markedly different from that of todays
western communities. Jesus healing stories were often underpinned
by liberation from sin, and were therefore more helpfully interpreted
in terms of a persons relationship with their community. The emphasis
placed by each evangelist in the narrative would also alter the intended
meaning. Their writings thus highlighted the cultural environment and
beliefs of the time, and brought to the fore the relation between sin
and illness. Several stories in the Gospels therefore concerned both physical
and spiritual loss and served to remind us of Gods involvement in
human affairs, particularly those people in most need.
Healing stories formed one-half of Marks Gospel and were inserted
prior to the journey to Jerusalem. Jesus healings demonstrated the
truth of Marks claim that Gods will is accomplished in remarkable
ways. These healings illustrated what it meant for Gods kingdom
(basileia) to draw near (Meier 1994, 2:545; Taylor 1992; Trainor 2001,
24), which was by overcoming physical and spiritual illness and demons
through Jesus healings, miracles, teachings and eventually the Crucifixion
(See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your
way Mk 1:2; Mk 1:1-11) (Powell 1998, 52). Mark saw these miracle
stories as works of Gods power acting in Jesus, but not necessarily
as proof of his divine status (Mk 8:11-13). Jesus was master of these
forces (demons, sickness and associated suffering and death), which in
ancient traditions appeared to be under the control of Satan (When
you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers,
they shall not overwhelm you: when you walk through fire you shall not
be burned, and the flame shall not consume you, Isa 43:2; 51:9-10).
Mark emphasised the social relations and politics within these healing
stories to highlight the restoration of the holiness of the ill and of
their membership within the community.
I would like to offer my reflections on health and illness in Marks
Gospel in two parts. In the first part I have reviewed the cultural influences
that determine the relationship between physical and spiritual ill health
and Jesus identity as healer and teacher. In the second part I have
discussed the patients suffering and access.
* * * *
INFLUENCE OF LOCAL CULTURAL PRACTICES AND BELIEFS
Causes of Illness
The management of an illness was dependent on local cultural practices.
It was based on culturally determined causes of illness. Hence illness
became a sociocultural phenomenon that was defined by medical
rules (termed ethnomedicine) that differed considerably from
modern western biomedicine, which is based on biological symptoms
and physical causes (Pilch 1985, 142-150). Therefore, whilst an illness
such as lung cancer in biomedicine may be defined in terms of a number
of causes such as cigarette smoking, it cannot be so defined in ethnomedicine.
In the latter setting the one condition may encompass several illnesses,
and vice versa. For example, Mark wrote that the boys symptoms in
Mk 9:14-29 were caused by a spirit, whilst in modern medicine these could
have easily been ascribed to epilepsy, high fevers, or a brain tumour.
However, in spite of these seemingly marked differences, the last few
years have witnessed a growing acceptance of the interdependence of mind
and body, and alternative treatments such as psychology and meditation,
which has led to a greater appreciation of the importance of sociocultural
beliefs and hence of spiritual health (Pilch 1985, 142-150; Gillen and
Gillen 2000; Bitran 2004, 2381-2382).
The Individual and the Community
The study of diseases in biblical times tended to focus on behaviour,
performance and social relations of the ill. It could not be undertaken
without a proper understanding of the sociocultural context and of key
cultural factors such as kinship, social networks, power, and authority,
and thus involved sociocultural research rather than medical research.
It would not focus on the individual as the primary source of concern
or as an economical issue, but would strive to encompass the relation
between the individuals illness and the community as a whole. This
concept heightened the awareness of any irregularity or illness in an
individual within a community since the individual was very much dependent
on the values and opinions of other members of his community, and their
own evaluation of this individual. This inevitably affected others such
as family, neighbourhood and village. These interested parties would therefore
be involved in the healing process. For example, biblical leprosy (which
is probably modern-day psoriasis) was a sociocultural phenomenon, which
threatened the integrity of the community and the holiness of its individuals.
The person, rather than the condition, therefore had to be removed from
the community and could only return if the condition was cured (Lev 13:1-59;
Mk 1:40-45). This focus on social relations and politics thus affected
the workings of the health-care system. Hence the healing stories involving
leprosy were not concerned with the disease itself or its implications
on public health but with social integrity and community holiness. Therefore
by implication, the illness of the individual reflected on the communal
sinful behaviour (Taylor III 2003; Lozan 2004, 10). Evil was thought to
invade and degrade the health system so that it became an instrument of
oppression (the appearance of an individual demon in Marks Gospel
was always a sign of a larger oppressive system). Like sin, this condition
never resolved completely but often required repeated courses of treatment
(then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently
and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly Mk 8:25)
(Pilch 1985, 146; Donahue and Harrington, 2002).
