Mark’s Gospel describes growing numbers following Jesus in Galilee as he begins his ministry, but growing numbers also find him hard to understand, the gospel says.
Scribes come from Jerusalem and say he has a demon, the Pharisees begin to plot with the Herodians, the followers of Herod Antipas about putting him to death. When they hear about him in Nazareth, his relatives say, “No, he doesn’t have a demon. He may be out of his mind,” and they come to bring him home.
Besides the leading elite and people from his hometown, ordinary people begin to distance themselves too. They may be the people in Mark’s Gospel today who question him “Why do the disciples of John and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” (Mark 2, 18-22) Not only Jewish leaders and scholars, not only his own family and his hometown, but ordinary people of Galilee find him too much for them.
Jesus brought change, radical change, and change can be hard to accept. Many who heard him weren’t ready for new wine, they preferred the old.
Commentators describe Mark’s gospel as a Passion Narrative with a prelude. In other words, Mark’s early stories announce the story of his Passion and Death and Resurrection. Jesus dies alone, forsaken by many ordinary people who flocked to him at first.
Commentators also see Mark’s gospel written to help the Christians of Rome facing a surprising brutal persecution by Nero in the mid 60s. Rome usually singled out Christian leaders in times of persecution, but this persecution seemed to strike at ordinary Christians as well. The senseless, arbitrary persecution left Rome’s Christians confused and wondering what this all meant. Mark’s account reminds his followers they must follow him without always understanding.
Confusion and lack of understanding are part of our world today, aren’t they? We are living in a time of rapid changes. For many, the old wine, the “old days” are better.
The Cross of Jesus may not come as hard wood and nails. As in Mark’s Gospel, it can come in confusion and lack of understanding. A Cross hard to bear.
The healing of the paralytic told in today’s gospel from Mark is a great story.(Mark 2: 1–12) Four friends bring him to the door of Peter’s house in Capernaum but the crowds are so dense that they can’t get in to see Jesus so they climb up on the roof, cut a hole in it and lower him down before Jesus. Was the paralyzed man conscious, or half conscious? We don’t know.
What ingenuity! What nerve! What determination on the part of his friends! Think of the logistics involved in it all. The pictures here show the ruins of Peter’s house now enclosed in a shrine and a picture from the shrine looking down into the house–possibly just where the man was lowered down.
We know Jesus forgave the man’s sins and then healed him completely, so he left the house carrying the mat that once bore him. The gospel wants us to recognize that Jesus the healer is Jesus who forgives sins. But some who heard his words of forgiveness that day were shocked by this action which they rightly judged was divine.
But I’m led back to the four friends who had a part in this miracle. Let’s not forget them. They believe and their belief makes them go to extraordinary lengths to help another . We believe for others as well as for ourselves. Faith reaches out; it doesn’t remain within. Believing prompts us to do daring things.
Back to Peter’s house. Did Peter look up that day and say, “Who’s going to pay for that hole in the roof?” The story of the paralyzed man is a wonderful story. But it also has an ominous part to it. Scribes, sitting in judgment, call him a blasphemer for pronouncing sins are forgiven. Opposition to Jesus begins to build that leads to his death.
Two worlds are described in the readings at Mass this week. The Gospel of Mark tells of the world that Jesus lived in over two thousand years ago, the world around Capernaum by the Sea of Galilee, where he called his first disciples, encountered a demon in the synagogue, cured Peter’s mother in law, the paralyzed man and the leper– where he was fiercely opposed. (Mark 1,14-2,12) It’s a world like ours that he came to redeem.
The world described in the Letter to the Hebrews is a world beyond this one, the world of the Risen Lord. Jesus enters that world as Lord of all creation; he sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, our creed says.
The Letter to the Hebrews describes him further as a High Priest entering a heavenly sanctuary to intercede for us. He’s a merciful High Priest, the same Jesus who entered Capernaum and cured Peter’s mother in law, the paralyzed man and the leper. He’s knows our humanity with its yearning, its weakness and hardness; he carries the wounds of suffering and death.
