“Amulet Carved in Intaglio” Coptic, 6th-7th century. This amulet identifies the one being healed as the
Woman with the Issue of Blood from Mark 5:25-34. This amulet was carved from hematite, which was
believed to stop the flow of blood. Public Domain.
Gospel Lesson Mark 1:29-39 “Jesus Heals Many at Simon’s House & a Preaching Tour in Galilee”
29 As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. 31He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
32 That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34And 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.
35 In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. 36And Simon and his companions hunted for him. 37When they found him, they said to him, ‘Everyone is searching for you.’ 38He 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.’ 39And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.
“Necessary & Sufficient”
The beginnings of each of our four gospels are quite different. Matthew begins with a detailed genealogy that traces Jesus’ lineage back to the patriarch Abraham. Luke starts with angelic visitors announcing the impending births of John and Jesus. John’s gospel begins in the heavens with the origins of the cosmos and the incarnation of God’s divine logos.
We are in “Year B” of the three-year lectionary cycle, which means most of our gospel readings in 2021 will come from Mark. Mark’s gospel is my favorite version of Jesus’ story, and I love how it hits the ground running.
In chapter one, John the Baptizer has been introduced, Jesus has been baptized and tempted in the wilderness, John has been arrested, Jesus has begun his preaching tour in Galilee, has called his first disciples, and healed the troubled. It takes Matthew and Luke four chapters to get to this part of the story.
Like last week’s gospel lesson, we read about a topic that rings awkwardly in our ears: demon possession and Jesus’ work to cast out demons. In the prescientific age of our gospels, physical and mental maladies were also considered spiritual maladies. Demon possession could be ascribed to folks suffering from any ailment whose origins couldn’t be discerned. People in the gospels and other literature at the time receive the label “demon-possessed” when today they might be diagnosed with anything from schizophrenia to the common cold. What we can gather from these gospel stories about Jesus casting out demons is that he was a general practitioner of sorts when it came to his healing ministry. People came to him with a wide range of illnesses and issues, and Jesus treated them all.
In today’s lesson, it is the Sabbath, and Jesus and his early followers have just left the local house of worship and planned to have a nice Saturday lunch together at Simon Peter’s home nearby. But when they arrive, they find Simon’s mother-in-law sick with a fever. The original Greek here suggests that the illness was significant.
We don’t get a lot of information about this woman. She is likely a widow, the reason for being in her son-in-law’s household. We might remember too that fevers and the infections that bring on fevers in the pre-antibiotic world were potentially severe, life-threatening events. A fever could readily cause death and could also spread to others in the household.
On a side note, it’s interesting to think about how this passage has been read throughout the centuries. This passage meant something very different to anyone that heard it before the 1920s. It’s only within the last 100 years or so, since the invention of penicillin, that readers would have read about this woman’s illness and thought it wasn’t a big deal.
In our story, Jesus gives his hand to Peter’s mother-in-law, and the fever left her, language used by Mark to also describe the casting out of demons. The illness resolves so quickly that she begins serving her company.
We might sneer at this story a little because it seems that Jesus heals the woman only so she can perform one of the duties assigned to the women of her day; to serve men supper. And our sneering is reasonable. This passage has a hard time escaping the patriarchy of its time and culture, even to the point of forgetting to give this woman a name.
It is interesting of note, however, that Mark has a particular use of the Greek verb diakone,w, a word transliterated as “deacon” in English and used in an elevated and official way in the church of folks that take care of physical and spiritual well-being of a faith community. Mark's author is very careful with this word and only uses it when referring to what Jesus, angels, and the women around Jesus do. The author seems to treat the act of serving others as something virtuous and heavenly, something that Jesus, the women around him, and angels fully understand and do, and something his male disciples fail to grasp until after his death. Here, the word is used for Peter’s mother as she serves Jesus and his companions, marking her as a model for the official church office.
The Sabbath ended Saturday at sundown, and the story transitions to Jesus curing the town’s sick and troubled people well into the night.
Early the next morning, Jesus wanders off to a quiet place to pray. This happens a lot in the gospel of Mark. Jesus disappears for a while until his disciples track him down.
Jesus then reiterates his purpose to proclaim the message broadly and heal folks in other towns.
This is the brief introduction to the work of Jesus in Mark's gospel. In the first chapter of Mark, he is a traveling physician, a man of faith, a religious scholar of sorts, but mainly a person that heals failing bodies and brings back the troubled, so they are no longer living on the margins. There’s something holistic to his work that defies easy labels like wandering sage, itinerate preacher, country doctor, or revolutionary leader. When it seems that his ministry is being defined only by these characteristics, like the “country doctor” label here, he heads off to a quiet place, finds his purpose and center through prayer, and restates it to his disciples.
It’s valuable for us to reflect on how Jesus holds the physical, spiritual, and social aspects of his divine vocation in tension and how he intentionally takes time to balance his work. Like Jesus, the church has been called to holistic work, which involves ministering to the physical, spiritual, and social needs of individuals and communities. Without reflection, prayer, and discernment, we might begin to focus on only some aspects of the church’s holistic vocation.
What is the church to you? How do you think of the church as a larger concept, like when we say, “the church?” Further, what is the purpose of our local church? Christian ethicist Erin Dufault-Hunter says that we can fall into a fallacy when we focus only on some aspects of what the church can be. She writes that “Some [want us to focus only on meeting] physical needs such as food and shelter, others on spiritual ones such as prayer or counseling, still others on teaching or preaching.” These areas of focus are noble and necessary but not sufficient for what the church is called to do and be.
Our spiritual lives provide faith, hope, and a reason to love. Faith, hope, and love are our greatest motivators, but they can also be fragile. The church works to nourish those parts of our lives and heal us when our faith, hope, or love is broken.
But that’s not all we do. James’s letter in our Epistles pushes back on the work of the church only being about spiritual matters:
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. (James 2:14-17).
Our lives of service are expressions of our faith and hope and a sign of God’s love for all creation. Like Jesus, our work is about healing broken and unattended bodies. That’s why churches worldwide and throughout time have worked to feed the hungry, heal the sick, and house the homeless.
But the work isn’t done. We need community, and we all need a just and loving society. In other words, we cannot sufficiently live out our faith with our prayers and donations. We must also work to make healthy communities possible. As an old pastor mentor once put it, if we are working tirelessly to pull people out of the raging river of life, perhaps we should walk upstream, see what’s causing so many people to fall in, and fix that broken bridge or crumbling bank. Our commitment to community and social justice allows us to imagine a world closer to God, where all life has dignity, and all places in creation are sacred. This is done by working directly in our communities to address systemic poverty, environmental degradation, institutional racism, and other injustices that distort God’s desire for this world.
As we will find in 2021, Mark’s gospel is a little hard on Jesus’ male followers. Mostly they don’t get what Jesus is trying to do. Often, like in today’s passage, they want to limit Jesus to necessary work, to that of a country doctor, or a revolutionary, or a holy man. They fail to see over and over again the holistic approach Jesus takes to make lasting change. In this way, they serve us well whenever we compartmentalize our faith or think too narrowly about the work of the church. They point to something very human in all of us as we encounter Christ. And we read on as they learn too, little by little.
May our faith and our actions be both necessary and sufficient this week. May we draw closer to God, serve our neighbors, and find ways to be in a healthy community, even during this pandemic. For the sake of all creation and the sake of God. Amen.
The Quote from Erin Dufault-Hunter, is found in Connections A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship. Edited by Joel B. Green, Joel D. et al. Westminster John Knox Press; Louisville, p. 243).