Nowadays, while it is often possible to heal and also to cure illnesses,
in the biblical world only healing was possible, and usually of illness
and not disease. Once healed by Jesus, the individual and those in close
contact with him were then able to find the true meaning to the sufferers
condition and that of the community as a whole, resulting in a better
understanding of true faith, the will of God and providence (See
that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and
offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them
Mk 1: 44). In this setting the primary interest was not that of symptoms,
classification of disease or interpretation of the presenting complaint
but spiritual communal healing. This concept was imbedded within the household
order prevalent at the time of the evangelists. The Gospel was therefore
a cultural product brought out of a particular historical and social setting
(Trainor 2001, 16). It is markedly different from modern-day managed care
health systems where the dollar supersedes the patient and community as
the primary focus and in the global health economy, which tends to oppress
the poorer third-world countries.
The role of the family in the care of the ill is not well described in
Marks Gospel but implied (they; Mk 2:1-10, 7:32). They
probably referred to kinship of some form. The role of the they
(Mk 7:32, 8:22) in the healing parables emphasised the social or community
involvement in disease through real or fictitious kinship (Pilch 1985,
147). Women were also often treated within a family context, but usually
under the auspices of a male or mother, as was the society norm in those
times. The haemorrhaging woman (Mk 5:25-34) was an exception. However,
she was exposed by Jesus for having touched his garments (Donahue and
Harrington 2002, 180). In any case, the ill often required permission
from the family to assume the sick role and relied on family assistance
in the assessment of sickness and its treatment which invariably involved
prayer, repentance and if necessary professional or folk healer assistance.
The family was thus an integral part of the whole community.
Healers and Physicians
When reviewing the workings of a modern-day health care system in a particular
society, physicians would be studied in isolation as a central component
of this system. However, in the biblical text the focus was always on
Jesus. He resembled a modern professional healer studied in isolation,
whose healing involved the whole system, or community. A review of such
a system or its workers (in this case, physicians) would therefore involve
a study of the cultural beliefs of the society in question and an understanding
of how people functioned and felt about their health care system in their
particular social setting. Each evangelist and his intended and actual
audience thus interpreted their traditions through a recognisable and
acceptable health care system where each individual could not be separated
from the community as a whole.
The actions of healers were often based on beliefs, conditioned by cultural
rules and not on medical facts: many believed that God made
people sick and then healed them (occasionally through the prophets) (Ex
15:26). It was therefore assumed that God endowed the healer with his
medicinal power, and retained responsibility for success or failure of
treatment (Sir 38). Many immigrants, particularly those from a Mediterranean
background, hold to such beliefs even today. Thus the traditional method
of treating an illness in the gospels involved praying to the Lord, putting
ones life in order (confessing and repenting sins) and offering
a sacrifice. The evangelist would then incorporate some newer aspects
of healing from the Hellenistic culture such as consultation with a physician
and taking medicines proposed by a professional healer (Sir 38:4, 9-12).
These differences between the modern western health system and that found
in biblical times, and the focus on Jesus, explain why there was little
reference to professional healers in the Bible. The term physician
appeared only 7 times in the New Testament (Mk 2:17, Mt 9:12 and Lk 5:31)
(Pilch 1985, 145).
On occasion the professional medical sector was criticised (she
had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had;
and she was no better, but rather grew worse Mk 5:26). The references
to Jesus as a physician, in particular, thus emphasised his teaching and
not the physical cure. Furthermore, the context of the narrative in the
particular text setting always determined the hidden meaning involved
in Jesus healing: he was able to provide a true purpose and meaning
of life to these people in a spiritual way through physical healing. He
was able to offer something to each of these ill people even
though he was not a professional healer in the modern sense. Marks
Jesus was concerned with social commitment, inclusiveness and discipleship.
Those who were not ill were not in need of a physician (in a spiritual
sense) (Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those
who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners
Mark associated various medical conditions with all the symbolic
zones of the Mediterranean human person. This association emphasised the
need to restore holiness and wholeness within the individual and community.
