Is a disease the same thing as an illness? Not according to a book by Bruce Malina entitled “Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels.” This book claims that cultural anthropologists distinguish between disease and illness.
A disease, they say, is a bio-medical condition. An illness, on the other hand, may or may not have a bio-medical component, but it always has a social component. What difference does insisting on such distinctions in definition make? Well, it does invite us to recognize that health is a bigger and more complicated issue than we tend to realize.
Some of our favorite stories in the Bible are the healing stories. For example, there is a wonderful story of Jesus healing Peter’s mother-in-law from a fever. The story says she was bed-ridden and unable to get up. But when she was healed from her fever, she immediately arose and began to serve her family and friends. Her life regained its balance and her healing was apparent as much, perhaps, by the fruitful place she resumed in her world as by the quelling of the fever. She was healthy again.
Of course we all come down with a fever from time to time, don’t we? Fevers come and go. But we should probably not mistake the absence of an elevated body temperature for real health. Maybe we’re still suffering from other debilitating fevers. They show up in an endless and troublesome variety, don’t they? There are fevers of grief, fevers of addiction, fevers of resentment, and fevers of worry. On and on they go. These fevers, too, can lay us flat and keep us from getting up and engaging in the fullness, richness and beauty of life.
But perhaps they needn’t keep us down. Perhaps the story of Peter’s mother-in-law who arose from her fever to serve provides us with an alternative. What if we no longer allowed the problems that beset us, physical mental or spiritual, from controlling all of life? What if we got up and served, despite our troubles?
When someone asked how we are doing, couldn’t we make the sort of self-assessment that looked at our possible wholeness before God, and then respond, “Thanks for asking. My back is still killing me today, but I am cooking food for the homeless center this afternoon, and I feel great!” Or maybe we could reply, “I am still waiting for those test results, but I am mentoring a young student today who has trouble in school, and I know I can help him, so that makes me feel wonderful.”
Lives engaged in service offer a model for health and wholeness that transcends physical impairment. In fact, some of the healthiest people we know have struggled with the most debilitating diseases. But they were more than their bodies, more than their limitations, more than their fevers. They were always ready to get up, to give, to engage helpfully with others, and to serve.
Why not take your temperature? How healthy are you?