By Ched Myers, Fifth Sunday in Epiphany (Mk 1:29-39)
Note: This is an ongoing occasional series of Ched’s brief comments on the Markan gospel readings from the Revised Common Lectionary during year B.
In Mark 1:28, Jesus retreats to a home from his confrontation with the “Powers” occupying the synagogue, having created space for change. In Mark’s story, the home seems to be a safe site (5:38; 7:17, 24; 9:33; 10:10; 14:3), in contrast to the synagogue and Temple as places of conflict. Such “politics of space” no doubt reflected the experience of the earliest church—or of any social renewal movement’s relationship with established institutions of control. In this case, we should note that Jesus avails the hospitality of a peasant fisherman, setting the pattern that will continue throughout this story: Jesus abides with the marginalized.
The site of what is believed to be Peter’s hut in Capernaum is today a major archeological attraction in Israel (above; read more here). Elaine and I visited the park in 2011, after speaking at a Sabeel conference in Palestine (a group we strongly commend as offering the best window into current realities of Occupation in the Holy Land). Mere meters from the shore of the Sea of Galilee, we were deeply moved to stand near this humble space where our movement began two millennia ago. Afterward I walked into the water, and Elaine “re-baptized” me in a simple but profound ritual of recommitment, 40 years after I’d begun my journey of discipleship. So this episode in Mark has taken on renewed meaning for me.
I asserted in last week’s post that “there is no case of healing and exorcism in Mark that does not also raise a larger question of social oppression.” The brief story of Peter’s mother-in-law (1:30f) offers the best test of that hypothesis, as it appears to be “just a healing” without social or symbolic meaning. Yet even this seemingly “minor” healing has deeper significance. For one thing, Jesus heals in the privacy of this home, and only commences his public ministry (i.e. and the “threshold of the door”), after sunset, that is, once the Sabbath is over (1:32f). This implies that there might be something controversial about openly healing on the Sabbath (as in the previous episode). This will indeed turn out to be the case: in the climactic episode of this first major Markan narrative cycle, Jesus returns to a synagogue on the Sabbath and heals a man – with dire consequences (3:1-6). It appears that here Jesus makes a strategic decision to heal this woman privately, choosing his battles carefully.
And Peter’s mother-in-law is the first woman to appear in Mark’s narrative. We are told that upon being touched by Jesus, “she served him” (1:31). Most commentators, steeped in patriarchal theology, assume that this means she must have gotten up to fix Jesus dinner. However the Greek verb “to serve” (diakoneo, from which we get our word deacon), appears only two other times in Mark. One is in 10:45: “The Human One came not to be served but to serve” – a context hardly suggesting meal-preparation! The other comes at the end of the story, where Mark describes women “who, when Jesus was in Galilee, followed him, and served him, and… came up to Jerusalem with him” (15:41). This is a summary statement of discipleship: from beginning (Galilee) to end (Jerusalem) these women were true followers who, unlike the men (see 10:32-45), practiced servant leadership. So here at the outset and again at the conclusion of Mark’s gospel, women are identified as the true disciples. In this “minor” healing, therefore, Mark is serving notice that patriarchal hierarchies of domination will be overturned!
In the wake of this healing comes the incessant press of suffering masses, another pattern that will mark this story (1:32-34). In Mark, Jesus’ special attention to the “crowd” (Gk ochlos)—appearing so often (some 38 times) as to represent almost a “setting” in the story—articulates his emphatic bias towards the disenfranchised. The omnipresence of poor folk is, moreover, an accurate reflection of the social reality of Mark’s time: economic and political circumstances in the decades prior to the Roman-Jewish war had dispossessed significant portions of the Palestinian population. Illness and disability were an inseparable part of the cycle of poverty for the poor, as they still are today. And Jesus embraces them at every turn.
What would it look like if Jesus were to come to our home, bringing the powerful but conflictual energy of a burgeoning social movement of healing and liberation? Would we welcome the funky folk he attracts and accompanies? Would we open our space to the chaos as well as the charisms? (I write on the eve of our Festival of Radical Discipleship here in Oak View, in which 160+ friends and colleagues will descend on our little community for a week!)
Yet Jesus needs space to contemplate too, so in 1:35 he withdraws back into the wilderness (see 6:31). This establishes a narrative rhythm of action and reflection. Still, as integral as prayer is to Jesus’ work, it is always at the service of the mission to liberate human life: “Let us go on to the surrounding villages that I may preach there also, for that is why I came” (1:38).