Marks men and women suffered from different conditions, which reflected
on their social status within the community. Men were healed from unclean
spirits, paralysis, withered hands, deafness, speech impediment and blindness,
whilst women were healed from unclean spirits, fever, death and haemorrhage,
which had deprived them of their domestic status. Successful treatment
restored women to their domestic function such as in the case of Simons
mother-in-law (Mk 1:29-31) and that of the haemorrhagic woman (Mk 5:25-34).
It is therefore not surprising that physicians were not often referred
to in Marks Gospel.
The emphasis on community health and relation of physical illness to spiritual
ill-health played a key role in identifying and classifying various illnesses
that had intended or unintended practical consequences. The ill were often
of concern to the entire city (and the whole city gathered around
the door Mk 1:33): crowds gathered when Jesus was healing, lepers
were often quarantined to protect the community integrity in spite of
the lack of contagiousness (Lev 13), and in situations where Jesus or
the healed persons were considered undesirable to the community, they
were asked to leave (then they began to beg Jesus to leave their
neighbourhood Mk 5:17).
All illnesses involved a human or divine aetiology in direct contrast
to modern medicine where the aetiology is essentially disease orientated.
Whilst Marks Gospel narratives were, therefore, not a personal interpretation
but a normal report of the entire healing narrative as experienced at
the time of Jesus, his own cultural beliefs would have ultimately coloured
his own interpretation of Jesus words and deeds (note the differences
in the healings at Simons House in Mk 1:29-31 and Lk 4:38-39).
Jesus Identity as Healer and Teacher
As Jesus did not form part of the professional sector his authority was
often questioned by the chief priests and scribes (why does this
fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Mk 2:7; by what
authority are you doing these things? Mk 11:28), although, paradoxically,
ordinary people (and the intended readers audience) were able to
acknowledge Jesus true authority in his teaching and healing activities
(they were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one
having authority, and not as scribes Mk 1:22), an authority that
could only be obtained through the grace of God (so that they were
all amazed and glorified God Mk 2:13).
Since illness was concerned with the sociocultural background of the ill
individual and much less with its physical causes, then it is reasonable
to view Jesus as both a teacher and a healer (Mk 9:38). In fact, at no
time in any of the narratives was there any mention of symptoms of disease,
Jesus primary concern being that for the meaning of and purpose
in life and the forgiveness of sins (when Jesus saw their faith,
he said to the paralytic, Son, your sins are forgiven Mk 2:5;
But so that you may know the Son of Man has authority on earth to
forgive sins Mk 2:10; Mk 13:34-37). Marks ill were beyond
self care and could only be cured through preaching and teaching (as
he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them,
because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach
them many things Mk 1:34; Mk 6:5; 6:7, 13; 9:38).
Jesus healing activities thus usually occurred during a teaching
activity (when the Sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught
Mk 1:21; Mk 1:22; 2:13), where he was able to provide a social meaning
for the life problems resulting from the illness. He was often called
teacher (Teacher, do you not care that we are preaching? Mk 4:38;
why trouble the teacher any further? Mk 5:35) or occasionally
used the title to describe himself (the teacher asks, where is my
guest room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples? Mk 14:14).
Ultimately, Marks Jesus was able to heal many and return them to
the grace of God, a successful physician that any modern healer would
love to emulate. From a physical aspect this effective outcome was not
too dissimilar to that achieved with modern-day medicine.
Jesus numerous healing miracles in Marks Gospel revealed Gods
power over evil and sin and his missionary thrust to heal humanity from
both physical infirmity and sin. Jesus successful healing led to
a renewed faith, salvation and resurrection beyond the suffering of physical
and spiritual ill health. Recovery of faith allowed the individual, and
therefore, the community to bear witness to Jesus, to spread the word
of God in true discipleship, and to experience Gods kingdom on earth.
The successful healings transcended all humanity irrespective of race,
socioeconomic status, culture and creed. They also emphasised Jesus
role as an authoritative teacher and healer. The healings described the
proper method of prayer, so that ill people may ask for forgiveness
of sin and be healed (Johnson 1991, 183).
However, todays reader would not be able to elucidate the true deeper
meaning of these healing stories from a modern western cultural aspect
point of view without a proper understanding of the beliefs, culture and
structure of the health care system that underpinned the workings of a
health system in the 1st century CE. Illness was a reflection of the lack
of communion with Jesus and/or the overwhelming power of Satan.
