Emperor Over All Maladies

Mark 1:21–39

 

Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.  —Mark 1:34

In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus begins his public ministry with a sermon at the synagogue in Capernaum, a small village on the shore of the Sea of Galilee about 25 miles northeast of his hometown of Nazareth.

From the instant he opens his mouth the congregation realizes that this preacher is unlike any they’ve heard before. He has the whole congregation mesmerized with his magnetic stage presence and his compelling message about the kingdom of God.   The 5-year-old coloring the children’s bulletin puts her crayons away and snaps to attention. The old shopkeep in the back row who usually uses the sermon as an excuse for a 20-minute nap is suddenly no longer sleepy. This preacher cannot be ignored.

Mark tells us that “Jesus taught as one having authority, and not as their scribes,” and I love Mark’s subtle sense of humor and gentle poke at the religious establishment. “Jesus,” says Mark, “talked like he knew something, not like the bozos they had to listen to most Sabbath days.” That’s not an exact translation, but it’ll do.

And so Jesus is cruising along in this Academy-Award-winning performance when suddenly a wild-eyed guy in the sixth row from the pulpit on the left interrupts him with a loud cry: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, Holy One of God.”

The poor guy is possessed by what Mark calls “an unclean spirit.” The metaphor is apt. “Unclean spirit”: this is decent, good, human blood, brain, sinew, and muscle polluted by, tainted by, adulterated by a visitor from the unseen world.

Our English Bibles describe this character as ‘a man with an unclean spirit,’ but the original Greek says that this man is in an unclean spirit. He is IN the unclean Spirit; he is engulfed in it; he is surrounded by it; he is swallowed up by it.[1] This man doesn’t have an unclean spirit. The unclean spirit has him.

Now don’t let Mark’s primitive, unfashionable, first-century language throw you off. All Mark’s trying to tell us is that earthly malady has an unearthly dimension. Visible disease, destruction, and death have an invisible component. Physical malady has a metaphysical ingredient. Emotional or psychological twistedness has a spiritual constituent.

Sometimes I think there is a wisdom to ancient, simpler, primitive sensibilities that contemporary rationalism has relinquished. Andrew Prior is a pastor in Adelaide, Australia. He spent part of his life serving as an aid worker among native, aboriginal Australians and even now that he serves a church in Adelaide, he still travels hundreds of miles now and then to work with the native peoples in building wells and windmills. He takes his whole family and when they serve one of these missions for a few days they camp out in sleeping bags under the stars.

Once when they went it was black ant season.   During a certain time of the year in this part of Australia, black ants swarm and bite and get into everything, so Andrew and his family were exploring the countryside to find some ant-free patch to pitch their sleeping bag, and they finally found such a patch of ground.

They pitched their sleeping bags and lit their campfire, and not a single ant bothered them all night long. But Andrew’s young son David kept waking up all night with horrible nightmares.   Andrew said that all night long, just past the furthest edge of the fire’s light, the night sky had a kind of gray, ghostly, sickly pallor.

When they reached the work site and told their story to their aboriginal friends, the natives asked them, “Well, where did you camp?” And when the family told them where they’d slept, the natives gasped and said, “That place is mamu–a place of evil spirits. Why would you go there?” And Andrew said, “It was the only place with no ants.” The natives said, “Well, of course. Even the ants are smart enough to stay away from the evil spirits.”[2]

I don’t know what you do with that spooky story, and I don’t know what you want to do with this spooky story from Mark’s Gospel, but here it is. Who knows what it was from a medical or scientific perspective that troubled this guy who shouted out at Jesus in the middle of his sermon: Schizophrenia, perhaps? Some other garden variety of mental illness? The Gospel’s point is that whatever it is, it is so odd, and so enigmatic, and so inscrutable, as to be unearthly. It seems inhuman; it seems extraterrestrial; it doesn’t come from around here.

Evil is like that sometimes. Last week the Islamic State broadcast a public execution so barbaric that it horrified al Qaeda. Now, how do you manage to shock al Qaeda? Evil like that is inhuman; it is unearthly; it is not terrestrially explicable; it comes from somewhere else.

And so, to make sense of the insensible, we personify the inscrutable maladies that afflict us. We give them speech and personality and motivation, even though we know there is no such thing, literally, as an unclean spirit.

In 2003, Siddhartha Mukherjee was serving as a fellow in the cancer ward at the Dana-Farber Institute in Boston, and he was so overwhelmed by the fear and pain and confusion and death caused by cancer that he felt he needed to understand this beast he was up against.

And so he wrote a book about cancer called Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. What a great title, right? Emperor of All Maladies. It won a Pulitzer Prize in 2011. But it’s the subtitle that I find intriguing: Dr. Mukherjee called it A Biography of Cancer. Can you write a biography of an insensible, unthinking disease? Dr. Mukerjee says he wanted “to enter the mind of this immortal illness, to understand its personality, to demystify its behavior.”[3] He wanted to enter its mind, understand its personality, explain its behavior. Dr. Mukerjee thinks of cancer as an unclean spirit; he personifies it and calls it the Emperor of All Maladies.

Two thousand years ago, St. Mark was trying to do the same thing–enter the mind of an immortal disease, understand its personality, explain its behavior. And so St. Mark gives the power of speech to this unclean spirit: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, Holy One of Israel!”

Did you notice that lovely but unexpected move in Mark’s story?   The first one in the Gospel to get it right about who Jesus is and where he comes from is this demon, this unclean spirit. It knows more about Jesus than the disciples do, maybe because like Jesus, the demon comes from the spirit world, and like knows like. It’s the forces of evil that know him first and understand him best, perhaps because they have the most to lose. He terrifies them.