It’s hard to keep these two worlds in mind, but our readings, like our creed, tell us to do it. They’re not sealed off, they’re joined to each other. They have a common goal: “Our Father, thy will done, thy kingdom come.” The Risen Jesus is present in both of these worlds. He’s Savior and Redeemer. Through him, God’s kingdom will come.
Unfortunately, some today only think of the world they see now. Others are unsure or confused about a world beyond this one. Some see the world beyond as an escape from this life, an isolated world in the clouds. For some the world beyond is a world we make, a world without Jesus Christ and the mystery of his resurrection.
Some conclude it’s just not important to think about it. But that’s wrong. What we think about life beyond this determines how we live now. It makes a difference.
Near the shore of the Sea of Galilee, in Israel, one can visit the excavations of the ancient town of Capernaum. There the Franciscans have built a lovely hexagonal church over the restored ruins of a circular stone house, with the opening for its front door clearly visible. We pilgrims believe in our hearts of faith that this is the house mentioned in today’s Gospel.
” On leaving the synagogue Jesus entered the house of Simon and Andrew with James and John. Simon’s mother-in-law lay sick with a fever. They immediately told Him about her. He approached, grasped her hand, and helped her up. Then the fever left and she waited on them.
” When it was evening, after sunset, they brought to Him all who were ill or possessed by demons. The whole town was gathered at the door.” (Mk 1; 29-33).
We believe that right at that door Jesus healed dozens, if not hundreds, of people (including the paralytic, who was lowered with ropes through the ceiling). He might also have preached the Good News of the Kingdom in front of that humble threshold.
I cannot help but imagine my Lord residing in my own private room within my heart. I know that there, through the Eucharist or prayer, planned or unexpectedly, He continuously “grasps my hand and helps me up”. He stands at the door of my heart and encourages me to serve, to invite all those around me, in my family and community, who might need some of the hope and healing that He compels me to share. This is what I live for.
And He asks for more: ” Let us go on to the nearby villages that I may preach there also. For this purpose have I come.” (Mk 1; 38). With His holy companionship I am asked to reach out to those beyond the locust of my comfort zone: to the stranger, the different, the unpleasant one,the hopeless one, the one whose political ideas or interests are so different from mine.
May He give me the strength and faith, and courage, to try and “grasp” the hand that might reject mine. He has given me so much undeserved grace and love. He has given me the eyes to “see Him”. For what “purpose” has He come to me, if not so that I may be an instrument of His peace and love?
Jesus’ ministry in Galilee begins with a remarkable day, a “paradigmatic day,” a day you can see everything you need to know about Jesus. That’s the day described in Mark’s gospel today. (Mark 1:29-39)
Passing along the Sea of Galilee Jesus calls Simon and his brother Andrew, then James and his brother John. “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” They accompany him.
Then, they enter the synagogue in Capernaum on the Sabbath Day and Jesus begins to teach. The people are amazed; no one has taught like him before.
Then, as it happens through his life, evil appears. A man with an unclean spirit cries out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”
Jesus rebuked him and said,“’Quiet! Come out of him!’
Leaving the synagogue, the people tell everybody they meet. News spreads quickly in Capernaum, a trading center, and the day is still not over.
From the synagogue Jesus enters Peter and Andrew’s house in Capernaum where Peter’s mother in law is ill. “He grasped her by the hand, and helped her up and the fever left her. Immediately she began to wait on them.” We shouldn’t miss those simple observations from Mark: “He grasped her by the hand and helped her up.” Wasn’t that a beautiful thing to do? Rembrandt noticed that too. “She began to wait on them.” What did she get them all, and what did they speak about?
“Again, the news spreads. “After sunset, as evening drew on, they brought all who were ill and those possessed by demons. Before long, the whole town was gathered outside the door. He cured many who were variously afflicted.”
Truth and life came to that town, and from that town Jesus goes to other towns as well: “ I must proclaim the good news to them too,” he says.
