Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Made Whole

They laid the sick in the streets, and besought him that they might touch if it were but the border of his garment: and as many as touched him were made whole. (Mark 6.56; KJV)


I’ve resisted writing about Haiti because it felt unnecessary. The stories and pictures of the past two weeks leave nothing to be said. They do call to mind a haunting visual that brings Mark 6 to a close, however. The chapter relates a series of disconnected events early in Jesus’s ministry. With His reputation secure abroad, He returns to Nazareth, where friends and neighbors take offense at His teaching, and He leaves because of their lack of faith. Next, He sends the disciples out to minister, telling them not to linger where they’re not wanted; wherever they’re received, they have great success. Word of Jesus’s exploits reaches Herod, who recently beheaded John the Baptist and worries there might be credibility in rumors Jesus is really John returned from the dead. Meanwhile, the crowds keep growing. Jesus feeds 5,000 with a child’s lunch and tells the disciples to sail ahead while He stays behind to pray. Then He walks across the lake to catch up with their boat. When they dock, people recognize Jesus and bring their sick to Him. Mark ends the chapter with this image: “They laid the sick in the streets, and besought him that they might touch if it were but the border of his garment: and as many as touched him were made whole.” (Mark 6.56; KJV)

Were this the last frame of a movie and we scanned back through the footage for clues why six unrelated episodes are linked together, we’d find Mark 6 is really about severances. Jesus severs ties with Nazareth after it rejects Him. He’s plainly shaken by the ordeal, because He takes a hiatus, sending the disciples to preach and heal in His stead. Herod deals with a different sort of severance—one not as clean and final as he presumed. Having decapitated John the Baptist, the preacher’s memory clings, clouding the king’s mind with fear. At the same time, the disciples and crowds cling to Jesus. He breaks away once again, yet finds it impossible to be apart from them very long. Though they’ve proven capable on their own, Jesus walks on water to return to them. Which leads to the closing shot of people severed from society by illness and injury clinging to Christ, grabbing at His clothes to be made whole.

No Minor Catastrophes

The humanity—and lack of it—coursing through these big scenes leaves one overwhelmed, affecting us exactly like the photos and video from Port-au-Prince. The scale is enormous, and yet our eyes repeatedly fix on one or two faces, where the emotional drama plays out in epic proportion. We see Jesus’s consternation as his hometown turns on Him. We peer into grateful eyes as the disciples bring healing to hopeless villagers—and we see dark hostility in faces that refuse them. We watch anxiety dance across Herod’s brow and marvel at the generous glow of a little boy holding a lunch basket. We sense the fatigue in Christ’s features, confirming His need for solitude, soon followed by the joy brimming in His smile while He walks out to the ship. Finally, we recognize the desperation in helpless people lining the streets, waiting for Jesus to pass by.

More than anything, what we see reflected in these faces thrust into various crises is there are no minor catastrophes. Unanticipated life-turns exact enormous tolls on us. Rejection, risk, guilt, exhaustion, and sickness change us irrevocably. They dash our hopes. They create new fears. They stretch us and sometimes leave us stranded, grasping for someone to ease our suffering. In the middle of our crises, we ask why God permits such tremendous hardship. Surely Jesus questioned why He found no honor in Nazareth. Yet it’s hard to imagine the experience didn’t color His compassion for countless sick, marginalized people around Him. Nor could He possibly ignore the love and concern of family and friends who placed their wounded and dying at His feet. Christ’s personal catastrophes forged His bond with others who struggled. Their situations differed, but they suffered all the same. Loss of any kind makes every kind of loss easily and deeply felt.

The Reason We Suffer

There is no end of causes for suffering, from foolish neglect to malignant hatred. Identifying the reason we suffer, however, is another thing. When we search for a reason, we inevitably start at one of two places: God or us. Either He wants us to endure pain, or we’ve done something to deserve it. But neither of these applies to Christ’s struggles in Mark 6. There’s no reason for His oldest friends and neighbors to revile Him. God isn’t pleased by it and Jesus hasn’t provoked it. Furthermore, it couldn’t have come at a worse time. John, His cousin and role model, has been executed on a whim. Herod’s paranoia mounts as the clamor around Jesus rises. Now He discovers He’s not welcome or safe in Nazareth.

The reason Jesus suffers is inextricably linked to His purpose. In Luke’s account, we’re told the Nazarenes take offense at the text Jesus uses to explain His ministry: “The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners.” (Isaiah 61.1) To understand the suffering He describes, Jesus must suffer. What He loses in Nazareth gives Him power to make people who reach for Him whole. So it is with us. We suffer loss to heal loss. We face fear and sorrow so we can detect it in others’ faces. We endure severance to know the severity of its pain. Suffering feels like a curse when it’s truly a gift. Without it, we would never know the joy of being made whole. But most of all, since experience with suffering draws us to others who suffer, without it we’d never learn what joy there is in helping them be made whole.

We suffer so we can know and relate to suffering when we see it. We experience the joy of being made whole to know the joy of helping others be made whole.

(Next: Such a Little Thing)

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