These healing stories assist physicians to confront the terrible illnesses
that patients suffer by experiencing Gods grace that transcends
human suffering, and appreciating that cure from spiritual illness is
more important than that from physical illness. In this manner I am able
to carry out Jesus mission when managing patients in their wholesome
This aspect of suffering and access to God will be discussed in the second
As discussed in Part I, recovery from life-threatening illnesses involved
an individual assessment of ones spiritual health. During the first
century CE recovery from illness also involved an appraisal of the individuals
role and participation within the community (including kinship) which
facilitated the reintegration within the same community (Meier 1994, 2:545).
This process paralleled and accompanied a spiritual cure and participation
in Gods kingdom through Jesus words and deeds (Mark was in
fact very much concerned with access to Gods kingdom). The healed
were thus able to experience Gods grace. This recovery served as
an example of Marks Jesus inclusivity and discipleship. An
understanding of the cultural environment and beliefs of Jesus community
was required to fully understand this relationship between sin and illness.
In this second part I will review two of the primary effects of illness
that influence the process of recovery. These include physical and spiritual
suffering and loss of access within the community. These effects, which
were prominent in Marks era, also exert an important influence in
todays world. The relation between suffering and rediscovery of
faith in light of Marks Gospel will also be discussed, as well as
the facilitation and nurturing of access to Gods kingdom. The latter
may be undertaken by many, including the ill persons own caregiver,
their physicians, family and community in general.
Marks Jesus instructed his disciples to follow Jesus (and
these are the ones sown on the good soil: they hear the word and accept
it and bear fruit, thirty and sixty and a hundred-fold; Mk 4:20).
Jesus insisted that they must persevere in the face of persecution and
suffering to yield a bountiful harvest ( but when the grain is ripe,
at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come;
Mk 4:29). The disciples had to be patient and committed so that Gods
work through Jesus would ultimately bear fruit in spite of the many obstacles
and suffering placed in their path (echoing that of the ill) (Mk 4:26-29).
However, Marks disciples were often depicted as being of little
faith and ignorant (have you still no faith? Mk 4:40), probably
paralleling Marks own community which was suffering persecution,
death and loss of faith (Weeden 1971).
Illness also brings on fear, mistrust and abandonment. Under these circumstances
the ill often question their faith: Why me? They may carry
feelings of guilt, as may often do their family or carer, and may view
their illness as a punishment for their sins (I often encounter this feeling
in parents of children with cancer). Marks portrayal of Jesus
death on the cross echoed the experience by many ill patients of suffering
and abandonment (my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Mk 15:34) (Donahue and Harrington 2002, 37). The threat of death and abandonment
by family in the absence of faith may lead to isolation and fear. Few
people would be in a position to cope alone with the suffering that is
thrust on them in this frightening situation. In this setting the ill
often undergo a spiritual change, regain their faith and alter their approach
to life as a result of their illness.
Faith was often lacking in Marks disciples (for they all saw
him and were terrified; Mk 6:50) but was an essential component
of his healing stories. Marks emphasis on faith in the presence
of persecution and suffering pervaded the Gospel (take heart, it
is I; do not be afraid; Mk 6:50) (Powell 1998, 56). The disciples
poor understanding of Jesus identity throughout the Gospel in contrast
to Jesus consistent compassion, encouragement and reward to those
of strong faith encourages the ill to look up to Jesus as someone who
can assist them during a time of suffering (Daughter, your faith
has made you well; go in peace and be healed of your disease; Mk
5:34; Mk 6:50) (Powell 1998, 56; Malbon 1992, 44; Donahue and Harrington
2002, 159). Faith in Marks Gospel was not only an intellectual conviction
of belief but also a faith in God that encouraged the disciples and others
to respond courageously to life-threatening situations, as exemplified
by the haemorrhagic woman (and trembling, [she] fell down before
him, and told him the whole truth; Mk 5:33). In Mark, faith led
to a just reward such as recovery from illness (daughter, your faith
has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease; Mk
5:34) and/or the ability to partake in Gods kingdom (truly
I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child
will never enter it; Mk 10:15).
The contrasting equations throughout Marks Gospel of blindness-sight,
birth-death, and sickness-healing demonstrated the disciples blindness
to Jesus true nature and his ability to offer a new beginning by
overpowering illness and sin through his words and deeds (Barrett 1998).
This new beginning involved both physical and spiritual recovery and reintegration
in the community and in Gods kingdom (Meier 1994, 2:545). Faith
therefore encouraged the ill to remember that God continuously involved
himself in human affairs, particularly those in most need (I have
come to call not the righteous but sinners; Mk 2:17).