He confronts evil wherever he goes. It won’t be long before leaders come from Jerusalem question his authority to cure on the Sabbath, his own disciples and his own family do not understand him. The towns that welcomed him, reject him. Still, he announces the good news.
To appreciate Mark’s remarkable day in perspective, try reading the gospels of these three days all a once. You can see Mark at his best, describing God’s beloved Son announcing the good news to the towns of Galilee and to the world as well. (Mark 1:14-24)
Jews usually turned away as they passed the customs place where Matthew, the tax-collector, was sitting. But look at our gospel for today:
“As Jesus passed by, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the customs post. He said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him.”
To celebrate their new friendship, Matthew invited Jesus to a banquet at his house with his friends – tax collectors like himself – and Jesus came with some of his disciples. They were criticized immediately for breaking one of Capernaum’s social codes. “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
Jesus’ answer was quick: “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. Go and learn the meaning of the words `I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Hardly anything is known of Matthew’s part in Jesus’ later ministry, yet surely the tradition must be correct that says he recorded much of what Jesus said and did. Tax collectors were good at keeping books. Was Matthew’s task to keep memories? Did he remember some things that were especially related to his world?
The gospels say that wherever Jesus went he was welcomed by tax collectors. When he entered Jericho, Zachaeus, the chief tax collector of the city, climbed a tree to see him pass, since the crowds were so great. Did Matthew point out the man in the tree to Jesus, a tax collector like himself, who brought them all to his house, where Jesus left his blessing of salvation? And did tax collectors in other towns come to Jesus because they recognized one of their own among his companions?
Probably so. Jesus always looked kindly on outsiders like Matthew who were targets of suspicion and resentment. True, they belonged to a compromised profession tainted by greed, dishonesty and bribery. Their dealings were not always according to the fine line of right or wrong.
But they were children of God and, like lost sheep, Jesus would not let them be lost.
Pope Francis said he got his vocation to be a priest on the Feast of St. Matthew, when he went to confession and heard God’s call, a call of mercy.
The gospels themselves recall little about Matthew, an apostle of Jesus. We have his name, his occupation and a brief story of a banquet that took place with Jesus and some of his friends after his call. ( Mt 9: 9-13; Mk 2:3-12; Lk5:18-26) As it is, the gospels concentrate on the ministry and teaching of Jesus.
In the early centuries, those who knew Jesus told his story and brought his message to the world. As they died, writings about him gradually appeared, but there are only scarce references to who wrote them. St. Justin Martyr in the early 2nd century speaks of the “memoirs of the apostles”, without indicating any author by name. Later in that century, St. Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, writing against the Gnostics who claim a superior knowledge of Jesus Christ attributes the gospels to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. They are eyewitnesses who really know Jesus firsthand; they have given us their “memoirs.”
Scholars today are less likely to credit Matthew’s Gospel to the tax-collector from Capernaum whom Jesus called. Some of his memoirs perhaps may be there– after all he came from a profession good at accounting for things. But too many indications point to other sources. Why would Matthew, if he is an eyewitness, depend on Mark’s Gospel as he does? Language, the structure of the gospel, the circumstances it addresses, point to a Jewish-Christian area beyond Palestine as its source, probably Antioch in Syria, probably written around the year 8o, after the Gospel of Mark.
Traditions says that Matthew preached in Ethiopia and Persia, but they have no historical basis.
He is remembered as a martyr who died for the faith, but again there is no historical basis.
Better to see Matthew as the gospel sees him: one of the first outsiders whom Jesus called. And he would not be the last..
To listen to the audio for today’s homily, please select the audio player below:
Our gospel reading this Sunday, like most from the last four Sundays, is from the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel. It describes a day– one day in the life of Jesus–one commentator calls it a “paradigmatic day”– a day you can see everything you need to know about Jesus.
The evangelist prepares us for this day with an account of Jesus’ baptism and temptation in the desert by Satan. At the Jordan River the heavens open and a voice says, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” Immediately, Mark says, Jesus is led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by Satan for forty day.
