Text: Matthew 1:21-28
We’ve all heard someone say, “Lord, have mercy!” Perhaps you use that exclamation yourself. In rural areas especially among older people, this plea often gets shortened to “Mercy me!” Both are condensed versions of the ancient prayer of the Church: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me!”
I’ve been thinking a lot about mercy recently. While we are in an interim period with our youth ministry, I have been writing curriculum for our youth Sunday school classes. Last summer we put together an outline for the lessons and Heath Gardner wrote them for the three age groups through the fall. Now I’ve picked up this task for the spring. Why are we writing our own curriculum? Because it is nearly impossible to find study materials that fit our church and our youth. Publishing houses have to make money on the materials they sell, so they write for as wide an audience as possible. There just aren’t enough progressive Baptist churches—or even progressive churches generally – to make writing specifically for the left end of the church very profitable. So we’ve taken to writing our own. Our J2A group, which stands for “Journey to Adulthood,” includes our 8th and 9th graders. They are spending the Sunday school year considering the question: How Will I Live? Becoming the Person I Want to Be. Using biblical stories, they discuss a character trait each week and reflect on whether it is one they exhibit already or if not, if it’s one they want to develop.
A lesson I wrote recently used the beatitudes as the text and the characteristic was “mercy.” I noted that “mercy” isn’t a word that’s in the vocabulary of most teenagers – unless it’s one youth begging for mercy while another one has him or her pinned in some uncomfortable position. But in fact, it’s not in the lexicon of many adults either. Yet it’s one of nine characteristics Jesus mentions in the Sermon on the Mount when he names those who are blessed and the nature of their reward. “Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy.”
When I read today’s passage from Mark, my mind went immediately to this J2A lesson. Listen to Paul Berge’s version of this story from the view of one who was there:
Sabbot worship started out like a routine, very normal gathering. We all came with the usual expectation. Now don’t get me wrong, our rabbis are faithful interpreters of the Torah as they instruct us in the Word of the Lord, but their teaching does get to be routine. Everything was progressing as usual, the prayers, the Psalms, the reading of the Torah, when a newcomer entered the synagogue and began teaching and instructing us, dare I say, with a new authority and not as our scribes.
I am still in shock as to what happened next. Suddenly a deranged person screams out. No one in the synagogue had a clue as to what brought forth this outburst. It appears an unclean spirit had identified this rabbinic-like teacher as one who had authority to exorcize and called out to him by name: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” The voice was a shrill demonic-like scream. How did this spirit know the name of the rabbi from Nazareth? The scream continued with words of blasphemy using the name of God: “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” With this, a hushed silence came over the entire synagogue. The rabbi named Jesus from the hill country of Nazareth sensed the offense of these words, the identity of the Holy One of God. He addressed the possessed man and rebuked him with exorcizing words which likewise silenced the entire synagogue, “Be silent, and come out of him.”
What occurred next was a demonstration I have never, ever, witnessed before. The man was writhing on the floor like he was in conflict with the spirits possessing him. Then the voice of a demonic spirit cried out with the same shrill demonic-like scream. The unclean spirit came out of him and he appeared to be calm. He stood up and in his right mind looked as normal as any of us.
Needless to say we were all overcome and amazed and kept saying to one another, “What is this? A new teaching — with authority he exorcizes a demon-possessed person!” We saw with our own eyes that he commanded a host of unclean spirits and they were obedient to him. On my oath this is what took place on this Sabbot. I can’t explain what came over us. We have no other experience like this to compare. We have since heard that what took place in our synagogue spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
A couple of general points about the story: The gospel writer uses it to inaugurate the public ministry of Jesus and it’s the first miracle story in Mark. The incident is intended to demonstrate the authority of Jesus’ word. He speaks and the demon does what he says. The author of Mark actually tells three more exorcism stories later in the gospel, making the point that exorcism was a prominent example of Jesus’ power and it helped to generate his large following. Now it’s important to note that the amazement of the people doesn’t mean they believe in Jesus. But they are impressed. And because the public is impressed, Jesus’ teaching in the synagogue brings him into conflict with the scribes, who were experts at interpreting Jewish law. According to this gospel writer, even early in his ministry Jesus feels threatening to the traditional religious leaders of the day. We know where and how this conflict will end.
