By Sr. Constance Joanna, SSJD.
Isaiah 40.21-31 Ps 147.1-12, 21c 1 Cor. 9.16-23 Mark 1.29-39
The narrative of the healing of Peter’s mother-in law is a story that encompasses the whole of Jesus’ ministry in miniature. It’s homey in its intimacy and realism, and cosmic in its implications. To fully understand the implications of this little pericope, it’s helpful to put it in context – looking back to the rapturous poetry of Isaiah and the Psalms which Jesus would have known so well, then seeing the passage in the context of the beginning of Mark’s gospel in the present time of the narrative.
In both the Isaiah and Psalm passages this morning, we have a glorious almost ecstatic joy in the writers’ experience of God:
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.
God does not faint or grow weary;
The Lord’s understanding is unsearchable.
It gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.
And from Psalm 147:
Hallelujah! How good it is to sing praises to our God! *
how pleasant it is to honor God with praise!
The Lord rebuilds Jerusalem; and gathers the exiles of Israel,
heals the broken hearted and binds up their wounds.
The Lord counts the number of the stars and calls them all by their names… Sing to the Lord with thanksgiving; make music to our God upon the harp.
Both Isaiah and the Psalmist can hardly contain themselves for their joy in proclaiming how wonderful their God is.
Jesus’ earliest memories of worship would have included passages like and so many more. And while Paul did not grow up a Jew and would not have internalized this joyful proclamation of the Word of God, he had met Jesus the Word, and so he could say in his letter to the Corinthians,
If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel!
It’s like Peter and John in the Book of Acts when they stood before the magistrates and said:
“Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than God. For we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.”
When someone has met God face to face, when someone has seen Jesus is action, then it is impossible not to share the experience with others, out of generosity, wanting wanting them to know also how amazing God is. And it’s not necessary to be a missionary like Paul or apostles like John and Peter. It’s just that the story, the experience is so amazing you just have to share it with others. For most of us, most of the time, the story is old and familiar, and we cease to be amazed – sometimes we even stop noticing where the Holy Spirit is acting in our lives because we take it all for granted – our spiritual directors are important guides in helping our faith stay fresh in that way. Reading the psalms and prophets and gospel and letters of the Bible and worshipping together also keeps us fresh and open to new movements of the Spirit. Our prayer times do that as well.
It’s also important to notice that in the simple dailiness of life, we share God’s love and the good news of Jesus in so many small but important ways that are just as important as the big evangelical movements – more so I would say. We love because God first loved us, as John says in the first letter. And so we just naturally want to share that love. Right now caring for each other during the COVID crisis, being patient, staying in touch with our Associates and Oblates and Volunteers, our friends and family, phoning and sending notes to others we know who are lonely or ill. This kind of simple sharing of God’s love is in fact what launches Jesus on his public ministry and I’ll come back to that shortly.
But first let’s put this story of Peter’s mother-in-law in the context of what’s been happening so far in this first chapter of Mark’s gospel – the earliest of all the gospels. Mark is very concise and direct, and his gospel moves along very quickly. He begins when Jesus is an adult and his vocation is about to be launched. His cousin John is preaching about repentance and baptism, and John makes it clear that he is only a forerunner – someone to prepare the way for Jesus. Like opener artists at a rock concert, John prepares the way for the headliner – sort of like back in the 50s when artists I loved like Buddy Holly and Frankie Lyman set the stage for Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis. John prepares the audience, so to speak, for the message of Jesus by encouraging them to repent and purify themselves. Jesus is serious business, and John wants people to know that. So Jesus himself joins the movement by submitting himself to John’s baptism and at once (one of Mark’s favourite sayings) he becomes the leader of the movment. God has identified him as “my beloved child.”
So that’s an important piece of the context in which Jesus’ ministry develops. Then there is Jesus’ retreat time in the desert, and his announcement in Galilee that is so much like John’s: “The appointed time has come, the reign of God is here, repent and believe the good news.” That in turn sets the stage for everything else that follows – Jesus calls the first four disciples, then goes into the synagogue in Capernaum and people are astonished both at how he taught and how he healed the man in the synagogue with an unclean spirit.
And so we arrive at today’s reading. Here Jesus is, leaving the synagogue with his first four apostles and going to Peter’s home for the Sabbath noon meal. He discovers that his mother-in-law is ill, and Jesus simply takes her by the hand and lifts her up. He doesn’t say anything, he doesn’t preach, he doesn’t make any proclamation. And then just to be sure that we understand she is really healed, Mark says “she began to serve them.” That would have been her role in the context of Jewish sabbath observance at the time. And that’s the whole story. Jesus takes her by the hand and lifts her up, and as the matriarch of the family she gets on with serving and presiding at the sabbath meal. So simple, so quiet, so intimate a family-only event.
But somehow the word gets out, the crowds gather, and Jesus heals lots of people that evening. The next morning he goes out to have some quiet time with God, and people are looking for him. But he doesn’t stay there. He says:
“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.” And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.
He could have stayed in Capernaum and become a hero, a rock star. But instead, he simply obeyed God and got on the road, for that is what he was sent to do.
And the rest of his earthly life will be like that. He will be tempted over and over again to take on authority and leadership, to be a famous healer, to be popular – but he resists all those manifestations that he had seen previewed in his desert temptations. He just stays the course, runs the race, goes to the cross, and rises again.
And that’s all we need to do. To proclaim the good news, we don’t need to be ecstatic poets like Isaiah or the Psalmist, we don’t need to work miracles of healing and casting out demons, we don’t need to be great preachers. We just need to proclaim the gospel because we must, because we know what God has done for us and we want to share that with others in the dailiness of the daily round of opportunities we have to care for one another.