After they left the synagogue, they went directly to the house of Simon and Andrew, along with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was lying in bed, sick with a fever, so they promptly told Jesus about her. He went up to her, took her by the hand, and helped her up. The fever left her, and she began serving them. When evening came, after the sun had set, people started bringing to him all those who were sick or possessed by demons. In fact, the whole city gathered at the door. He healed many who were sick with various diseases and drove out many demons. However, he wouldn’t allow the demons to speak because they knew who he was. In the morning, while it was still very dark, Jesus got up and went to a deserted place and prayed there. Simon and his companions searched diligently for him. When they found him, they told him, “Everyone’s looking for you.” He said to them, “Let’s go to the neighboring towns so that I can preach there, too. For that is why I came out here.” So he went throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons.
Looking through the Gospel text this week I was reminded of the story of the priest who gets pulled over by a policeman after running a red light, and when the window is wound down, the officer is immediately confronted with the smell of alcohol emanating from the car! “Have you been drinking, Father?” the policeman asks. “Not a drop”, the priest replies. “Well … would you mind telling me what you’ve got in that flask”, the policeman asks. “Ah … that would be water”, says the priest. The policeman picks up the flask, opens it and sniffs it. “I believe this is whiskey, Father”, says the policeman. “My goodness” says the priest, “Another miracle!” And as I read through the Gospel reading today I find myself making the same response: ‘Another miracle!’
We’re actually only in the first chapter of the Gospel according to St Mark, and yet already we have been confronted with a whole series of miracles! No sooner had Jesus entered the synagogue to teach than he was confronted by a wild, crazy man, screaming out at him, and Jesus healed the man. And within a day of that event, or so it seems, everybody who is sick or possessed is crowding around Jesus, and Jesus is healing them of their illnesses and driving out demons, and the activity becomes all-consuming, though the irony is that Jesus seems to be engaging in the whole process a little reluctantly! We sense a degree of frustration, I think, with Jesus early on, as He tries to quieten the testimonies of the possessed – “You are the Holy One of God!” – lest the whole thing get out of hand. And yet it does get out of hand, and Jesus seems frustrated by the hordes that press on him. It appears that He wants people to listen to what He has to say, and not just to get carried away with His miracles or His mysterious identity. This is made quite explicit at the end of our reading today, where we see Jesus, having escaped from the crowds that were pursuing him to a ‘lonely place’ (vs.35), telling His disciples that it’s time to move on. “Let’s go to the neighbouring towns so that I can preach there, too. For that is why I came out here.” (vs.38) And it seems that Jesus, after having taken some time to think things through, realises that His priority has to be spreading His word of hope about the new world coming.
The great well of human need that He sees round about him is, it seems, a distraction that threatens to divert Him from His real work. Surely there were any number of others who could take up the task of healing the sick. Jesus must focus on spreading the word, “for that is why I came out”! As I say, there is a fair degree of irony in this because despite Jesus’ words, He never actually acts in accordance with His own pronouncement! Perhaps indeed the ordinary needs of ordinary human beings are a distraction from the greater work of spreading the Gospel, but if so, Jesus seemed to consistently allow Himself to be distracted! So many people come to him, we are told, that there isn’t room at the door, and yet we don’t see Jesus standing up and saying, “Look! I want everybody to put their physical issues on hold for a moment. I have some things I’d like to say.” No! There is a well of human misery surrounding Jesus as He begins His ministry, and Jesus wades right into it! Jesus does not detach Himself. He allows Himself to be distracted. He reaches out. He heals. He liberates both the infirmed and the possessed, and He does so knowing full well that this is detracting from the work that He was sent to do, but He does it anyway! Yes, at the end of the day he creates some distance for Himself and He decides that it’s time to focus on preaching, and yet the immediate follow-on from this pronouncement is that a person afflicted with leprosy finds Jesus and asks for help.
And Jesus doesn’t say, “Not now, buddy! I’ve got other things I need to be doing. At least wait until the end of the sermon!” On the contrary, St Mark records that Jesus was ‘moved with compassion’ for the man (vs.41), and so He healed him. And so the pattern of preaching AND healing (where there always seems to be a lot more healing than preaching) continues! Now that story of the man with leprosy is in next week’s reading, I think, and I don’t want to snatch the thunder from next week’s sermon, so perhaps I should focus on the main healing that is dealt with in this week’s story – namely, the healing of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law – a healing that I must say has to be one of the least spectacular healing stories ever recorded in any of the four Gospels! It is preceded by the healing of the crazy demoniac and proceeded by the story of the man with leprosy, and it seems like a rather innocuous example to focus on relative to those two! We are told that Simon Peter’s mother-in-law had a fever, but there is no suggestion there that it was life-threatening. It may have been, of course, or she may have just had a slight touch of the flu! It does make you wonder why the Gospel writer chose to include this particular incident when it does seem to detract from the action-packed nature of the adventure that’s unfolding. Was it just that the Gospel writer and his first readers all knew Peter’s mother-in-law personally? If so, it’s a bit of a surprise that she doesn’t receive a name in the story! Some scholars suggest that there is a movement in the story of the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law that is archetypal for the process of discipleship.
