Gospel for the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time (4 February 2018)
Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.
In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons. (Mark 1:29-39 – NRSV)
Mark seems to be drawing a connection between “evil spirits” and “human illness”. This was in fact a common belief at that time. “This juxtaposition may be due to the ancient conception of the close connection between illness and the influence of evil spirits. These initial miracles also reflect the hope expressed in nonbiblical Jewish texts for the messianic age when Satan will be conquered (T.Mos. 10:1) and disease will disappear (e.g., “when the time of my Anointed One comes ... health will descend in dew and illness will vanish,” 2 Bar 72:2; 73:3).” (J R Donahue & D J Harrington, The Gospel of Mark, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002, 84.)
Mark’s focus on miracle stories present us with something of a paradox: “Miracle stories (exorcisms, healings, resuscitations, and nature miracles) occupy over 200 verses (more than the Passion narrative), and form virtually half of the gospel prior to the Jerusalem ministry. Yet they are often accompanied by an injunction to silence and play little part in the second part of the gospel; the only miracles after 8:22–26 are in 9:14–29 (the epileptic boy), 10:46–52 (Bartimaeus), and 11:12–14 (the withered fig tree). Mark calls miracles not “signs” (sēmeia), but rather dynameis (“works of power,” 6:2, 5). Nor do they function as “proof” for the divine status of Jesus (8:11–13). In fact, false messiahs can also perform “mighty works” (13:4, 22; see also Apocalypse of Elijah 3:5–10).” (J R Donahue & D J Harrington, op cit, 85.)
As soon as: The Greek word is euthys meaning “at once” or “immediately”. The word is used eight times in this first Chapter of Mark, suggesting urgency and rapid progress.
Simon’s mother-in-law: No mention is made of Simon’s wife. She is, however, referred to by Paul in 1 Corinthians 9:5: “Do we not have the right to be accompanied by a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?”
he would not permit the demons to speak: Here is one of Mark’s special themes – “messianic secret”. This is echoed in the final sentence of our text: “In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place”. It seems reasonable to me that Jesus was concerned that he not be distracted from his mission. Listen to his statement: “that is what I came out to do.” His real “work” was going to take place in Jerusalem. And imagine, if you will, the consequences of allowing himself to be known as “the miracle worker”. For a useful summary, Google “messianic secret” and see the Wikipedia entry.
a deserted place: The Greek word is erēmon (from erēmos). Mention of the desert evokes deep and strong memories for the Jews. One commentator writes: “The term ‘wilderness’ (erēmos in Greek), which is virtually synonymous with ‘desert’, is a word with broad resonance for Jews, recalling the years of wandering between the Exodus and the entry into the land and the covenant at Sinai (Exodus 19–24), as well as the place where God would again deliver the people by bringing them back from exile (Isa 40:3). It has a dual connotation. It is used positively as the place of God’s saving acts and betrothal with the people (Jer 2:2–3; Hos 2:14–15; Pss 78:12–53; 105:39–45), and negatively as the site of testing and rebellion (Exodus 16; Numbers 11; Pss 78:17–22, 32–41; 106:6–43). The Qumran community also invoked Isa 40:3 for its location in the wilderness (1QS 8:13–14; 9:19–20). Jesus is tested in the wilderness in Mark 1:12–13, retreats there for prayer in 1:35 and to avoid crowds in 1:45, and feeds the people in the wilderness in 6:31–32.” (J R Donahue & D J Harrington, op cit, 61.)
There is a strange juxtaposition of texts in this first chapter of Mark’s Gospel. You will recall that last Sunday – Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time – Mark reported that the people were amazed at the way Jesus taught (see 1:27). Today Mark writes: “That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door” (1:32-33). Then Mark tells us of something that seems, at first blush, strange: “In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed” (1:35).
On closer examination, going to “a deserted place” actually makes a lot of sense. Success – even for the most mature of us – can be heady stuff. For us personally as well as those who begin to get high expectations of us. It has the capacity to awaken those instincts referred to in Genesis 3:4: “you will be like God”. This is potentially rich ground for ego-centric illusions – illusions that are in the end death-dealing, all the while seducing us with the promise of great rewards.
So what does “a deserted place” have to offer? There are at least two rich lines of thinking evoked by this question. The first line of thinking is spatial or geographical. We recognize that a deserted place is uncharted. There is no map. You must turn to the One who knows the way otherwise you will get lost. Perhaps you will even die there. You must let go of the familiar signposts, the answers that you have come to depend on, the (mostly unacknowledged) expectations that shape your daily reactions and responses. We go to the desert to be cleansed and purified of all obstacles to the freedom of God being God in us. The disposition of Mary is exemplary: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). This is why we leave our familiar worlds and go away for retreats. In the tradition of the Exodus, we can be available in such a place for God to speak to our hearts. It is potentially a rich place for hearing God’s life-giving words of love, for growing in divine intimacy.
We might call the second line of thinking spiritual or interior. We recognize that there are “deserted places” within us. These too are uncharted places. Perhaps they remain unexamined because they are frightening. We all carry painful spots. One of life’s most challenging questions is: What do I do with my pain? Just because these “deserted places” within us are unexamined – even unknown – does not mean they are irrelevant. Like submarines in the deep, they can control our lives in significant ways. The “message” of Jesus – the “message” that is Jesus – is a message of freedom. We need to go to those “deserted places” – that is, we need to face the pain in our lives and submit to the truth of it. Jesus identifies himself with truth. Jesus waits for us in those “deserted places”. In the truth of our pain lies the key to our freedom.