Thus, the journey of the disciples in Marks Gospel towards true
discipleship and inclusivity parallels that which the ill suffer during
the course of their life-threatening illness. Jesus feeling of abandonment
at the moment of his death (Mk15:34) also reinforces this concept. Accordingly,
the ill cannot undergo resurrection without death and knowledge of God,
which is achieved through suffering (and eventually death). Similarly,
patients who suffer from potential life-threatening illness and who are
able to experience this spiritual aspect of suffering (being lonely, rejected
or misunderstood) would therefore feel closer to Jesus and would be able
to experience salvation through their suffering, be it physical or spiritual,
or both. I feel that those in support of euthanasia fail to appreciate
this theme in Marks Gospel (Moloney 1988, 26). Illness therefore
should not appear as an exclusively negative event in light of Jesus
death and resurrection but can be seen as a visit by God and an opportunity
to repent, obtain lasting peace and undergo salvation (Pope Paul II 1992).
Care of the Ill
It is not surprising, therefore, that the Catholic Church has always supported
an attitude of listening, reflection and affective commitment in the face
of pain and illness (Pope Paul II 1992). The ability to see in ill patients
the face of Jesus can be considered to be a divine gift of God. The ability
to bring both physical and spiritual relief to the ill emphasises the
inclusivity of discipleship (Shriver 2004, 110). Love for the suffering
patient can be construed to be a sign and measure of the degree of civilisation
and progress of humanity (2 Cor 7:4; Is 25:8).
As a physician who manages patients with cancer I am witness to this physical
and spiritual loss and must, in light of the above, assist in their physical
and spiritual recovery, occasional cure, and re-integration within the
community. Only recently the American Medical Association recommended
that patient care should involve the social, emotional and spiritual dimensions
of both the patient and the physician (Mermann, 2002). It emphasised that
altruism is a key attribute to being a good physician, who must be compassionate,
show empathy and respect for patients as human beings in light of their
cultural and spiritual values, beliefs, fears, hopes and preferences.
Modern day solutions such as surgery may be found wanting, but constant
prayer (Jesus in Gethsemane; Mk 14:32-42), companionship and family care,
although not curative from a physical aspect, assist the ill to prepare
for, and experience, spiritual salvation. The emphasis thus is on a holistic
approach (of body, mind and spirit) to patients and their families involving
It must be said that others see spirituality as a serious threat to medical
ethics and believe that this approach should not be used as a form of
treatment (Gillen and Gillen 2000, 3). Their concern relates to the possibility
that carers may suggest to a patient that physical cure was dependent
only on faith. This attitude is compounded by modern day expectations
where we desperately want to be healed to succeed. An emphasis on quality,
respect, open communication and patient focus pre-empts this issue (Royal
Adelaide Hospital Cancer Centre, 2001).
Illness causes suffering and reminds us of the fragile and finite world
we inhabit (Schreiter 1988, 3-4). However, illness or disability is not
the only source of suffering. Exclusion from community and ordinary human
activity, leading to isolation and loneliness as experienced by lepers
(Lev 13) and by Jesus on the cross (my God, my God, why have forsaken
me? Mk 15:34), may be a greater form of suffering. Marks healing
stories illustrate this point (Jesus Cleanses a Leper; Mk
1:40; The Healing of Blind Bartimaeus; Mk10:46-52). The chronically
ill and disabled are no better off in the modern Western world.
Whilst a chronic physical disability may become second nature to the individual,
the exclusion from society dehumanises, corrupts and diminishes a person.
Illness therefore has physical, psychological, spiritual and social ramifications.
Illness such as cancer is a threshold or life-event. It forces the ill
to commence an unknown journey. It leaves behind ones accustomed
image of relating to ones own body, friends, workplace, family,
and spouse and may result in strained or lost relationships. Life-threatening
illnesses often prevent the individual from returning to an original and
familiar world. This experience of isolation and loneliness may remain
unrecognised by hospital staff, family and friends. The barriers to access
may therefore be physical (flight of stairs) or social (dependent on the
attitude of the person and care-giver towards the illness).
Illness can isolate the patient because the family elect not to speak
about it, a caregiver uses euphemistic terms when speaking to patients,
or illness may be attributed to moral guilt as a result of sin and lack
of faithfulness to God. The attitude towards the ill and other minority
groups denies them their rightful access to the human community. Illness
may, however, also lead to a better change, to new wisdom in Jesus (truly
I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child
will never enter it; Mk 10:13-16) and to new awareness.