“What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” shouts the demon at Jesus right in the middle of what must have been a powerful sermon. “I know who you are, Holy One of God. Have you come to destroy us?” And Jesus answers that blunt question by telling the unclean Spirit, “Be silent and come out of him.” That’s how your English Bibles put it anyway. “Be silent!”

A better translation would be “Put a muzzle on it!” That’s a better rendering of Jesus’ unsparing outburst in the original Greek. “Shut up!” is an almost literal translation. “Put a lid on it.” I am not exaggerating. “Chill Out! Shut Up! and Be Gone!” Jesus tells the demon, and after convulsing the poor troubled congregant with a violent grand mal seizure, the demon flees his worthy antagonist in abject horror to trouble some other poor bloke in a place where Jesus can’t get at him, or her, or it, or them, or whatever.

“I know who you are Jesus of Nazareth. Have you come to destroy us?” Jesus’ enemies know him better and faster than his friends do. They are the first to know who he is and what he means. And I find great hope and comfort in that: the forces of darkness are no match for his searing holiness and shining goodness. As it turns out, Jesus himself is the Emperor Over All Maladies. The Maladies, whatsoe’er they be, are no match for his power. They flee from his touch and from his voice.

It’s not as if the battle is won once and for all; it’s not as if the unclean spirits have retreated and disappeared. Have you ever been at church when an unclean spirit faces down the Kingdom of God? A friend of mine was the Associate Pastor at a church in Wheaton, Illinois, during the civil rights crusade of the 1960’s. Young and unafraid, he got up into the pulpit one Sunday morning and said that if a family could afford the down payment on a house, then that family deserved to get a mortgage and own a home in Wheaton, Illinois, no matter what color they were.

On Monday morning, the Senior Pastor met the young preacher outside his office with his belongings packed into a cardboard box and said, “Your services are no longer needed here at this church.” Can you hear the eloquent sermon and the raucous interruption? “What have you to do with us, Disciple of Jesus Christ? I know who you are. You’ve come to destroy us.” The unclean spirits fear and resent Christ’s coming new Kingdom.

The battle is not over and the forces of darkness are not evidently in retreat under the onslaught of Christ’s Kingdom. Unstinting malice stalks the land in Syria, Iraq, and Africa. We still lose lifelong loves to the persistence of pestilence or to the ambush of accident. Out of nowhere, depression falls fiercely upon a friend like the Dementors in a Harry Potter story, and a once happy youth questions the value of human existence. Our hearts break.

But then we remember that Jesus of Nazareth is the Holy One of Israel, and that he has come to rout all that threatens human existence, and this hope gives us courage to stand by his side and to thwart the unclean spirits of our world.

One young woman named Sue remembers her childhood in rural Idaho. She and her older brother had an old horse, and her brother John would pretend to be Paul Revere: “The British are coming, the British are coming,” he would shout from the back of that old nag. He was always staging little dramas like that in the Idaho countryside of their youth.

But then when Sue was in the seventh grade and John was in the eighth, John began losing weight and suffering abdominal pain. The doctors told the family that it was Burkitt’s lymphoma, which is really serious. Sue says her brother kept telling jokes and kept trying to keep the family happy, but he probably knew that his time on this earth would be short.

On what turned out to be the last day of his life, they took John out of the ICU so that he could spend some time with his little sister Sue, because children weren’t allowed in the Intensive Care Unit back then, and when they meet, John asks Sue to go get them a couple of banana popsicles, which was their absolute favorite food in the world. He says, “Goodbye, Susie,” and then he sends her off for the popsicles, so that she won’t have to be there when the end comes.

And as Sue tells her story, you can see that that sadness has colored every day of her life. It has never gone away. It is the most important thing that has ever happened to her. And she asks, more of herself than anyone else, “How do you start over after something like that? How do you fit that loss into your life? How do you bring them back to life?” That’s the way Sue puts it, “How do I bring John back to life? How do I make him part of my life in a new way?”

And then Sue answers her own question. She says, “I became a Palliative Care physician. It is my job to walk with patients through the last days of their lives and to make that time as comfortable and rewarding as possible. That is the work that I do, and in this work, I keep John alive. My patients that have died? I keep them alive. I honor them. I honor John. History isn’t over, right?”[4]

“My work keeps John alive,” says that doctor. When I heard about that physician’s calling to palliative medicine, I heard hints and whispers of resurrection. I heard an intimation of immortality.

We may not have the power over life and death like he does. But we can stand in the shadow of his mighty wings, and face down the forces of darkness that are larger than we, and do what we can to fight for life. What unearthly malady is he calling you to face down?


 

[1]This translation of the passage and this language of ‘swallowed up’ comes from Joel Marcus in Mark 1-8: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, vol. 27 in The Anchor Bible Commentary (New York: Doubleday, 2000), 192.

[2]Andrew Prior, “Hold My Hand,” from the website “One Man’s Web,” http://onemansweb.org/theology/the-year-of-mark-2015/hold-my-hand-mark-1-21-28.html

[3]Quoted by Jonathan Weiner, “The Mind of a Disease,” The New York Times Book Review, Nov. 12, 2010.

[4]In the spring of 2015, PBS will broadcast a documentary by Ken Burns called Emperor of All Maladies, based on Siddhartha Mukerjee’s book. “Sue’s Story: History Is Not Over” can be found on the story wall of the website promoting the film: http://cancerfilms.org/story-wall/?story=964