Mark 1:29-39, Jesus’ Liberating Début

[February 8, 2015] The Gospel text continues from last week; the whole section from 1:16 to 1:39, told as if it takes place in a twenty-four hour span, comprising Jesus’ public début. 1:14-15, as we pointed out before, acts as a subject-line or topic-sentence for what follows. The calling of the fishermen takes place in the early morning when they are bringing in their boats after working through the night. The newly recruited disciples “follow” Jesus into the town where Jesus attends the synagogue and expounds on the scripture readings (the sequential reading from the Torah followed by a reading from the Prophets). Next, right after the synagogue service ended, Jesus goes to Peter’s home (1:29-31); and in the evening the “whole town” comes to him. In the morning, before dawn, he “went off to a lonely place” to pray, where the search parties find him and he announces to them his next step. So this entire sequence of stories take place from one morning to the next, a day not by Jewish reckoning, which would have started at sundown, but by the popular gentile reckoning (though they counted their watches from midnight).

When Mark tells us that the fishermen “followed” Jesus and “went as far as Capernaum, and at once on the Sabbath he went into the synagogue,” I am construing this as happening on the same day. Literally this would mean that the fishermen were working on the Sabbath, but Mark gives no indication of this, and therefore we probably should not make it an issue, although it may be a social indicator that the fishermen were “sinners” who did not observe the Sabbath. Fishermen were poor. Either they were contracted by large landholders, or those with connections to Herod, for a certain amount of fish for which they were paid little and irregularly, or they leased their fishing rights from tax (i.e., toll) collectors for a percentage of the catch (as high as 40 percent). In the latter case, the remaining catch was traded to middlemen who took the majority of the profits and added to the cost of the fish sold in the market. Probably the partners Simon and Andrew, and James and John with their father, were engaged in this second type of fishing. (The tax collectors would have been the ones who hired the day laborers who worked with Zebedee.) Besides being poor, they worked at night, which would have socially ostracize them as men who did not keep proper homes, leaving their families undefended during the night. As outsiders of Capernaum’s “proper” society, the fishermen might have also ignored the requirements of the Jewish Halakha and, out of economic “necessity,” worked on the Sabbath. It might, then, be plausible that Jesus called the fishermen on the morning of the Sabbath.

In the synagogue people were suspicious of Jesus, first because he was not a local (he was from Nazareth), and second because he did not teach as the scribes did (who gave preference to the commentaries of others) but taught “with authority.” By the time the synagogue service was over, Jesus had established himself in the eyes of the people (he backed up his “new teaching” with supernatural credentials, with authority over demons), and he restored an individual to the community. Actually, this restored individual was a manifestation of an element of the synagogue society, an element that kept them resistant to Jesus’ message. By casting out the demon, Jesus restored the community of worshipers, making them whole, while at the same recovering his own status—which was being threatened—within the community.

Next we see the restoration of a household, the household of Simon and Andrew.

“At once on leaving the synagogue, he went with James and John straight to the house of Simon and Andrew. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed and feverish.” Here were poor people who were for that reason vulnerable to illness. Instead of attending to the mother of Simon’s wife, who was dangerously ill with a fever, Simon and his brother were fishing all night. They might have needed the money to pay for a healer. Fevers were dangerous until modern times and people often died from them.

Since the people were poor, they were often sick and died young (which is still true of the poor). Sickness also incapacitated people for work because it tended to instantaneously reduce them to destitution and complete dependence on the charity of others. The mother of Simon’s wife was probably a widow since she was living with her daughter’s husband. She had no other means of sustenance.

Sickness had social implications; indeed, society—as it does now—“defined” sickness: sickness and health are socially construed. Many of the taboos, the definitions of “cleanness” and “uncleanness” were related to health and sickness, and they ostracized people from society accordingly. The anonymous mother-in-law was a widow, first of all, and therefore—unable to sustain herself in society—was dependent on her daughter’s household, for which she reciprocated—and found herself “useful”—by serving the household. Now she was sick and she was unable to reciprocate. She was completely dependent on them. Moreover, while her daughter tended to her, the men of the household still had to work to provide for them all, and now, perhaps desperately, needed to pay for a healer.