This is God’s beloved Son, but he knows what it means to face evil. He came among us and faced evil.
“After John had been arrested,” Mark continues, “Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”
Jesus goes into Galilee “after John has been arrested,” not the safest time to announce anything, but that doesn’t matter. God’s kingdom is stronger than the powers of this world. It wont be stopped.
Mark’s Gospel is fast paced. As Jesus passes the Sea of Galilee, he sees Simon and his brother Andrew casting their nets into the sea. Jesus says to them. “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” They abandoned their nets and followed him.
He walked along a little farther, he sees James and John, the sons of Zebedee, getting ready to go out in their boat. He calls them and they leave their boat to follow him.
They can’t resist him, Mark’s gospel says. There’s something exciting and commanding about him. They have to follow him.
They come to Capernaum, the town where they all live. It’s the Sabbath Day. They all go into the synagogue and Jesus begins to teach. He amazes the people with his teaching. No one has taught like him before.
But then, as happens all through his life, the voice of evil is heard. A man with an unclean spirit cries out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?
“Have you come to destroy us?
I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”
Jesus rebuked him and said,
‘Quiet! Come out of him!’ The unclean spirit convulsed him and with a loud cry came out of him.
All were amazed and asked one another,
‘What is this? A new teaching with authority.
He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him.’”
Of course, when those people leave the synagogue, they tell everybody they meet. Capernaum was a trading center. The news gets out quickly.
“His fame spread everywhere throughout the whole region of Galilee.”
Next Sunday’s gospel from Mark will continue the story of this momentous day. Jesus leaves the synagogue goes into Peter and Andrew’s house in Capernaum and heals Peter’s mother in law. This same day is filled with excitement. Mark ends his account by saying that as the day ends, the whole town in at the door, anxious to hear him, with their sick and those who are disturbed.
I wish I could convey some of the excitement that this gospel wants to convey. When Jesus comes into your town he brings life. Peter and those he calls can’t resist him. They have to follow him to know more. That’s always what Jesus does. He draws us to himself; he sets our hearts on fire.
Of course, he’s always accompanied by the evil of this world. The man with the unclean spirit whom always be there too. “Stay away from us. Get away from us. We want to be left alone. Even if you are the Son of God we want to be left alone.”
“If today you hear his voice harden not your hearts.” What a tragedy that is. not to hear his voice, to harden our hearts.
To listen to the audio for today’s homily, select the file below:
One disadvantage in reading the scriptures as we do in our liturgies on Sundays and weekdays is that we can miss the overall picture an evangelist is trying to paint. By breaking up the scriptures in parts, as we do, we can miss the sweep of the gospel as it unfolds and as one detail leads to another.
That’s especially so for Mark’s gospel, I think. Mark wants to tell an exciting, fast moving story, but read slowly, part by part, Sunday after Sunday, we may miss the breathlessness of the whole account. This is God speaking, revealing himself, God who brings new power and excitement to the world. This is the “gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” Mark says.
Some years ago I went to a play on Broadway called The Gospel of Mark. It featured a famous English actor, Alec McCowen, who came onstage alone, put a copy the New Testament on a table– “just in case” he said– and then proceeded to tell the whole story of Mark’s Gospel, just as it was written, from memory. It was a wonderful experience, listening to the whole gospel story unfold.
It might be good to do something like that with our gospel today, about the call of the disciples, from the first chapter of St. Mark. Let’s look at it in its setting, what comes before it and what comes after it.
Before Jesus calls his disciples, Mark says as the other gospels do that Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River by John. “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well-pleased,” a voice from heaven says. The Spirit then drove Jesus “at once” into the desert to be tempted for forty days. Mark summarizes those events in few words. He moves quickly to bring Jesus into Galilee, into the world where the Good News is proclaimed.
After John had been arrested,
Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God:
“This is the time of fulfillment.
The kingdom of God is at hand.
