More than charity to individuals motivates Jesus to heal the sick. He challenges the purity and debt codes oppressing the poor. Today we call it social justice. Sixth in a series on “The Worldly Spirituality of Mark’s Gospel” with help from Ched Myers’ Binding the Strongman: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus. The Introduction and a Table of Contents are HERE.
It’s the Sabbath, the day for preaching in synagogues, and Jesus is well aware of the rule against healing (doing work) on the Sabbath. He leaves the synagogue and goes to Simon and Andrew’s house. Simon’s mother-in-law is sick, and Jesus cures her. He does so in private, inside the house. Only after sundown, the end of the Sabbath, does Jesus venture outside the door and start healing the many, both sick and possessed, who came to him. Eventually he will challenge the Sabbath rule in public, but not yet.
Jesus’ sense of social justice leads him to make a clear class preference in his healing ministry. Myers says:
Disease and physical disability were an inseparable part of the cycle of poverty….For the day laborer illness meant unemployment and instant impoverishment…. Economic and political deterioration, especially in the decade prior to the upheavals of the Roman-Jewish war [A.D. 66-70, around the time Mark most likely was writing], had dispossessed significant portions of the Palestinian population, especially in the densely populated rural areas of Galilee.
Myers concludes, “Jesus’ healing ministry is thus portrayed as an essential part of his struggle to bring concrete liberation to the oppressed and marginal of Palestinian society.” (Myers, 144)
Being a healer was controversial.
Being thus on the margins was not only an economic reality. Illness was a matter of impurity or sin and, hence, “exclusion from full status in the body politic.” (Myers, 145) More than the physical side of disease, that is what Jesus challenges. It’s no wonder that Jesus’ miracles were not universally praised, even though no one doubted their reality. Not everyone cared about social justice.
I’ve had to think again about the point of the miracle stories. I once thought that Jesus’ miracles had two purposes:
- to prove that he was God or that God was working in him, and
- to show Jesus’ compassion for suffering people and provide people with examples to follow.
On the first of these, a miracle could mean that God was working, but in the first century people might also be thinking of the devil. Jesus’ enemies didn’t question the miracles, just the source of their power. On the second, Jesus certainly does show compassion in the miracle stories, but something much more controversial is going on. In Mark conflict with some Jewish authority or other often follows (or precedes and follows) a healing story. The miracle stories are one part of Mark’s portrayal of how Jesus disrupts the symbolism that directs the ordinary course of affairs.
Two parts of that system, in particular, according to Myers, come under attack: the purity code and the debt code. The first, purity, is easy to see as a factor in many miracles. Jesus’ close interaction with sick people flouted many purity rules. Myers convinced me of the second factor, debt, as well. (Myers, 152-155) Jesus by word and action challenges a society that divides religiously, economically, and politically into “us” and “them.” Jesus’ unconventional sense of social justice reaches across all those divisions and causes offense in doing so.
Advancing social justice by challenging the purity code
Purity was an important part of the Jewish symbolic order. The purity code identified lepers (among others) as unclean. They had to stay away from society and shout “Unclean!” if anyone came near. Touching an “unclean” leper automatically made one unclean. Mark records that a leper came to Jesus, knelt, and said, “If you wish, you can make me clean.” (Mark 1:40-45) He also records that, besides saying “Be made clean,” Jesus touched the man. The code says Jesus should have become unclean, but instead the influence goes the other way. The leprous man is cleansed. Thus Jesus subverts the purity code.
Confusingly, my Bible’s translation continues, “Then warning him sternly, he dismissed him at once.” The stern warning seems out of place. Myers says Jesus’ sternness is not for the leper but for the keepers of the purity code. He paints the situation this way:
Just about any skin disease was considered leprosy. A person so marked and shunned might eventually find himself well again. In that case he would go to a priest who would declare the person clean and welcomed back into society. In this incident Jesus, in addition to—or perhaps instead of—cleansing the leper, is declaring him clean. Jesus is not a priest, but he has taken over the priestly prerogative.
