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Vol 40 No 2


John Rate MSC

Michael Fallon MSC

Martin Borg

Roy J O’Neill MSC
THE MINISTRY OF THE SKILLED STRANGER: Religion and Spirituality in Public Hospital Ministry

David Ranson
FROM FEAR TO LOVE: Building an Australian Culture of Hospitality

Kevin Mark



Health and illness in Mark’s Gospel
Physical or Spiritual? 


(Part One)

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 today’s 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 today’s western communities. Jesus’ healing stories were often underpinned by liberation from sin, and were therefore more helpfully interpreted in terms of a person’s 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 God’s involvement in human affairs, particularly those people in most need.

Healing stories formed one-half of Mark’s Gospel and were inserted prior to the journey to Jerusalem. Jesus’ healings demonstrated the truth of Mark’s claim that God’s will is accomplished in remarkable ways. These healings illustrated what it meant for God’s 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 God’s 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 Mark’s 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.

* * * *


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 boy’s 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 individual’s 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 Mark’s 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 sufferer’s 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 Family
The role of the family in the care of the ill is not well described in Mark’s 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 one’s 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. Mark’s 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’ Mk 2:17).

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. Mark’s 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 Simon’s 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 Mark’s 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 Mark’s 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 Simon’s 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). Mark’s 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, Mark’s 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 Mark’s Gospel revealed God’s 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 God’s 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, today’s 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 God’s 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 self.

This aspect of suffering and access to God will be discussed in the second part.

(Part Two)

As discussed in Part I, recovery from life-threatening illnesses involved an individual assessment of one’s spiritual health. During the first century CE recovery from illness also involved an appraisal of the individual’s 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 God’s kingdom through Jesus’ words and deeds (Mark was in fact very much concerned with access to God’s kingdom). The healed were thus able to experience God’s grace. This recovery served as an example of Mark’s 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 Mark’s era, also exert an important influence in today’s world. The relation between suffering and rediscovery of faith in light of Mark’s Gospel will also be discussed, as well as the facilitation and nurturing of access to God’s kingdom. The latter may be undertaken by many, including the ill persons’ own caregiver, their physicians, family and community in general.

Mark’s 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 God’s 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, Mark’s disciples were often depicted as being of little faith and ignorant (‘have you still no faith?’ Mk 4:40), probably paralleling Mark’s 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). Mark’s 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 Mark’s disciples (‘for they all saw him and were terrified’; Mk 6:50) but was an essential component of his healing stories. Mark’s 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 Mark’s 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 God’s 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 Mark’s 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 God’s 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 Mark’s 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 multidisciplinary care.

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. Mark’s 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 one’s accustomed image of relating to one’s 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, Mark’s healing stories gave us insight into the very nature of Jesus’ mission which was to open the way to God’s 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’; Mk 2:6).
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 1988, 5-14).

Mark’s 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 today’s church towards the disabled, the ill, the isolated and minorities can be a measure of our status as Christian people, as true members of God’s 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 patient’s 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 Mark’s 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 God’s kingdom.

A proper understanding of the individual’s relationship with the community and family in Jesus’ time will encourage today’s 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 today’s 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 God’s empathy, inclusivity and discipleship, offers me the possibility of understanding the suffering of these patients and to see in their suffering God’s ultimate grace.
Healing according to Mark thus leads to salvation from a physical (illness), social (social isolation) and spiritual (sin) point of view—a powerful experience of God whose saving power was present in Jesus.

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21. Taylor, V. (1992), The Gospel according to St Mark: the Greek text with introduction, notes and indexes. London: SPCK.
22. Taylor III, SJ. (February 2, 2003), ‘Naming the Demon, Mark 1:21-28’. http://www.taylorstuart.org (accessed May 17, 2004).
23. Trainor, MF. (2001), ‘The Missionary Household—Mark’. In The Quest for Home, The Household in Mark’s Community. Minnesota: The Liturgical Press.
24. Weeden, TJ. (1971), Mark: Traditions and Conflict. Philadelphia: Fortress

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.