Repent, and believe in the gospel.”
“John was arrested,” Mark says. A dangerous time. but the kingdom of God is stronger than dangerous times. With simple words Mark tells the story.
Jesus meets four fishermen along the Sea of Galilee, Peter and his brother Andrew, then James and his brother John. He calls them, promising to make them “fishers of men.” Immediately– there’s no delay– they leave their nets and families to follow him. They’re taken by him and they want to share what he does. (Mark 1, 14-20)
And the story doesn’t stop there. Right away after they’re called, Jesus and the fishermen go into Capernaum, a fishing village along the Sea of Galilee. It’s the Sabbath Day, the day of God’s blessing. They enter the synagogue and Jesus begins to teach. His teaching immediately amazes those who hear him, the same amazement the fishermen felt when he called them.
Then, a possessed man in the synagogue shouts out at Jesus. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” Jesus rebukes him. “Quiet! Come out of him!”
“The unclean spirit convulsed him and with a loud cry came out of him.” They’re all amazed. This is different, his teaching, his silencing of evil.
Mark says: “His fame spread everywhere throughout the whole region of Galilee.” What would we expect? The people from synagogue that day go out and tell others what they saw and heard. There is someone here from Nazareth who teaches and works wonders we have never seen or heard before. (Mark 1,21-28)
They leave the synagogue; Peter and his brother Andrew take Jesus to their house, a compound not far from the synagogue. James and John, the other two disciples are with them. Peter’s mother in law is sick in bed and immediately they tell him about her. Going to her Jesus takes her by the hand and helps her up. The fever leaves her and she begins to wait on them. She is not only healed, she becomes a disciple. She’s serving people, helping them. She has become a disciple of Jesus, Mark is saying.
Of course, she not only waits on others, but Peter’s mother in law must have told her neighbors. The news spreads. By evening, after sunset “they brought to him all who were ill or possessed by demons. The whole town was gathered at the door. He cured many who were sick with various diseases, and he drove out many demons, not permitting them to speak because they knew him. (Mark 1,21-34)
Now, that’s one exciting Sabbath day. The next day, Jesus goes with his disciples to other synagogues and towns where he teaches and performs miracles. The excitement continues, but Satan who tempted him in the desert and the man possessed by a demon in the synagogue take on new forms. Jesus faces opposition, growing opposition, from the leaders of his people. Scribes question him for daring to forgive sins. They call him the devil himself. Pharisees accuse him of not keeping Jewish laws; enemies begin to plot to put him to death. Eventually they’ll do just that, they’ll put him to death.
His own family came down from Nazareth to take him home because they think he’s out of his mind. And Capernaum and other cities that received him with excitement will turn away from him. People who clapped their hands and ran to the synagogues where he taught turned away. They had better things to do.
What has that to do with us? Well, we might have the same experience we see before us in Mark’s Gospel. The kingdom of God has been promised to us. What greater promise can we receive?There’s a power and attractiveness to the person of Jesus. Who can deny the beauty of his teaching, to love one another? Forgiving one another? Caring for the poor and those in need?
Who can deny also that there is evil in this world, a powerful evil that makes us question and fear? Even Jesus fears, according to Mark’s gospel. It’s good to read the scriptures, especially the gospels. They describe Good News, real news.
Our gospel reading this Sunday is from the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark. Jesus has come from his baptism in the River Jordan; he’s gathered disciples and now he’s living at Peter’s house in Capernaum along the Sea of Galilee.He enters the synagogue in the town and amazes people with his teaching. They’ve never heard anyone like him.
But a man in the synagogue who has an unclean spirit challenges him. I’m not sure what an unclean spirit is. Certainly the man reacts violently to Jesus. Listen to him shouting out:
“What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”
In other words: “Keep away from us; you’re only going to bring us trouble.” The man just wants to be left alone. Even if Jesus is from God, the man just wants to be left alone. “Get away from us!” he says.
