A few months ago a neighbor came home with a rescue dog, a lovely little lab mix. I will call him Max. When I first met Max, he was so skinny you could see his bones. He had a bald spot on his back where he had anxiously chewed away his own fur. He was afraid of sticks and a little shy around people. Sometimes he took off, and could be a bit growly with certain other dogs at the park.
We all understood what had happened. Max couldn’t help his first home, where he was neglected, ignored, and likely disciplined with a strong stick – where he learned to be suspicious and defensive. We all understood how that kind of loneliness would make him nervous around strangers, even those who just wanted to say hi to him. We got why being beaten with a stick might make him overreact to new sticks. Why the stress of that situation would make Max want to pull out his own hair.
We were able to see Max’s whole story without anyone’s ever telling us. None of us had been to his old home or talked to his first owner. But we just naturally knew that Max’s quirks were not his fault, and that he was doing his best to overcome them.
Such patience. Such empathy. Such unconditional love.
And yet, I wonder if Max had been a person: Someone who looked messy and unwell. Someone who bore the scars of cutting on his arms. Someone who was so nervous when people made sudden gestures, that he made you feel uncomfortable. Maybe Max the human also ran away from those just trying to look after him. Maybe he yelled a lot. Or lied a lot.
Maybe Max was like the man – called “unclean” – in our gospel this morning. What stories were told of him? Let’s call him Max, because surely he deserves a name. We might imagine Max, the human, as suffering from a mental illness, possessed by a demon, and seen as tainted. I don’t imagine he was being invited to his neighbor’s table. What stories did they tell about him? What narrative do we create when we meet people like him today – who are struggling with severe mental illness and addiction? Do we think, at first, about all the tragedies of care that might get someone to that point? Do we understand that they might have had their share of sticks, while we enjoyed hugs and praise?
Or, do we think: This person is weak and stupid. This person probably didn’t work hard enough. This person didn’t try hard enough. This person must have broken the law. This person is here in this place – and yes it is sad –but it is his fault. After all, the neighbors of that unclean man in the gospel might say: Max opened his mouth, he let that demon inside. He has only himself to blame.
I think you get my point, though: because what struck me about the conversation about Max the dog was how true it probably was for Max the Human. Deprived of love and security, when we need it, we fail to thrive. Yet what we can see so clearly in a dog we often fail to acknowledge in a human being. At the very least, we often take a long time to get there.
And we certainly don’t often offer help the way Max’s new owners did. They gave him a loving family, food, a home, security, room to run and to be himself. They snuggled with him on the couch. They didn’t care about his empty patches of fur. They were patient when he wasn’t perfect, because they knew he didn’t mean it, that that wasn’t who he was. They were focused on what Max the dog could be. And loved him no matter what.
Of course you know what happened: over the next few months, Max changed. You could see it plain as day. He gained weight. He stopped pulling out his fur. Instead of running from sticks, he ran after them. He made friends with the other dogs. He greeted the people he knew and stayed close to the ones he loved.
Acceptance, patience, attention, and love. Max’s owners, at the start of this story, knew that was what it would take to help Max.
Just as we know, as humans, what it takes to help one another, especially those of us who, for so many reasons, fail to thrive.
How does Jesus treat the unclean man, or Max? We have only a brief scene, but Jesus approaches him directly; he does not run away. His very healing of Max – by calling out the demon by name – makes clear that Max’s ailment is not the full sum of who he is as a person. There is a Max without the demon. One who requires someone to stand with him, to learn what he needs, and to offer the help they are able to provide. This is what Jesus does. It is what all of us can do.
That’s the problem with healing stories. They send the message that this Jesus, the Son of God, is healing, and we are to watch and be amazed. But that is not us. For we are not Jesus. And yet … we are children of God. And yet…we understand Jesus as an example for us sent by God. Surely every action and deed is something from which we may learn. And this is no different. What does Jesus demonstrate to us on that Sabbath in Capernaum? He goes to the aid of a man others would deem beyond help. He sees past the appearance of evil or weakness, to the damaged soul trapped inside, and, to save Max, he separates the illness from the man. Jesus rebukes the unclean spirit, not the man.
“They were amazed,” the gospel says. “And they kept asking, what is this, a new teaching?”
Indeed, even for us it is a new teaching. Thursday, January 28thwas Bell “Let’s Talk Day”, and while I appreciate the public awareness it raises and the messaging around talking about mental illness, in my experience, true healing happens only when we observe and listen and try to figure out what the other person needs. If you think about it, talking is not the central action of the qualities that healed Max, the dog, or, once the demon was gone, Max the man, either: those qualities are acceptance, patience, kindness, and love.
It is very easy right now, locked down in our homes, to lose perspective. To lose sight of what we have and what we are able to give, even in the smallest ways during this difficult time. It’s hard to accept the decisions of others, to be patient with those who break the rules, to be kind when we are tired, and to love when we feel unloved. It is hard; not even Jesus would deny that. Perhaps we can begin by understanding that everyone we meet, everyone we know, and even ourselves, has a story that stretches far back, all the way back, in our lives. Sometimes, if we are open to it, we may hear those stories. Not everyone wants to tell theirs. It is up to us to listen, to be open, to offer kindness and love without conditions. This is what Jesus did. It is what all of us can do. That is how the gospel heals.