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.
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)
Jesus’ fame as a healer spread far and wide in Palestine, attracting not only lepers but foreigners like the Roman centurion. Jews did not associate with either group; one was “unclean,” the other was “Gentile.” Both were sources of defilement.
Jesus tore down walls of division by his compassion towards all people regardless of race, gender, physical and psychological condition, or social status. He must have felt an affinity for the centurion who showed such an unusual compassion for his servant, for under Roman law slaves were classified with tools and chattel. An infirm slave was considered disposable. As the noble centurion reached across social boundaries to help his fellow man, Jesus transcended racial boundaries and offered to go to his Gentile home—a transgression of Jewish law— and heal his servant.
The centurion said in reply, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof; only say the word and my servant will be healed. For I too am a man subject to authority, with soldiers subject to me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come here,’ and he comes; and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”
The centurion’s declaration of faith astounded Jesus. The Roman did not know Christ as the Son of God, but ascribed divine power and authority to him, intuiting by his spirit that Jesus could heal at a distance.
When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, “Amen, I say to you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith. I say to you, many will come from the east and the west, and will recline with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at the banquet in the Kingdom of heaven, but the children of the Kingdom will be driven out into the outer darkness, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.” And Jesus said to the centurion, “You may go; as you have believed, let it be done for you.” And at that very hour his servant was healed.
The racially exclusive court of heaven suddenly widened to include Gentiles in Jesus’ vision of the eternal Kingdom. The presumed heirs may find themselves disinherited, Jesus warned. Heaven is not a national birthright, but the universal communion of the faithful.
After the leper and the centurion, Jesus returned to Peter’s house where he was staying and healed a third person of marginalized status in Israel—a woman. Peter’s mother-in-law immediately began to serve him as soon as she was healed of her fever.
Jesus’ love knew no bounds as he healed every disease and infirmity. God had truly come in the flesh to reveal the secret of heaven: “Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or else believe me for the sake of the works themselves” (John 14:11).
As wonderful as miracles are, Jesus wanted above all to lead his people to faith in his Father: “Unless you people see signs and wonders you will not believe,” Jesus admonished (John 4:48). He stood immovably silent in the presence of the sensation-seeking Herod (Luke 23:8-9).
The healing of body, soul and spirit in this world is a sign of the world to come when all divisions in the Body of Christ will be healed and brought to union and communion in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit—the miracle of miracles.
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.
The gospels tell the good news of Jesus Christ– what he did and said. They don’t tell it all.
We’d like to know more about him, of course, but how about some others the gospels mention in passing?
Like Peter’s mother-in-law, for example, whom Mark’s gospel recalls. After leaving the synagogue at Capernaum where he expelled an unclean spirit from a man, Jesus entered the house of Peter and Andrew where Peter’s mother-in-law has a fever. Not quite as bad as being possessed by an unclean spirit, we may think, but most of us know a bout with the flu can take a lot out of you too.
Jesus took her by the hand and helped her up. The fever left her and she waited on them.
That final phrase “and she waited on them” – says a lot.
She was one of those who cooked their meals, washed and mended their clothes, fussed over them when they came home, wanted to know what happened that day, tried to protect them when too many people were knocking on the door to see them. Cook, Cleaner, Advisor, Gatekeeper, Supporter, and much more.
We all know what it means when someone like her waits on us.
Peter’s mother-in-law not only received the blessing of Jesus but kept it alive in what she did. She welcomed Jesus in the way she alone could. Without what she did, do you think he and his disciples could have carried on?
The church exists on many levels. Paul used the analogy of a body. We tend to think it’s just a few that bring the gospel to the world, but it’s never been the work of a few. Many, like Peter’s mother-in-law, have a part in it too.
The church is not made up of “Lone Rangers.” The final chapter of Paul’s Letter to the Romans has a litany of people in the Roman church whom the apostle greets as friends and co-workers. Most of them we know nothing about. Some of them, like Peter’s mother-in-law, probably “waited on him.”