The household was therefore compromised. Its little community needed help. Mark has not told us yet that Jesus was known as a healer. Perhaps he assumes that we are familiar with the gospels of Matthew and Luke (or at least the first; as I have explained elsewhere, the origin of this particular gospel—Mark’s—probably comes from Peter weaving a “digest” of Matthew and Luke as a way of validating the later “Pauline” gospel). In any case, “At once they told [Jesus] about her. He went in to her, took her by the hand and helped her up. And the fever left her and she began to serve them.” In other words, Jesus restored her to her role in the household and relieved the stress on the household caused by her illness, and thus restored the household itself.

Healing is not just a matter of treating the physical disease but of creating wholeness, not only of body but of body and soul (including how they see themselves), and not only of the individual but of their relations to others. Disease affects all of these. We have tended to look at healing in strictly bio-medical terms, but even today we recognize that that is not enough, that disease affects the whole person: it has a psychological component, it affects the home, and it affects society. The hospital assigns a social worker to work with the patient.

Jesus took her by the hand and helped her up (the original says he “raised” her up): see 5:41-42 where Jesus took a dead child by the hand and raised her up to life, and 9:26-27 where Jesus took by the hand a boy who lay there like a corpse and also raised him up. The healing of Simon’s wife’s mother seems to contain an allusion to resurrection. Jesus is raising her from “death” to life (for disease represents the power of death), and so Jesus does with us all.

How the disciples were going to sustain their households without their catching fish (that is, when they left Capernaum to follow Jesus as he made circuits of Galilee), we are not told. Peter (Simon), who later traveled with his wife (1 Corinthians 9:5), might have left his wife at home at this point to take care of her widowed mother. Or, we might imagine that both his wife and mother-in-law traveled with Jesus and his little band. After all, other women eventually did. Later the band was financially supported by women patrons. How they managed in the beginning we do not know. By and large they depended on the hospitality of others.

Jesus first called his disciples into a close relationship with himself, to apprentice themselves to him as “students,” he taking upon himself the process of their spiritual enlightenment and training them for their apostolate (or mission). Then he restored the synagogue community so he could be free to teach there and be accepted as a teacher in the town. Then he restored an individual household, Simon and Andrew’s, by healing the mother of Simon’s wife; that is, he restored the household of two of his disciples.

Although Jesus restores the place of public worship, where Jews and the first Christians came to hear the Scriptures read and explained, he also restores the households of his disciples. This precedes the next step, which is the reaching out and restoration of the local community. The healing (or making whole) of Christian households is an important corollary of the restoration of our collective worship. Without a doubt, sometimes the Gospel breaks a household apart. Sometimes this is how the household is healed, and sometimes a new household is formed. Often when the household is broken up it is because the wife and mother believes; in the patriarchal home the family usually followed the lead of the male “head.” Wives left husbands, widows refused to remarry, and daughters refused to get married. Communities of women formed, sometimes in economic collaboration with the larger Christian community, not because they shunned sex per se but because they wanted independence from the patriarchal structures of society which oppressed them. Belief in Jesus liberated them from these. (Sex was shunned, not because it was “carnal” or inherently distasteful but because of the danger of pregnancy; sex invariably bound a woman to the father of her child, especially if the child was born male.) In any case, the restored household became the place where believers gathered for their own readings and prayers, in addition to their joining the larger community in the synagogue. In the beginning, the church was naturally a part of the synagogue; there was also the practical issue that it would take quite a while before a gathering of Christians could afford their own scripture scrolls (each would cost in the tens of thousands of dollars, and an entire Bible— we are speaking of the Old Testament—consisted of many such scrolls). The tension between church and synagogue was by no means universal, not even by the fourth century when what we see is the tension between the bishops and the synagogues (they still complained about the people attending Jewish festivals and being buried in Jewish cemeteries).

