Last week we saw Jesus cast out an unclean spirit (or a demon) in a synagogue and this sermon lesson follows immediately after that. Jesus is with four of his first followers—Simon and Andrew, with James and John (two sets of brothers, coincidentally).
We have several short stories of his ministry and his miracles placed together in a longer narrative, and for that reason it might almost seem to the modern reader like a choppy account of what’s happening.
So, I want to look at it a little differently: think of it like a tv series of Jesus’s Greatest Hits in his Earliest Ministry with each miracle as a tv episode. This, being a modern tv series, we only have 6 short episodes. Now, some episodes are only a verse or two long; others are a bit longer. Jesus, fortunately, was working for a network that didn’t demand a 42-minute length episode every week, if we want to get into this metaphor.
However, if we look at it this way, we can better see the narrative that opens up, and can better analyze each individual piece in this 5-episode arc.
Episode 1 (Mark 1:30-31)
The first thing to note is that Jesus has withdrawn to the home of his disciple, Simon, and is in the private sphere (as opposed to the public one). His first miracle in these episodes is in the private home, with his friends, and the miracle is performed on his disciple’s mother-in-law (or Simon’s wife’s mother).
We can take from this that although Jesus tells his followers to leave their families, the ties to family still exist if they are still visiting long enough to bring Jesus over for introductions.
Moreover, Jesus’s followers are married, at least some of them. They’re not bachelors. They have obligations to their wives and possibly to any children that they might have.
As an aside, I know this may not be the picture you have in your mind. Remember that Jewish men at this time had to be married by roughly the age of thirty for fear of being accused of being homosexual. Such an accusation would lead to public shaming and, eventually, murder by the people—or a public stoning. This was a cruel and horrible way to die. So, it would only make sense that the young men who followed Jesus might have wives and families … and, therefore, it would make sense that they might have sick mothers-in-law.
The second point I’d like to make is about touch. Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law by taking her by the hand and “lift[ing] her up.” It is through Jesus’s healing touch that the fever leaves her, and she then comes to serve Jesus, not as one of his inner twelve, but as a follower, nonetheless.
Episode 2 (Mark 1:32-34)
Jesus moves out of the home and into the city, into a more public sphere. The sick and the demon-possessed are brought to him. This is also done at sundown, at the end of the day, when the work of the day is done and when people are going home for the evening meals.
We can only gather what the set up was, but if they are in an open forum or a gathering place, once a crowd started forming, more people would be attracted, and so on.
Touch, however, is not emphasized or even mentioned in Episode 2. Does that mean it didn’t happen? Of course not. The author of Mark has already told us how Jesus heals a couple of verses before—by touch—and we, as readers, are expected to carry that piece of knowledge into the current situation.
We can imagine Jesus laying his hands on people with various illnesses and the various demon possessed who were brought to him. We cannot say for certain how many were brought to Jesus. After all, while Jesus is visiting a city, his reputation is not yet established. Yes, he brought out an unclean spirit in the synagogue, but that was one instance. It might have been exaggerated or even fabricated. The healing of Simon’s mother-in-law was private and probably not widely reported.
The crowd, if we tried to guess, might have been hundreds, but the author of Mark does not mention hundreds, and he probably would have mentioned that. It is more likely to be a couple of dozen. These are, after all, the stragglers of society—the ill, the dispossessed. Jesus also hadn’t advertised beforehand and has a limited reputation. It is more of a situation of whoever happens to be there, be ill, and be willing to try Jesus on for size.
The Messianic Secret
We do have the beginning the Messianic Secret here in this passage. We saw a bit of it in Mini Sermon #41, when the unclean spirit said he knew who Jesus was and named him, but not so explicitly.
The Messianic Secret, simply put, is the idea that Jesus will not let anyone speak the truth that he is—indeed—the Messiah that has been promised. Jesus goes to great lengths, in the Gospel of Mark, to silence those who might speak this very basic truth.
We see that at play here in “Episode 2” when he won’t let the demo-possessed men speak. If they were to speak, they would name him. If they were to name him, they might name him as the Messiah, and he could not allow that to happen.
This is considered a literary motif added by the author of Mark and not part of Biblical fact—one perhaps to explain why no one knew why Jesus was the Messiah when it was so obvious, or to increase literary suspense. A great deal has been written on the subject since it was first coined in 1901 by William Wrede.
Episode 3 (Mark 1:35)
Presumably, Jesus’s healing of the sick and demon-possessed continued went on most of the night.—and then Jesus did what he often does, he withdrew and prayed.
This is part of Jesus’s character that most people skim over until Maundy Thursday Celebrations at the end of Lent (this year, Thursday, April 1, 2021).
Jesus had a tendency to get tired of society and from healing. He also got sick of his friends in a very human way. When this happened, he would withdraw, and he would talk to his dad—or his heavenly father—the God of Abraham. In other words, he would pray.
It’s a beautiful combination of a young woman out late at a party and calling her mom for a bit of advice and getting caught up in laughing about how they burnt the turkey last Thanksgiving—and someone just bone dead tired from life, finding a chapel as they walk down the street, and going in to pray even if they hadn’t since they were a child. It’s those two needs and desires drawn up into one pretty package with a bow.
None of us here on earth quite have that, but Jesus did. It’s difficult for us to imagine as when we feel that urge, we must choose between one or the other, between the phone call or falling on our knees and bowing our heads. Most of us probably can’t reconcile the two emotions, finding them conflicting. For us mere mortals, perhaps they are.
But for Jesus, they weren’t—and they never had to be.
So Jesus withdrew and prayed, but like always, life came calling, as it does for us all.
Episode 4 (Mark 1:36-37)
This is not an episode of action, but an episode when a decision is made. We do not know what Jesus and the God of Abraham discussed when Jesus prayed in that deserted place, but we know when Jesus was found the next day, he had an answer when his companions said,“Everyone is searching for you.”
This hints at his future popularity, at the future success of his ministry, at the future globalization of his message and the religion that would be built upon it.
Episode 5 (Mark 1:38-39)
And this is the ministry in a nutshell. Jesus went forth into Galilee and did two things (1) proclaiming the message, and (2) casting out demons.
We know the message; it is the message of Christianity. Love the Lord your God with all your soul and all your heart, and love your neighbor and your enemy as you love yourself.
I would like to amend, however, the second point. Jesus not only cast out demons but performed many miracles. Casting out demons was perhaps the most pertinent to the author of Mark, but there were other feats of greatness performed that were not just limited to demons.
In eleven short verses, we have the development of Jesus’s early ministry as told in the Gospel of Mark. It’s told quickly, but I don’t think hurriedly. It just needs to be broken up into episodes to figure out exactly what’s happening when and why (and perhaps how) … before we move forward into the short three-year ministry of Jesus Christ…