They are love

“They” are love – Martin Malina

I live in Arnprior, whose logo reads — “Where the Rivers meet”, because the town is situated at the confluence of the Madawaska and Ottawa rivers. The flow of rivers around me, around the place I live, communicates to me important spiritual truths.

Under the evening moon at the confluence of the Madawaska and Ottawa rivers in Arnprior

As a Christian, I take spiritual truth to be the way of Jesus. So, everything from my practice of prayer to how I aspire to relate with others flows from the waters of my baptism in Christ.

The flow of water can move one’s heart and mind in directions not anticipated nor expected. Just try running white-water rapids or going down a water slide. When you enter the water, your body will be subject to forces beyond your control and often make your body go in directions not intended.

When I read the bible sometimes familiar stories will come at me sideways and I’ll notice something that I’ve never before noticed. And it will open up new and unbidden horizons that will both challenge and inspire me on my journey of faith.

This is true with the Gospel reading for today[1] — about the healing of the deaf and mute person. And what jumped out at me was the first word in verse 32: “They”. The unidentified and unnamed people who brought the deaf man to Jesus. What is more, “they” begged Jesus—begged him— to “lay his hand” on him. And that’s where I stopped. I know the end of the story: he was cured of his ailments so there was no cliff-hanger for me there. But more about the ending in a moment.

First, who are “they”?[2] Who would take the time, the energy, the strength to bring someone who was probably on the margins of the socio-economic engines of 1st century Palestine? Who are “they” to place such value and worth on someone who couldn’t hear and who had a speech impediment? Who was this deaf and mute man to them? 

A family member? The text doesn’t suggest family relations. There are other healing stories in the Gospel of Mark where daughters and fathers and sons are explicitly mentioned and involved.[3]

What is more in our Gospel text is it’s not a passive, obligation kind of service — a do-gooder “I-have-time-today” kind of action. They begged Jesus to heal. This is passionate language. No time for self-preoccupation. And all for the sake of someone who might normally be dismissed, disregarded and even despised in society.

Such a reading leaves me wondering about the quality of my own Christian service and love. Is healing in Christ only for me? Or, for my own? “They” were more than one person. And each of those individuals that comprised the “they” in our text had their own problems, suffering, pains, losses, griefs that likely needed Jesus’ healing touch. Why weren’t they self-advocating? And yet, “they” as a group were so passionate in finding healing for this one man they brought to Jesus.

This summer I canoed the Barron River in Algonquin Park relatively close to where I live. There is a spectacular red flower found almost exclusively along this river: It’s called the cardinal plant, Lobelia cardinalis. What is special about this plant is that it requires not one, but two visits by a hummingbird in order to procreate. The bird arrives when the flower is in early bloom and uses its long bill to sip the nectar, which lies just deep enough that the brow of the bird brushes against the flower and picks up pollen.

Later, when the stamens of the cardinal flower no longer produce pollen, the pistil—the female part of the plant, protrudes through the spent stamens to a point where, when the flower is visited the second time by a hummingbird whose head has been dusted with pollen from another plant, fertilization takes place.[4]

In other words, healing and new life require at least more than one visit by the grace of God. More than one dose of love. More than a mere self-preoccupation about the healing gifts of God. The more-than-for-me is necessary to complete the picture.

The witness of “they” in the Gospel reading today gives me a wonderful picture of what true love—complete love—in Christ is about. Individual healing is maybe one part, but alone it is not the gospel. If it’s just about ‘my healing’, or ‘what I want’, it is not the gospel. The gospel is going to the second part, which is loving others. We are they. When we consider the needs of those unlike us, and act on them, then we are being true to the gospel. We are driving it home.

“Look not to your own needs first, but to the needs of others,” writes Saint Paul.[5] This doesn’t mean we dismiss and disregard our own needs. It means our healing and salvation is found in striving to meet the needs of others.

When the crowd witnesses the miracle of healing, what do they say about Jesus? They conclude that he has done well. Maybe Jesus passed some test they had for him— he can cure disease. It’s only as an afterthought do they add: He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak. It’s as if the healing of the individual is not the main point. It isn’t for Jesus, who orders everyone “to tell no one” about the healing. So, the individual healing takes a back seat to what is really the miracle, that others cared enough about someone who was of little consequence— the marginalized, the weak, the homeless, the needy — to take the risk of bringing them to Jesus. That is the miracle.

Of course the gospel of Jesus is essentially about love. How do we love, then? That is the question. And how do we be like “they”; that is, how do we do this work of loving others together as a congregation? How do we love others who are different from us, who have different needs than we do? This is not easy. But that’s where the Gospel of Jesus Christ leads us.

In David James Duncan’s best-selling book ‘The River Why’, he describes what love is by using an analogy.

He writes that love is “like a trout stream: try to capture a trout stream with a dam and you get a lake; try to catch it in a bucket and you get a bucket of water; try to stick some under a microscope and you get a close-up look at some writhing amorphous microcooties. A trout stream is only a trout stream when it’s flowing between its own banks, at its own pace, in its own sweet way”.[6]

In the end, this text provides us with a picture of who God is. While we may stumble in our efforts and aspiration to be like “they”, in the end, God is they. Because God is love. We witness here how far God will go, by our side, to bring us to healing and wholeness. No matter how down-and-out we may be, no matter how much we have lost, grieved and suffered, no matter what place we occupy in our social and economic world, even for the most destitute, God is the passionate Friend who will take us there. 

Love opens the floodgates. Love doesn’t confine, constrict, or try too hard to change us into something we are not, out of judgement or fear. Rather, grace, mercy, and forgiveness flow alongside us, following us all the way downriver until we meet the vast, unbounded ocean of God’s eternal love.

Not just once. Not even twice. But many, many more times than that.

[1] Mark 7:31-37

[2] We encounter a similar rendering when Jesus cures a blind man at Bethsaida in Mark 8:22-26

[3] See Mark 5:21-43 & Mark 9:14-29.

[4] Roy MacGregor, Canoe Country: The Making of Canada, Toronto: Penguin Books, 2015, p.131

[5] Philippians 2:4

[6] David James Duncan, The River Why, Back Ray Books, 2016, p.396

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