However, Marks healing stories gave us insight into the very nature
of Jesus mission which was to open the way to Gods kingdom,
to provide physical and spiritual access for outsiders, and to promote
discipleship and inclusivity. In fact, Mark was very much concerned with
access to Jesus ministry (e.g. the paraplegic who was unable to
get past the able-bodied crowd: and they could not bring him to
Jesus because of the crowd; Mk 2:4). His healing stories revolved
around this theme, which evoked:
1. The divine power of Jesus affirming his identity as Christ (Mk 1:1-11).
2. The compassion of Jesus in the presence of human suffering, which transcended
the Torah (and the Sabbath), emphasised his love towards those who were
isolated from society and his opposition to violence and domination (Tannehill
1996, 326). For example, the tenacious commitment of the disabled man
and his care-givers to gain access moved Jesus to care for the paraplegic
(when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, Son,
your sins are forgiven; Mk 2:5). In this context the suffering of
the disabled man is not physical but social: he is ignored by able-bodied
men and religious teachers, which was not unusual in Mark (now some
of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts;
3. The exclusion and isolation of the ill, minorities and disabled. Jesus
used touch to heal the sick, establishing contact with the isolated and
tabooed human being. This contact served to reintegrate the ill back into
the community (Mk 1:40-45; 5:19-20).
4. Examples of strong faith were expressed by the aggressive, determined
and active stance of the ill in seeking access to Jesus the haemorrhagic
woman (Mk 5:24-34); the Syrophoenician woman (Mk 7:24-30); and Bartimaeus
(Mk 10:46-52). Their actions served to illustrate that the ill can actively
participate in their therapy and must be actively committed to physical
and psychological rehabilitation, their rights and full access to community
as exemplified by Jesus action (Kinukawa 1994, 2:283-293; Senior
Marks healing stories thus gave direction for the Christian mission.
Just like Jesus, the ill and disabled who fight to be free, we must also
be committed to gaining access for others and ourselves (Jesus said to
him, If you are able! All things can be done for the one who believes.
Immediately the father of the child cried out, I believe; help my
unbelief! Mk 9:23-24). Whilst, paradoxically, the religious leaders
of the Gospel often acted to impede this activity or access (why
does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Mk 2:7), the
church of Jesus was accessible to all, in particular to those in most
need (I have come to call not the righteous but sinners Mk
2:17). Our attitude and that of todays church towards the disabled,
the ill, the isolated and minorities can be a measure of our status as
Christian people, as true members of Gods kingdom. The church should
consist of spiritually, not physically, healthy people.
Illness leads to physical suffering and sin leads to spiritual suffering.
Both forms of suffering lead to loss of oneself, to isolation and to fear.
This sense of abandonment is also experienced by the patients family
and friends, and physician (at least in my own personal experience). This
experience is coloured by the cultural beliefs and social norms of the
time. In Marks Gospel Jesus is portrayed as taking over the mantra
of both physical and spiritual healer. He is shown as healing his patients
through his deeds and words so that they were able to experience Gods
A proper understanding of the individuals relationship with the
community and family in Jesus time will encourage todays Christian
workers to work towards a true discipleship, and physicians and other
caregivers to manage their patients in their wholesome self within the
light of God through the teachings of Jesus. It will offer todays
patients the ability to recover physically from their illness, to renew
their faith and regain access to the community. For those where physical
cure is not possible it will offer them solace in the expectation that
they will find spiritual recovery in God. In my dealings with patients
with cancer, in particular in the terminal phases of their illness, this
appreciation of Gods empathy, inclusivity and discipleship, offers
me the possibility of understanding the suffering of these patients and
to see in their suffering Gods ultimate grace.
Healing according to Mark thus leads to salvation from a physical (illness),
social (social isolation) and spiritual (sin) point of viewa powerful
experience of God whose saving power was present in Jesus.
1. Barrett, D. (July 20, 1998), Marks
Gospel The Potted Version. The Discussion Forum, SikhNet.
http://www.sikhnet.com/discussion.nsf (accessed May 17, 2004).
2. Best, E. (1986), Disciples and Discipleship: Studies of the Gospel
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Martin Borg is cancer specialist at the Royal
Adelaide Hospital and lecturer at the Universities of Adelaide and South
Australia. He is also a postgraduate student at the Adelaide College of
Divinity, with Flinders University.