Gospel for the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time (7 February 2021)
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.)
Today’s Gospel – Mark 1:29-39 – is full of movement. The man at the centre of it all is Jesus of Nazareth. In fact, the most obvious thing about him, since we encountered him in v 9 being baptized by John, is that he is a man on a mission. There is a sense of urgency: “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news’” (v 15). He calls four young men to join him in his mission (vv 16-20) and he teaches in the synagogue, cures many people and casts out evil spirits (vv 21-34).
All of the above action and movement is preceded by – and born of – two remarkable events: his baptism and his time in the wilderness (see vv 9-13). We are not surprised therefore to hear that, after all this activity “in the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed” (v 35). Nor is it surprising to hear of the reaction of those young men he had called o join him: “And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, ‘Everyone is searching for you’” (vv 36-37). Jesus reminds them they have work to do: “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” (vv 38-39).
We do not have far to look, when we ask: What motivates this man? He is attuned to a deeper reality. The reality which he knows is beyond the ordinary reality of those around him. Their reality is generated by culture, politics, ethnicity, history, fear, greed, selfishness and all the other forces at play in human societies. His reality is “the kingdom”. He bears witness to “the kingdom”. For Jesus, “the kingdom” is why he came. He is motivated by the desire to make “the kingdom” available to all. Because of him, “the kingdom” can become our reality.
The cures and casting out of demons and the moments of teaching, do not constitute “the kingdom” but intimate it. They are harbingers of a healed existence that will be wrought through him, with him and in him. Each of these events announces – with the whole of the here and now reality as we know it – “not me, more than me!” It is in fact this ever-present “more than” that motivates Jesus. And it is the constant announcing of “the more than” in every person, event and thing in the stuff of our days that can motivate us. “The more than” is an invitation and an evocation. A primary act for the baptized, therefore, is listening. So wake up and stay awake, be alert and pay attention for “the kingdom” is among us!