Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis
February 7, 2021
Scripture: Mark 1:29–39
“He took her by the hand and lifted her up.” Another translation reads, “he took her by the hand and helped her up.” Still another reads, “he took her by the hand and raised her up.” However we read it, the outcome of this encounter between Jesus and Simon’s mother-in-law is a healing, a restoration to life and wholeness for someone who, in the usual order of things, would not have been healed, who would not have been seen. In first-century Palestine, when upwards of 95 percent of people were economically marginalized and culturally isolated and whose well-being would not have been of much concern to the powers that be, to take her hand and raise her up is less a story about Jesus’ remedy to a medical problem than it is about Jesus intervention into a world of endless struggle.
In her world of “fishers and farmers, the lame and leprous,” where the struggle for food, land, honor, and standing was a daily reality, when poverty was not cyclical but persistent and largely permanent, Jesus intervenes to interrupt the order of things. In the logic of domination in which Jesus and his disciples live, it is of no value to show care and compassion for a woman of no significance. Who would dare give up their own honor and status by defiling themselves through unnecessary touch of a sick woman? No, this healing is resistance. It’s justice work. To take her by the hand and raise her up is to tell the world and those who are struggling that nothing about poverty, sickness, and suffering is inevitable or necessary. In interrupting that narrative, Jesus leads with his commitments, not just by announcing good news, but being good news to people who become accustomed to the material impact of bad news.
And just so we don’t allow ourselves to get waylaid by our Enlightenment demands for verification and falsifiability at what Jesus may or may not have done, I hope we linger a little on how Jesus acted to show us what his presence means in the midst of struggle. In the evangelist Mark’s sparse, just-the-facts narrative, when Jesus encounters Simon’s mother-in-law, there are no words. There is no prayer. Jesus is no medical doctor, and he does no examination. There is no diagnosis of her disease or a prognosis of what is likely to happen to her in the next six months. There is no background check or a means test to determine if she is deserving of the benefit of healing. He took her by the hand and lifted her up. And she is healed, restored, made whole.
There were a lot of healers and magicians running around during Jesus’ ministry, but this healer offers something more than just a remedy to one individual . . . by confronting the chaos and alienation of poverty and domination, by showing care and compassion to a sick woman, by taking her by the hand and lifting her up, Jesus was embodying the good news that struggle in poverty is not the inevitable story for anybody, the good news that God intervenes in a material way to make life possible. This is a changing of the story from futility and hopelessness to wholeness and possibility. And Mark says the whole town got the message and brought to him all “who were sick and possessed with demons.” I hope we don’t allow this talk of demons to obstruct our view of what exactly is being confronted and overcome. We need not spiritualize this talk of demons nor shrink from it as a primitive superstition to envision the chaos and alienation experienced by people who are oppressed, exploited, and dominated. Jesus acts to bring them dignity and restore their personhood.
For people forgotten, degraded, and discarded, for the first time in their lives, someone finally took them by their hands and helped them. Someone finally drew close to them without asking them how they were going to pay or if they had a preexisting condition or if they deserved to be made whole. They could imagine a life that was more than about struggle and survival. They could be whole people. When Jesus took Simon’s mother-in-law, he wasn’t challenging science, nature, or physics; he was challenging a system that couldn’t care less if she or any of those other people lived or died. And he will pay a price for it. It will be costly.
There is a struggle going on. There are casualties and survivors of this order of things that sees people as expendable for the sake of a myth of freedom and equality and progress. But the struggle is real. It is a struggle to live whole lives when food, rest, wages, and medicine become scarce commodities subject to the logic of markets. Oh, in light of this ongoing struggle, perhaps the world needs more of using our own bodies, our own hands, to raise up our neighbors in the world, especially when every institution is telling us to stop, go slow, or give up; using our bodies to embody a different story than the one our political, economic, and religious institutions insist on telling.
Just as I was wrestling with Mark’s account about Jesus’ healing, a friend who is dealing with family members who are sick and suffering posted on his Facebook wall, “To be poor and have a chronic illness in America is hell.” Poverty is a hell that knows no geography nor any particular historic era. But we live in a system that soothes us with a myth of goodness and progress that separates us from the struggle of others.
There is no experience more heartbreaking to witness than a person struggling with poverty, sickness, or homelessness confronting, negotiating, and navigating processes and bureaucracies to get help: the attempt to explain one’s situation in the most effective way possible so that the one who has the power to meet that most pressing need will be moved to give them a hand and lift them up; the anxiety that ensues because one cannot at all be sure that that they will get the medicine, the food, or the housing they need. This is the daily struggle of millions.
I wonder in our own work, in our interventions into the middle of struggle, if we have become too acclimated to the prevailing narrative of the order of things. How much of what we truly do disrupts and resists how things happen? When we take the hands of those who are struggling and raise them up, are we at the same time resisting the story of liberty, justice, and progress that tells us that any and everybody can make it if they really want to. Are we willing to pay the price of truly resisting the narrative of national greatness and exceptionalism by taking people by the hand and raising them up even when it is not popular nor convenient? What if our resistance to injustice comes in the form of upending the order of things?
Perhaps the good news of this gospel is that we need not accept the steady drudgery of bad news, economic inequality, and social marginalization. We can intervene and confront the order of things; we can resist the logic of markets, scarcity, and domination that thinks healing and wholeness for all God’s children is unsustainable. We often think resistance to injustice comes more effectively in the march, the protest, or the ballot box. However, the act of taking someone by the hand and raising them up is to bring healing and wholeness, not as a far-off unrealized hope, but as a present reality because we dared to upend the status quo: justice work as an embodied reality over and against systems that prefer reform rather than abolition, hope without praxis, charity rather than transformation.
There are days when I can hear and see an alternative story arising among us, when we are bold to take people by the hand and raise them up. I’m reminded when I hear the lyrics of a popular song years back that Josh Groban sang:
When I am down and, oh my soul, so weary
When troubles come and my heart burdened be
Then, I am still and wait here in the silence
Until You come and sit awhile with me.
I take this phrase from Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man, 39.