That strong reaction was not limited to the synagogue in Capernaum. It continued as Jesus made his way to Jerusalem. Mark’s gospel insists that others rejected Jesus, sometimes strongly, sometimes by simply ignoring him, and he calls their rejection diabolic.
However wise his teaching, compassionate his healing, loving his words, some rejected Jesus in his lifetime. In the end, his enemies killed him.
We believe the gospel repeats itself, and so it’s repeated today as we relive and experience it. “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.” Can we reject Jesus too?
Doesn’t he stand in our synagogue today, in signs and in faith?
Belief in Jesus Christ is at the heart of everything. “I believe in God, the Father Almighty…I believe in Jesus Christ…I believe in the Holy Spirit.” Believing means hearing Jesus, listening to him, offering ourselves to him, entering into friendship with him, hoping in his strength, waiting patiently to receive what he promises.
Belief is not something we do once; we believe day by day. We’re always dangerously close to losing sight of Jesus. “Leave us alone,” we say, “You want to destroy us.” How easily we prefer isolation to communion with the One God has sent.
Perhaps an unclean spirit is not rare at all. If it’s a spirit that’s cloudy and dark then, when it takes hold of you, you cannot see the Light at all.
In today’s gospel from Matthew 13, 1-23, Jesus offers a parable that interprets the mounting opposition he faces from many sides early in his ministry. For one thing, people in Chorazin, Bethsaida, Capernaum–cites and towns along the Sea of Galilee that received him warmly for his miracles and his teaching– begin to turn away from him. (Matthew 11,16-24)) The Pharisees and scribes, the Jewish religious leaders, accuse him of breaking Jewish laws and being possessed by the devil. (Matthew 12,22-34) Some of his own family from Nazareth come to take him home because they think he’d out of his mind. (Matthew 12, 46-50) Finally, his own disciples don’t seem to understand him.
What explains the desertion, opposition, lack of understanding towards him and his ministry that began with great acclaim?
The parable of the seed and the sower is Jesus‘ answer to what he faced, but also what the Word of God faces continually from humanity. God’s Word is received by the human heart like seed received in the ground.
The seed is life-giving, but if it falls on rocky ground it’s eaten right away by the birds of the air. If it falls on thin soil it fails after awhile because it has no roots; if it falls among thorns and weeds they choke it. But if it falls on good ground the seed produces fruit beyond anything you expect.
The parable first applies to the world Jesus faced, but it’s also a picture of how humanity in every age receives the Word of God. Our hearts can be hard, fickle, vain, proud, unheeding, but we can also accomplish great deeds. The seed’s not at fault, it’s the ground it falls on.
Still, the sower never stops sowing seed. life-giving seed. That’s also important to remember. God never withholds his grace.
In a poem called “Putting in the Seed” Robert Frost describes a farmer’s love affair with the earth. It’s spring and getting dark, yet the farmer keeps working his field. Someone from the house goes to fetch him home. Supper’s on the table, yet he’s a
“ Slave to a springtime passion for the earth.
How Love burns through the Putting in the Seed
On through the watching for that early birth
When, just as the soil tarnishes with weed,
The sturdy seedling with arched body comes
Shouldering its way and shedding the earth crumbs.”
Is Frost’s farmer zestfully casting seed on the waiting earth an image of God, the Sower, casting saving grace onto the world, in season and out, because he loves it so ?
Jesus’ parable of the seed and the sower seems to suggest it. The land surrounding the Sea of Galilee where Jesus ministered is still a fruitful land where crops grow in abundance, as they did in his time. It’s a blessed place. In a place like that, the sower scatters his seed confidently, not afraid where it goes: on rocky ground, or amid thorns, or on the soil that gives a good return. Because of his love and trust of the land, the sower keeps sowing.
Can we say that God the Sower sows blessed seed, no matter how badly our human world appears, or how badly it receives? Like the seasons that bring snow and rain, grace is never withheld. God, who loves it so, blesses the earth and all of us.
The sower still sows; the snow and rain still fall. That brings us hope.