Friday, February 3, 2012

This is the third installment, comprising Act 1. Scenes 3 and 4, in the online commentary on the Gospel of Mark, which I will blog on throughout the liturgical year. Please see the first installment here and the second installment here.

Scene 3
29 As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30 Now Simon's mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. 31 He 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 sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33 And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34 And 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. (NRSV)

Scene 4
35 In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. 36 And Simon and his companions hunted for him. 37 When they found him, they said to him, "Everyone is searching for you." 38 He 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." 39 And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons. (NRSV)

Scene 3:
Mark has offered no information on Jesus or his disciples of a personal nature, other than that two pairs of brothers have left their work and their families to follow Jesus. Motivations, intentions have not been discussed, other than that Jesus has proclaimed the coming Kingdom of God and his role in it. His disciples have watched his activities as he has made his “authority” manifest.

Now, Mark places Jesus and his disciples in a domestic scene, though again no information is given directly; what Mark does not say or describe is almost as important as what he does say and describe. We did not know that Peter and Andrew lived in Capernaum, any more than we suspected that Peter was married, but Mark tells us this by having them all leave the Synagogue and walk directly to the family home, thus introducing Peter’s mother-in-law.  Where is Peter’s wife? Where are Peter’s children?  Does he have children? Mark leaves us wondering, but they must be present, somewhere, even if in the background.

Instead of giving us personal information directly, the presentation of this domestic scene is more of an opportunity for Jesus to heal again, which he does once the illness of Peter’s mother-in-law is brought to his attention. He takes her by the hand and she is cured – it is that simple. Mark demonstrates Jesus’ authority and power through action, not word, not explanation:  Jesus “took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them” (1:31). The final detail might seem odd, why describe that “she began to serve them,” when other, more significant facts are left unsaid? It is the act of her practicing hospitality for her family and guests, however, which indicates that she has been returned to wholeness. Nothing more need be said, a basket of bread brought to them, a cup of wine or water, indicates that Jesus has made her well.

The implications of Jesus’ behavior – healing, teaching, exorcism – are felt that evening at Peter and Andrew’s home. Mark had already alerted us to this reality at the end of Act 1. Scene 2 when he noted that “his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee” (1:28). That night, “at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door” (1:32-33). This might be seen as hyperbole, but Capernaum was not a large city by any means, perhaps 1,000-1,500 people, and given the ravages of illness in the ancient world, and poor medical care, the notice that a healer was in town, backed by witnesses from the Synagogue, most certainly would have brought the entire town to see Jesus, out of belief in Jesus for some and curiosity for others. For long–term or virulent illnesses, the ancient world offered little hope of a cure. What would capture the attention of the city more than this?

The Gospel of Mark sums up Jesus’ many activities that night with one verse, but they amount to more of what we have already seen, the curing of illnesses and the casting out of demons (daimonia; the equivalent to unclean spirits in vv. 1:23, 26). Unlike the “unclean spirit” in Act 1. Scene 2, though, Mark tells us that Jesus would not allow the demons to speak – Jesus’ authority, recall, extends even to them – but Mark tells us this is because  the demons “knew him” (1:35). In v.24, the unclean spirit said “I know who you are, the Holy One of God” and he was not wrong in his identification of Jesus, but it is precisely this accurate knowledge that Jesus does not want spoken. We need to ask why, even if we cannot answer the question yet. Does Jesus not want demons to speak about him, to have the enemy identify him? Or does he want to keep something secret? Given that his acts of healing and exorcism have led his fame to spread, have brought the whole city to his door, what would he want to remain secret?

As Act 1. Scene 3 ends, one feels the weariness not only of all of the activities in which Jesus has been engaged, but of the pressure that he must feel surrounded by crowds of people. But does he, the man who heals people, feel these things?  

Scene 4:
Indeed, whether it is the pressure or the weariness or the need to be alone, Act 1. Scene 4 begins as Jesus leaves the house early in the morning (“while it was still very dark”) to go to “a deserted place”  (eremos),  which could also be called “desert,” or “wilderness,” as it is in the Prologue (v. 13) during Jesus’ Temptation. Jesus went to the wilderness to pray alone, seeming to sneak away from everyone, including his disciples, and so Mark takes us from the chaos of the crowds and the people to follow Jesus in this solitary action, to watch Jesus in what might be seen as a time of spiritual rejuvenation.

Mark’s dramatic force, even in this short scene, is on display. Jesus prays, indeed, but his disciples (Simon and “those with him” is the literal Greek) are already tracking him down; Mark gives us the sense that Jesus has a few minutes at most in prayer, whatever time he could snatch away from the demands on his time. Yet, we soon learn that though Jesus needs this time alone, he is not perturbed when the disciples find him and tell him that “everyone is searching for you” (1:37). In fact, Mark has Jesus at least figuratively stand up, ready to go.

Jesus wants to go to the “neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do” (1:38).  The last phrase is powerful, and in the Greek there is no verb “to do,” so Jesus’ purpose is expressed more directly with respect to his proclamation as “I came for this.”  Direct, to the point, almost taciturn, one sees Jesus ready for duty. Mark gives us Jesus’ purpose: to take the message to people. His time alone is important, but it is the task of proclamation for which he came. Mark then has Jesus continue, along with his disciples we are sure, his mission – exorcisms, teaching -all throughout the region of Galilee.  Jesus’ tasks and mission and purpose have been established. He will complete his mission. That is why he came. Yet, the tension lingers in the background. Where is the enemy? Where is the conflict with his authority? How will he complete the mission for which he came?

John W. Martens

Follow me on Twitter @johnwmartens


  1. The word "serve", Peter's mother in law's response to her healing, is diakonos, from which we get our "deacon". The KJV translates it as "ministry".

    It appears that the form of service she engaged in was some form of ministry in the Church (Peter's "house").

    God Bless

  2. Thanks for the comment Chris. I think, though, you might be conflating the later, technical Christian use of the word "diakonos" with its general and common use. The form used in 1:31 is the verb, "diakoneo", and I still think it is best understood as descriptive of her actions: she served, or waited on her guests. That we might later understand this as her performing, or foreshadowing, the function of a Church office makes some sense, but in the original context, I think it is descriptive of her behavior, without intending to imply a formal office. I suspect one could argue, though, that the act of service is precisely the function of leaders in the Church, a point which Jesus will make in the Gospel on a number of occasions.