As you read the narrative, you do feel that movement:
• Jesus goes to her
• He takes her by the hand
• He lifts her up
• She is healed!
And it’s almost like a dance that Jesus and the woman are sharing in together, where Jesus leads the dance but where, you will notice, the woman makes the final move, for we are told that no sooner has she been healed than she begins to ‘serve’ Jesus – literally, to ‘wait on Him’ but the implication being that she has now become a disciple, and so the dance of love and healing and service will continue! I’m sure this story has deliberately been framed to encapsulate this movement, as a sort of template for discipleship. Even so, there’s no reason the Gospel writer could not have overlaid that template on any number of other more spectacular healing stories too My guess is that Mark deliberately included this story of the healing of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, in all its ordinariness, simply because it is so ordinary, and hence so familiar! We see healings like this all the time, don’t we? We are often involved in healings like this, are we not? It may be that you, like me, have seen a handful of spectacular healings and/or exorcisms in your time, but for the most part it is these little miracles that we are familiar with, and perhaps part of the point of this passage is that little miracles are still miracles, and the fact that they are small and familiar does not mean that they are unimportant! I think of all the little miracles I’ve been privileged to be the beneficiary of over the years – not normally directly from the hand of Jesus, but more often through the healing touch of one of Jesus’ people.
I think back to the time when I was struggling with depression, trying to survive my own family breakdown many years ago. And I remember all the little acts of healing that took place back then – the little miracle of a friend who would sit up with me and share a beer with me and let me talk until I was able to go to sleep. We’ve been remembering the lives of dear old Margaret and Thelma today, and I remember well the small miracles that they would dispense – nothing spectacular, but a gentle word, a loving embrace – coming to me, taking me by the hand, lifting me up and giving me healing and strength. Life’s little miracles! “Let’s go to the neighbouring towns so that I can preach there, too. For that is why I came out here.” (vs.38) As I say, there is a subtle irony in this pronouncement, in part because Jesus seems to be incapable of following His own advice! If Jesus really was psyching up the team for a more focused ministry where words came first and acts of healing second, it was a program He never carried through with. His compassion got the better of Him. And yet there is another irony here too, and it’s found in the text of the Gospel itself! Jesus’ priority, we are told, is preaching and teaching, and yet if you read through this extensive first chapter of the Gospel according to St Mark, there’s not a single word of Jesus’ teaching recorded! It actually not until we get to the latter part of Mark chapter 2 that we get any of the actual teachings of Jesus recorded!
I’m not suggesting that this makes the teachings of Jesus any less important – not at all – but I am suggesting that (at least so far as the Gospel-writer Mark was concerned) these were not the things Jesus was best remembered for! And this is true to life! As we are remembering today the lives of dear Thelma and Margaret, I must say that I remember them very well, but it’s not their wise words I remember, though I’m sure Thelma (in particular) had plenty for me. It was her compassionate touch, her loving looks, the affectionate kiss, the healing embrace … St Francis of Assisi is said to have said, “Preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary use words”. I don’t know if he really said it, but it makes sense.
Of course we don’t do anybody any favours by holding back the words of the Gospel, for indeed these words can be the source of life and hope. And yet words by themselves can be very hollow. When we die it will most likely not be our words that we are best remembered for. Most likely it will be the little miracles that we were a part of. And it may seem sometimes that our contribution is not that great (‘ah … another miracle’) and yet every miracle – great and small – is a part of that great dance that Christ is leading us in. For Jesus is more than just a teacher, just as His teaching is more than mere words. He is “the visible image of our invisible God”, says St Paul (Colossians 1:15). Or in the words of Charles Wesley: Jesus, Thou art all compassion. Pure, unbounded love Thou art. Visit us with Thy salvation. Enter every trembling hear!
'Fighting Father' Dave - Parish Priest, Community Worker, Professional boxer, Martial Arts master, Father of three. Dave's goal is to offer an alternative culture for young people, based on values of courage, integrity, self-discipline and teamwork. He is available to help work your corner as you fight the good fight. Visit http://www.fatherdave.org for more information.