Fundamentally then the story’s focus is the divine authority of Jesus. But it’s also there to bolster Jesus’ first sermon recorded earlier in the chapter. There he proclaimed, “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” So this miracle is meant to demonstrate both authority and what the kingdom of God looks like. The recognition of Jesus by the demons is a sign that the present evil age is coming to an end and God’s age is coming. Says David Lose, “This gospel writer wants all to know that Jesus opposes the forces of evil which would rob the children of God of all that God hopes and intends for them.” In other words, Jesus is in the business of freeing us from the negative things that possess us, whatever they are.
Yet in all of this effort to prove Jesus’ power and authority and even to demonstrate what the realm of God looks like, it is easy to miss the merciful act of removing an unclean spirit from an individual human being. It appears that a man went from being perceived as crazy and unclean with behavior that is bizarre and disruptive to a calm, ordinary person. Certainly Jesus could have had the man ejected from the synagogue because he interrupted an inspiring speech. Once the outburst occurred, the crowd would have gladly run him off. Instead Jesus offers healing to the man. He offers mercy.
This concept of mercy is intriguing. It is often used generically, but it’s more than being kind or even generous toward another. Rather mercy is compassion or forgiveness shown toward someone whom we have the power to punish or harm. It can include withholding punishment that is deserved. Parents and teachers do that sometimes. Judges and juries do it, too. One of the most compelling acts of mercy I know is for a family member of a murder victim to get on the witness stand and ask the jury not to sentence the defendant to death. But mercy can also include giving aid when one has the power to withhold it. If you remember the story of the Good Samaritan in which the Samaritan chooses to stop and help a man who has been beaten, robbed, and left for dead on the side of the road. When he finishes telling that story, Jesus asks his listeners, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ The answer? “The one who showed him mercy,” meaning the one had the power to walk on by but stopped to offer help instead. There’s always a power component to mercy.
We can’t talk about Jesus exorcizing demons without our modern-day, scientific brains getting involved. In fact, most of us probably assume that these people with “unclean spirits” were actually suffering from mental illness. This makes more sense to us and it fits with the erratic behavior, if not the exact language of those described as “demon-possessed” in Jesus’ day. This notion better fits our contemporary sensibilities. I think we’re more inclined to think of Jesus not as one who overcome evil that speaks with a human voice, but rather as one who heals. One who is merciful.
However you wish to conceive it, it’s the mercy that stands out for me. As I said earlier, the man who interrupted Jesus’ preaching to a spell-bound audience could have been dragged from the synagogue at Jesus’ request. Or Jesus could have ignored the troubled person in the crowd. Instead he chose to use the power he had to restore the man to health. The writer of Mark would say this overcoming of evil is what God’s realm looks like. We might say this healing of a debilitating and ostracizing condition is what God’s realm looks like. Take your pick. Either way, a real person’s life is transformed for good.
We have the power to be merciful in our day when it comes to mental illness. In North Carolina more than 350,000 adults and 100,000 children are living with serious mental health conditions. More than 1000 of our neighbors commit suicide every year and many are the result of mental illness. And our mental health system serves less than half of adults with serious mental health conditions. Nationally, almost three-quarters of youth in juvenile justice systems experience mental health disorders, and for one in five it is severe. In 2008, approximately 8,200 adults with mental illnesses were incarcerated in prisons in our state. Nationally, almost one-third of women in prison and 15 percent of male inmates live with serious mental illness. While the percentage of children treated in out-of-home residential treatment facilities has fallen nationally, statistics suggest that our state is going in the opposite direction. We quadrupled the number of locked residential placements for children between 2005 and 2010.