Myers finds hints in the text that Jesus is contradicting a priest’s earlier judgment. He tells the man to go to the priest and offer the gift prescribed for a declaration of cleansing, and then Jesus says, in my translation, “That will be proof for them.” Now an offering isn’t any kind of proof, but the word for proof is “marturion,” from which we get “martyr.” It means “witness,” and in Mark it often means “witness against.” That makes sense if the priest had previously refused to declare the man clean. It also makes sense of the indignation implied in the word translated “warning him sternly.” It makes no sense for Jesus to be stern with the leper. He’s mad at this priest or even at the whole unjust symbolism of pure and impure, which victimizes so many people. (Myers, 153)
It’s possible that Jesus’ anger begins even earlier, as soon as the leprous man makes his request. Most translations say Jesus was “moved with pity,” but in some old manuscripts a different word appears which would be translated “indignant.” It’s hard to know which word is original. I find it easier to imagine a copyist changing “indignant” to “moved with pity” than the other way around. And I can imagine Jesus being indignant if a priest had just refused to declare a man clean.
The aftermath of the story is that the man, cleansed of leprosy begins to broadcast what happened even though Jesus told him not to tell anyone. It’s not that a humble Jesus wants to avoid too much popularity. Rather, he wants to avoid trouble. He’s not yet ready for an all-out confrontation with the powers of injustice. Jesus goes to a deserted place, and the pattern of brief confrontation and withdrawal continues.
Social justice and the debt code
When Jesus next appears in Capernaum, Mark says “it became known” that he was there. It sounds as if Jesus would rather have stayed hidden. In the story that follows another part of the symbolic system will come under attack, the idea and reality of debt and who gets to decide when debt is forgiven. This is the famous story of the healing of a paralyzed man whose friends lower him on a stretcher through the roof of the house where Jesus is preaching to a crowd.
Poverty is the context of the story. The house is poor. It has a dirt roof that can be dug away. The paralyzed man is poor. “Stretcher” is the name for a poor man’s bed or bedroll like that used by soldiers. Mark’s word for crowd refers specifically to the lower class. (Myers, 154-55)
Jesus’ surprising first words don’t seem to have much to do with healing or social justice: “Child, your sins are forgiven.” As in the case of the crowds who came to John the Baptist, I try to imagine what those sins might have been, and I can’t. But the local scribes could. The really big “sin” of practically everybody except the richer class was debt. Debt was a pervasive reality in first century Palestine. If you weren’t borrowing money just to survive, as a day laborer, during the times when you couldn’t get work, you had taxes to pay: imperial taxes, plus the temple tax called tithe. A small landowner, peasant farmer, often had to borrow and then borrow some more until he lost his land.
The scribes had authority to forgive debts, and it’s scribes who object when Jesus declares forgiveness: “He is blaspheming. Who alone but God can forgive sins?” (Mark 2:7) They’re not defending Yahweh but their own power and status. The charge of blasphemy is the one on which the high priest eventually will sentence Jesus to death.
Almost as an afterthought, Jesus cures the paralyzed man. Mark precedes this action with Jesus saying, “That you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins….” My study Bible includes a footnote indicating that Jesus could hardly have so soon made a claim about being “Son of Man” to unbelieving scribes. It’s probably Mark’s commentary for his readership.
The little phrase that I italicized, “on earth,” always seemed odd to me, but I never before gave it any thought. Myers says it points to a contrast with the mysterious “Son of Man” of Daniel’s apocalyptic vision. Mark is for the second time locating the heavenly conflict between good and evil in Jesus’ battle “on earth” with the “demon” of scribal authority. The first time it related to teaching (see previous post); this time it’s in the economic sphere. As in the earlier episode, the people are astounded (and perhaps panic-stricken) as much at Jesus triumph over the scribes and social custom as by any miracle. Jesus, continually surrounded by the poor “crowd,” is not only binding up their wounds, a charitable work for us to imitate, but also attacking “the structures that perpetuate their oppression.” (Myers, 156) That’s social justice.
Image credit: Martha Spong