In this week’s Gospel story, Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law who was sick with fever. This warranted some attention, and people brought him more who were sick and possessed by demons. Before long, the whole town was gathered outside of Simon’s home. This last line is interesting to me. Does it imply that the whole town was, in their own way, sick or possessed by demons? Isn’t it true that we are all deeply in need of healing in one way or another? Or was the whole town simply mesmerized that a man, who was not a doctor, was making people more whole?
In Jesus’ time, it was thought culturally that if you were sick, you had done something to deserve it. So on top of being physically limited, people would judge you, as well, for being a sinner. As if it were not bad enough to be struggling with fever or demon possession, you would be socially isolated, shunned and gossiped about. So when Jesus healed people, it was more than just a physical healing. He was really welcoming them back into the center of society. Maybe that is why the whole town was gathered. Don’t we all, at times, feel like we are on the outside looking in? Don’t we all, at times, want someone to invite us back into the center of things? How powerful it would be if someone came with the desire and ability to help us feel like we belonged.
Although science and medicine have helped us to know that getting sick is not our fault, it is not a consequence for something we have done wrong, getting sick still isolates people socially like it did in Jesus’ time. My friend, who survived double kidney failure and still struggles with having a weak immune system because of his transplant always tells me, “There is a real, harsh demarkation in society between the sick and the well. We believe in survival of the fittest. If the sick can’t keep up, the well leave them behind.” Being sick consumes ones life for a period of time. Everything else seems to stop. It was not Kevin’s fault that his kidneys failed him in college, but there are real consequences in society for the fact that it happened. Whenever he gets sick or has to go to endless doctors appointments and I, able bodied and well, keep going with my day, I think of what he said. I think of what Jesus did. Who in your life struggles with health? Does he or she ever feel socially isolated? How do you take your health for granted when you are well?
In the gospel, there are two sicknesses mentioned: being with fever and being possessed by demons. Today, I see demarkations between physical and mental illness. As a society, we seem to understand physical illness and have compassion for people who are sick. We don’t understand mental illness as well, and there is still an attitude that people with mental illness have some control over getting better. Similarly to Jesus’ time, we distance ourselves and subconsciously think it is that person’s fault because we cannot explain as easily what is going on in that person’s mind. When I was in college, I heard a man speak to this. He told us that he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis ten years prior. Friends and family came to the hospital and his house with balloons and warm meals and well wishes. A few years later, he had a very serious bout of depression that left him hospitalized for weeks. No one came to see him. There were no balloons or warm meals or well wishes. He needed a friend so much more when he was sad and alone with depression, but people avoided him out of fear and misunderstanding. I think of that man often, when I read this Gospel and when I know friends and family with mental illness. He helped me see what Jesus saw, that people with mental illness are sick and in need of healing. And it is not their fault. We cannot heal people who are physically or mentally ill. But we can work to make sure they do not feel socially isolated. We can do the work of the Gospel by welcoming them back into the center of things.