Was Jesus staying in their house (Simon and Andrew’s) or did Jesus have a house of his own? It is not clear. There is some archaeological evidence that Peter’s house was across the street from the synagogue, on the side closer to the lake, for a first century house was gradually converted into an octagonal basilica. In any case, this night, after the Sabbath, Jesus was still at Peter’s house.

“That evening, after sunset, they brought to him all who were sick and those who were possessed by devils. The whole town came crowding round the door, and he cured many who were sick with diseases of one kind or another; he also drove out many devils, but he would not allow them to speak, because they knew who he was.”

We are not told in Mark how the town people knew Jesus was a healer. Obviously his reputation preceded him. However they found out, after he was “approved” in the synagogue, it did not take long—they only waited until the Sabbath was over, when they could not do the work of transporting their sick—before they brought to Jesus all their sick and “demon possessed.” Jesus healed many of them and cast out many of the demons (in Matthew 8:16 he healed all the sick and in Luke 4:40 he laid his hands on each of them and healed them). For the town of Capernaum, this enthusiasm is the result of the exorcism that took place in the synagogue. “His reputation at once spread everywhere,” not only through the surrounding Galilean countryside but, within the town itself.

The town of Capernaum (its name means “Village of Nahum”) probably had about 1500 people (Nazareth, by contrast, might have only had 450). While only a village—tiny by our standards—it still had a synagogue center and was probably large enough to have a class of privileged people, in other words, a hierarchy of classes that disadvantaged the poor and created stress on people’s lives.

Notice that the word “possessed” is our own invention, and it is misleading. The words are tous daimonizomenous, a plural participle of the passive verb, daimonizomai. The word means to be demonized, that is, to be afflicted and tormented by a demon. A person has a demon, a demon does not possess a person, although a demon can and often does dominate a person’s psyche. This confusion has led to serious misunderstandings.

Sickness and symptomatic demon-affliction (psychoses) both are indications of the socio-economic and ideological stress on the town. By “ideological” I refer to the stress caused by the beliefs people held or that other people (the social or religious elites) held with respect to them, the explanatory narrative-constructs that they bought into. When Jesus healed people and brought wholeness back into their lives, he was not only helping individuals but was restoring, in part, the community of which each of these individuals was a part. He was not solving all the systemic problems of the town and the larger society of which it was a part. Nevertheless, his acts of healing were a sign of the future restoration that the manifested (fulfilled) kingdom will bring. That kingdom is not yet. Nevertheless, it was present in Jesus himself; and when he touched people’s lives in this way, they were touching the kingdom in him. He brought hope. Not the kind of elusive hope that society will change (of course it will, but its changes always are ambivalent) but the hope that God will one day gather up their lives and make them meaningful and whole—not just individually but in the context of all of their relationships. It is the hope of resurrection. This Christian “hope” is not a wish for something to happen but a confident expectation, an assurance that it will happen. Jesus’ healing of them and their immediate situations (in the matrix of the relationships of which they are part) was an imparting of this divine hope. His healing of them was an anticipation, a foretaste, of the coming kingdom, of which he was its “nearness.”

The people whom Jesus “privileged” in his ministry were the poor and disadvantaged and ostracized, the “lost sheep of the House of Israel.” Jesus also loved the rich, but he demanded too much of them. They rarely loved him. Pharisees of a particular bent especially despised him, probably on account of his popularity with the poor, but the Pharisees, while having social status, were not particularly wealthy. They plotted against Jesus but these plots came to nothing. It was the rich and powerfully placed—the Roman governor and the chief priests, Temple scribes and Sadducees—who crucified him.

We come now to the end of this first twenty-four hour day of Jesus’ “debut.” In the morning, “long before dawn” (but after midnight), Jesus “got up and left the house and went off to a lonely place and prayed there.” Apparently, by the accounts of all four gospels, Jesus did this quite often. They often take note of it when a change is about to take place. Jesus prays before he embarks on something new. Doubtless he also prayed to refresh himself. In this case, it may have an element of both.

