Fifth Sunday after Epiphany (Year B)

This passage is loaded with wonderful possibilities for the preacher.

February 5, 2012

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Commentary on Mark 1:29-39

This passage is loaded with wonderful possibilities for the preacher.

As Jesus begins his ministry in Galilee he has called disciples. In the Capernaum synagogue he healed a man with an unclean spirit by “rebuking” the spirit and calling it out of him. The amazed local folks talk about this new teacher and exorcist everywhere. Meanwhile, after the healing in the synagogue, Jesus returns to Simon Peter’s house. There lies Simon Peter’s mother-in-law in the grip of a fever. This is no small matter in the ancient world. A fever was not only debilitating for a short while, but was often a symptom of a condition that would lead to death. We know nothing from Mark about this fever — its intensity, its duration, or its cause — but we do know a valued family member was unable to be up and about her work. Her calling had been taken from her by an illness. 

Jesus simply “raises her up.” In Mark’s direct and uncomplicated style he says, “…and the fever left her and she served them.” The verbs are interesting. Simon Peter’s mother-in-law is raised up by Jesus, a word that takes on powerful meaning in Mark’s gospel and in subsequent Christian communities. In 16:6 the word is applied to Jesus himself. Mark uses egeiro in many healings (see, for example, 9:27). The word suggests that new strength is imparted to those laid low by illness, unclean spirits, or even death, so that they may again rise up to take their place in the world. That’s where the second interesting verb comes into play.

Simon Peter’s mother-in-law “served” immediately after having been raised. The verb is diakoneo, the same verb Jesus uses to describe the essence of his own ministry in Mark 10:45. It is “to serve” rather than “to be served” that characterizes the Christ of God. It is also “to serve” that characterizes his disciples. Simon Peter’s mother-in-law is far from being an exemplar of a pathetic, un-liberated woman for whom serving men is her whole life. Rather she is the first character in Mark’s gospel who exemplifies true discipleship. (Side bar: it will be women who are described as having served Jesus in 15:41 as well. This is not a verb used of Jesus’ male disciples who famously do not quite “get it” within the gospel itself.) 

Needless to say, the second healing really got around among the people. All kinds of folks were brought to Jesus for help. Capernaum’s sick were laid before his door and he healed illnesses and cast out demons by the score. Please notice that these two activities were not identical. The ancients did not believe that all illnesses were demonically caused. They knew as well as we do that people get sick for all manner of reasons.

But please notice in addition, that illness bore a heavy social cost: not only would a person be unable to earn a living or contribute to the well-being of a household, but their ability to take their proper role in the community, to be honored as a valuable member of a household, town, or village, would be taken from them. Peter’s mother-in-law is an excellent case in point. It was her calling and her honor to show hospitality to guests in her home. Cut off from that role by an illness cut her off from doing that which integrated her into her world. Who was she when no longer able to engage in her calling? Jesus restored her to her social world and brought her back to a life of value by freeing her from that fever. It is very important to see that healing is about restoration to community and restoration of a calling, a role as well as restoration to life. For life without community and calling is bleak indeed. 

Jesus’ ministry involves restoration of those cut off from community to a full role in the community. Those who have been seriously ill in our own time will understand the joy of simply being back as a participant in the “ordinary” processes of community life. Truly, there is nothing ordinary about life in community. Jesus wields the power of God Almighty to bring about participation: it is God’s will for creation to be serving in community with others.

This discussion leads naturally to the end of the passage where suddenly Jesus seems to reject his call to heal and insists that he must proclaim throughout the villages and towns of Galilee the message he came to deliver. That proclamation, or announcement, continues to be in both word and deed as Jesus goes forward. In 1:15 we heard that message from Jesus: “the reign of God has come near. Repent and trust the good news.” We have seen in the story of the man possessed and of Peter’s mother-in-law how good that good news was: part of God’s reign is the casting out of demons and the turning aside of illnesses; it has to do with restoration of those oppressed to a full role in their communities; it has to do with creating a people raised up to serve each other. And people do come in numbers, trusting that Jesus will heal and restore.

Yet his calling at this point in Mark’s gospel is to share the in-breaking of God’s kingdom through healing and announcement. Jesus is the herald with the power to bring in a foretaste of the kingdom, even as he promises that it is continuing to “draw near.” As he goes throughout the Galilee he does not rely simply on words to make his point, but on the casting out of demons.

How vital it is to know that the coming of God’s kingdom is indeed good news? One could imagine God’s reign coming as a reign of terror. Humans have plenty of experience with powerful kings doing terrible things to those over whom they reign. Will God be like that? Will it be punishment and brutality for those who don’t get on board? No. Jesus shows over and over again, that God’s power serves the people. From the very beginning of his ministry Jesus casts out those spirits opposed to God’s people, those things which lay them low, as part of his heralding the kingdom. God comes to restore, to save and God’s power is sufficient to do it.