Epiphany 5: 5 February Mark 1:29-39
A day in the life of JC! Mark begins his account of Jesus’ public ministry with a first day. Last week we had the first journal entry. Here we have two more plus the first event of the following day. Mark does not lose his hearers in detail. In 1:29 he mentions Simon and Andrew, James and John. This recalls 1:16-20, the account of their calling. Mark will have envisaged hearers listening to the whole story and making such connections rather than the way we read his gospel in small bites.
You could surmise that Mark is making a point here by having the kingdom start at home. That may not be Mark’s intention, but its truth stands nevertheless. Home would be a complex house where extended family lived, including Peter’s mother-in-law. So Peter was married and Paul in 1 Cor 9 seems to confirm this. It is a pity we hear nothing of his spouse, but this was a world in which in men’s stories women are mostly invisible if they are not either a source of trouble or delight. Here is an exception. Even if unnamed, we have a woman. She matters. Jesus cares about her. He heals her. Her temperature drops. She serves them. Let us not romanticise Mark. He is a man of his time as are those who passed on to him the story. The woman remains unnamed. She is healed to do what women stereotypically did: look after the men. It is spinning a yarn to make too much out of the word, ‘serve’, here, as if she is the first deacon. We can espouse such values without fiddling the text. On the other hand, note that Mark tells us in 15:40-41 that many women from Galilee followed Jesus and they were there at the end when the men fled.
Observance of sabbath law rather than climate is reflected in the fact that people waited till the evening to bring their sick and deranged to Jesus. The sabbath ended at sunset, so such work was acceptable in the evening. 1:32-34 is a short summary through which Mark tells us that the two kinds of activities, exorcism and healing, which he has recounted as events on the first day were typical. They were repeated in the evening and on following days. Notice how Mark carefully builds links to what has gone before and what follows. Crowds at the door – we shall find that happening again in 2:2. Demons who knew him – this recalls the incident in the synagogue, but also recalls what they knew, namely the truth set forth in the baptism.
Altogether, 1:29-34 tells us why the kingdom is good news: people are healed and set free. One strong form of future hope among the prophets and later Jewish writings is that God will bring liberation and healing. We find it in Isaiah 61:1; 35:5-6; 29:18-19 and elsewhere. Here in Jesus’ ministry it is happening. So the events are important both in themselves and in what they symbolise.
Our reading ends with the morning after the night before (1:35-39). The ‘hangover’ of yesterday evening’s work sends Jesus back where he started: the wilderness and prayer. This is not only a neat touch on Mark’s part, because it takes us back there. It is also one of those small hints about Jesus’ need to care for himself and regain strength and energy. How could Jesus do this, when there were so many people in need! Simon and co press the point.
Jesus did not have the need to respond to every need. I have always found it odd that people imagine Jesus met every need. When Jesus was in Capernaum, he was not in Bethsaida! People in Bethsaida could have been healed. When he was in the wilderness, people back in town were suffering. Jesus might have met the needs of one or two per cent of the needy in Palestine of the day, but even that is probably far too high a guess. Coming to terms with our human limitations in time and space and energy is crucial if we are to survive in ministry and Jesus was no exception. Jesus did not exercise his ministry on the basis of his need to be needed, but on the basis of what he could do as a bearer of the Spirit, nothing more. That is always enough – and never enough to meet all needs. Failure to acknowledge our limitations often leads to denial of the immensity of human need, because we are afraid of not being in control.
Many locals will have been deeply disappointed when Jesus decided to go off to other regions of Galilee. One can imagine the recriminations: I brought my dying mother here. How can you pass her by? One way to cope is to be callous and hardened: the ‘strategic plan’ is numerical growth; to hell with people! But Mark is not portraying Jesus that way. He is interested here in describing the impact of Jesus’ ministry, but also the problems which it caused – not just in congestion in front of doorways. Crowds often dictate agendas; success spawns its own rules. Mark shows Jesus acting deliberately in ways which will maximise the impact of the good news, but Jesus will not be dictated to by the rules of the game. In some sense they also belong to the powers from which he must liberate people.
1:38-39 return us to Jesus’ sense of mission. We are on track. He is preaching in their synagogues and exorcising, as he did in 1:21-28. Well meaning disciples did not succeed in getting in the road. He knew a response to pain which avoided the alternatives of needing to meet every need or of coping by denying it. In other respects he models ‘best management practice’: he knew what he was about and never lost sight of it, and that was a ‘big picture’ understanding of people and what the reign of God could mean for them.
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