It was a long night and at last the household fell asleep. When they woke up in the morning Jesus was gone. Of course, Jesus was free to come and go as he pleased. They nevertheless got all upset and anxious about this, as if Jesus were some sort of “prize” that they feared they could lose. So Simon and his companions (literally, those “with him”) set out in search of Jesus, scouring the countryside for Jesus’ “lonely place.” When they found him they said, “Everybody is looking for you.”

It is interesting. People think they can own Jesus; that once they have him they can safely keep him under control. They do not want him to do as he pleases. We, however, do not own him. However much we may speak of “my Jesus,” he is never ours. Rather, he owns us. As C. S. Lewis’ Aslan the Lion, Jesus will not be tamed by us. He is a wild creature and can never be domesticated, however much he may be a part of our homes. This is actually wonderful.

Jesus answered them, “Let us go elsewhere, to the neighboring country towns, so that I can proclaim the message (rus) there too, because that is why I came.” To proclaim the message means to herald or broadcast something. It is the same “news” as in verse 15: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is close at hand.” What Jesus task was at this point of his apostolate was to travel around the rural localities of Galilee and proclaim this news, using miracles of healing and exorcisms (restoring people to wholeness) to back it up, to show in fact that the kingdom of God really was close (indeed, here, wherever Jesus was).

And so, “he went all through Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and driving out devils” (diamonion: demons). In other words, what he did in Capernaum, he went around doing elsewhere. Therefore this “day” in the life of Jesus, the first and therefore a “début” day, can be interpreted as presenting us with a strategy: We go to a town, call a few people to become disciples of Jesus, establish a healthy local gathering for worship, restore the homes and households of those who gather (presumably the new disciples), and then we reach out to the community, bringing health and wholeness to people’s lives by the power of the Gospel (the presence of Jesus). Then we spread out to other localities and start all over again. The way of the church is not some sort of independent way that we need to invent ourselves with the latest marketing research. The way of the church is the way of Jesus. Mark’s gospel reminds us of this, though this message was already clear in Matthew’s and Luke’s presentation of Jesus.

As a strategy, however, this is not a recommendation for chaos, where each builds recklessly and independently where others have labored. In the work of the apostles, the church and the locality were bound together. No locality in the New Testament ever had two churches; each church was the church of that locality: hence our term “parish.” While today every locality has several churches, all serving Christ independently or in competition with each other, this was not the way Christ intended. It is problematic and we should never forget how problematic it is. It is very difficult for us to get people to understand that the Gospel is not a human opinion but rather a gift from God for our very salvation. Instead, people only see people vying for their attention, selling a product.

The original meaning of church, ekklēsia, is a called gathering of the citizens of a polis (a locality or “parish”) for the purpose of governing. The Christian ekklēsia is the gathering called together by the Gospel (the person of Jesus) out of the entire locality—let those who have ears to hear come—to represent the reign of God in that place. Our gathering to Christ around the Scriptures, and our worship and prayers are the work of God and have an unseen impact on the locality. That impact is spiritual and social, affecting all our relationships and the intertwined roots of the community (everywhere where we are involved), and therefore, one would hope, everything that the community does, even though it does not acknowledge Christ. But first, the kingdom has to have a way with us.

We spoke of this day in the gospel of Mark as Jesus’ début. It was not his actual début. The disciples, when Jesus called him, probably already knew him, and Jesus already had a reputation as a healer. This was not the beginning of his ministry. If anything, it depicts Jesus’ coming to Capernaum, and establishing it as his base for his itinerant ministry in the region of Galilee. Nevertheless, Mark has composed it as the début of Jesus in his gospel. We must not confuse the integrity of a narrative structure with history. None of the four gospels give us a historical account of Jesus, at least not in the modern sense of historiography. I do not doubt what they say, but I let them each compose their narrative in their own way for their own purpose. The purpose of this day that Mark has crafted for us in his version of the story is to introduce Jesus to us in terms of his service to the people of Israel as the Servant of YHWH.

We may therefore consider verses 38-39 as the transition to the stories that follow.

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