Today there are many challenges in our mental health system. For example, a lack of appropriate services for children with complex needs; the state’s failure to hold some providers accountable for the provision of services in their areas; and, of course, the North Carolina General Assembly’s debilitating funding cuts in recent years. Families of persons with mental illness complain about being treated badly; being blamed and made to feel guilty and ashamed; being made to feel like they are part of the problem. They struggle with the public and with service providers who are insensitive to their pain. In fact, mental illnesses can be devastating brain disorders: not only for those who have them, but also for their families and friends.
One mental health professional in our church suggests that we strive for quality care but we’ve not developed a good system for measuring what really works. The state is moving to manage care providers that have been proven to offer good quality and be cost-effective in part of our state. But such a statewide system is immensely complex and there isn’t much money to do it well. Then there is fraud on the part of providers who try to game the system. She gave the example of providers who go into low income neighborhoods and sign up all the kids in an after-school program. Then they tell the moms that they need everyone’s Medicaid numbers in case of an emergency. You know where this story is going. The providers then bill the State over and over using the numbers. Mom doesn’t know anything about it until she tries to get services for her child and is denied because they are all used up. What does it say about us that we direct so little of our resources to mental health services? Where is the heart of a people who leave families to suffer such pain alone?
Some years ago I returned to a church in the area that I belonged to before I became a member of Pullen in 1994. As is often the case, I returned to an important place in my life journey not for a joyful occasion, but for a sad one – in fact, it was a tragic occasion indeed. The grandson of a couple I knew in that church had committed suicide, so I went back for the funeral. I wasn’t close to the grandparents, but I had traveled with them on a work team to Jamaica and admired them greatly. I wanted to be a supportive presence in a terrible time in their lives.
The young man, whom I’ll call Brad, was in his early twenties. He had wrestled with mental illness since his early teens. At some point he turned to alcohol and drugs to self-medicate. For brief periods it would seem that Brad might pull himself out of the deep hole he often seemed trapped in. But he never could quite make it. Unable to handle it any more, he took his life.
As you can imagine, the grief of the family was palpable in the sanctuary. The pastor did an admirable job of providing comfort as best he could under the circumstances. But it was Brad’s psychologist who moved me the most…and probably the family as well. After offering some comments about Brad’s gifts and his struggles, he looked directly into the eyes of the family members seated on the front row and said, “I want you to hear from me as one who knew your son, knew his struggles, and understood the nature of his illness: You did everything you could for him. Everything you could. In the end it wasn’t enough to keep Brad with you. But you did everything you could.” “What a gift,” I thought as we all fought back tears. It doesn’t take away the pain, that deep grief that will last a lifetime. But there was some comfort for the family in being assured that they did everything they could to save their beloved son and grandson.
Mental illness has some causes we understand and many we don’t. It has many faces and it is not a respecter of race or class or gender or IQ. Addressing it isn’t cheap or easy. And throughout the gospels, Jesus leaves unanswered questions about healing and faith. For most of us, neither medical science nor Christian theology responds satisfactorily to situations where illness and faith collide. What does it mean to be “possessed”? What does it mean to be “healed”? What is the role of God in either? I wish I had definitive answers for you, but I don’t.
What I do know is that our sisters and brothers who are touched by mental illness need us to do all we can for them and with them. They need us to work and pray for the day when we can look at each other as individuals and a society and say—even when tragedy strikes – “We did everything we could.” As a state and a community, we’re not doing that now. But we have power. We can choose to go about our lives and let the professionals and family members of persons with mental illness do all the work and deal with the pain. Or we can behave like the Good Samaritan who stopped to help a stranger left for dead by the side of the road. We can be merciful if we choose to be. We have power.
It’s easy to ask God to have mercy on us when life gets hard. We all need God’s mercy. “Mercy me” comes quickly to our lips when we are in need. The question is whether we’re going to offer mercy to the most vulnerable in our society like Jesus did. Our 8th and 9th graders are considering what it means to be a merciful person. I hope we will follow their lead.