When the Word Gets Out
I think I would read verses forty through forty-five of chapter one as well on this Sunday. The healing of the leper in Mark 1 is read only in those Epiphany seasons that make it at least six weeks. It’s clear that the healing brings this section of Mark to a small conclusion. The text has some things in common with earlier parts of the reading that should be mentioned.
The people in Capernaum were certain of the connection between illness and demon-possession. In verses thirty-two through thirty-four, those who were sick and/or demon possessed are mentioned nearly in the same breath twice. Illness and demon-possession hold victims in bondage and alienate them from the community. They are both signs of the old regime of sin, death, and the devil. Jesus brings the Good News of God’s reign, and the agents of the old system flee in terror from his power.
Jesus takes Simon’s mother-in-law by the hand and lifts her up. He stretches out his hand to the leper, touches him, and makes him clean again. Jesus’ touch gives healing and hope, life and love.
In the case of the leper, Jesus has compassion on the suffering man and responds to his suffering and alienation. A few manuscripts state instead that Jesus was moved with rage or wrath in the face of the illness. There is a confusing similarity between the Aramaic words for having pity and being enraged, Metzger notes in his Textual Commentary, that might account for the confusion. Those scribes might have connected the leprosy to the invasive and alienating power of demon-possession. But the reading of “compassion” is most likely closer to the original report.
Jesus “raises up” Simon’s mother-in-law. The NRSV translation obscures this Greek verb, which is also used to describe what happens to Jesus after death. Early in Mark’s account we get a foreshadowing of the great victory to come. Jesus’ healing raises the woman up from a likely death and back into life.
Remember that Marks tells us this is the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ. Just a few verses earlier, Jesus has proclaimed that the Reign of God has come near. We are invited to repent and trust in that Good News. We see Jesus making that Good News a reality in his ministry. We know that this Good News is really about the Resurrection victory over sin, death, and the devil.
We can see this Good News at work in ways that the people in the story cannot – yet. What they see is a demonstration of Jesus’ authority over the powers of sin, death, and evil. The word, “raised,” writes Sarah Henrich in her workingpreacher.org commentary, “suggests that new strength is imparted to those laid low by illness, unclean spirits, or even death, so that they may again rise up to take their place in the world. That’s where,” she notes, “the second interesting verb comes into play.”
Some commentators correctly worry about the stereotypical work to which Simon’s mother-in-law returns. The fever disappears. She leaves her bed. And immediately she is waiting tables. That doesn’t sound like much of a transformation for the mother-in-law.
Other commentators point out the way in which the verb “to serve” is applied in Mark’ gospel. Jesus applies that verb to himself in Mark 10:45 – “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Jesus contrasts his own leading by serving with the self-serving ambitions of the Gentile worldview, a worldview apparently shared by his disciples. Serving is not, by definition, a sign of subservience.
“It is ‘to serve’ rather than ‘to be served’ that characterizes the Christ of God,” Henrich notes. “It is also ‘to serve’ that characterizes his disciples. Simon Peter’s mother-in-law is far from being an exemplar of a pathetic, un-liberated woman for whom serving men is her whole life,” she concludes. “Rather she is the first character in Mark’s gospel who exemplifies true discipleship.”
Stories like this have been used too often to keep oppressed people in their “places.” Isn’t it lovely, someone might say, that Jesus healed Simon’s mother-in-law so she could return to her former, subservient role? No, it isn’t. That would be, as someone pointed out to me recently, a misapplication of Law and Gospel. If one is in bondage in some way, the Gospel frees that person for full and authentic humanity. If one is an oppressor in need of correction, the Law leads that person to repentance as the path to full and authentic humanity.
Clearly, Simon’s mother-in-law is set free from the bondage of her illness. It cannot be the function of the Gospel to return to her another kind of bondage.
Henrich helps us to see how this works in the text. “It was her calling and her honor to show hospitality to guests in her home,” Henrich writes. “Cut off from that role by an illness cut her off from doing that which integrated her into her world. Who was she when no longer able to engage in her calling? Jesus restored her to her social world and brought her back to a life of value by freeing her from that fever. It is very important to see that healing is about restoration to community and restoration of a calling,” Henrich reminds us, “a role as well as restoration to life. For life without community and calling is bleak indeed.”
Simon’s mother-in-law is, therefore, an example and role model for our imagined baptismal candidate who hears Mark’s gospel in its entirety, perhaps at an Easter vigil. The healing touch of Jesus raises the disciple up to the new life – a life given to worshiping God by serving the neighbor rather than oneself.
Simon’s mother-in-law is the first disciple to respond in this way in Mark’s gospel and does so without coaching or encouragement. The men Jesus calls are still debating the nature of leadership in God’s Reign in Mark 10 and are nowhere to be seen in Mark 15. That’s important to keep in mind as we continue to read Mark’s account.
Luther describes this reality of serving in The Freedom of the Christian. “This should be the rule,” he asserts, “that the good things we have from God may flow from one person to the other and become common property. In this way each person may ‘put on’ his [or her] neighbor, and conduct oneself toward him [or her] as if in the neighbor’s place.” Jesus raises her up to serve as he serves. That honorable role is confirmed near the end of Mark’s gospel account.
The verb is used in Mark 15:41 to describe the women who stand as public witnesses to Jesus’ crucifixion. They are described as those who “used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee…” Again, the NRSV translation tends to hide this connection. The verb “provided” is really the Greek verb for serving – diakoneo. The words Mark uses here may be an indication that Peter’s mother-in-law, one whom Jesus had raised from her death bed, was one of those standing as a courageous public witness at the foot of the cross as he died.
Word gets out, and Jesus’ notoriety spreads rapidly. “Everyone is searching for you,” the anxious disciples report when they find Jesus praying in “a deserted place.” Everyone is seeking Jesus. Sometimes we church folks forget that. They may not know what they want, but they seem to find Jesus attractive. When the Word gets out, people want to hear more. When the Reign of God takes hold, people won’t keep it to themselves.
It’s clear that reports of Jesus’ activity are spreading rapidly – perhaps too rapidly for his comfort at the moment. He “sternly” warns the healed leper against generating headlines on the local gossip network. But the man “began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word.” Mark uses the verb for proclaiming or preaching the Good News, but the man is more likely emphasizing Jesus’ wonder-working powers rather than the presence of the Reign of God.
The other verb Mark uses in verse 45 is also interesting. It is translated as the act of making something known by word of mouth. Here it means to spread the news widely. Jesus creates one of his many public relations officers, and this accounts for the fact that people came to him “from all directions.”
Even though Jesus wants to restrict the spread of such notoriety, this is another proper response to the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. In this regard, I’m reminded of the recent aspirational suggestion from Bishop Elizabeth Eaton regarding the future directions for the ELCA. What if ELCA folks issued a million invitations to be part of our lives, our worshiping communities, and our mission? Given the fact that ELCA folks invite someone in such a way about once every fifteen years (or whatever the figure really is), this seems to be a bit of a stretch goal.
Today’s text might lead us to wonder two things in this regard. To what are we inviting people? And why are we inviting them? For folks in the gospel reading, the answers are straightforward. They have been healed and/or released from bondage. They issue invitations in joy and gratitude. And they are inviting people to a new way of life and hope.
In his little book, The Invitational Christian, Dave Daubert writes it this way:
“In a healthy ministry, people sense that it is life changing. The teaching, spiritual support and guidance, and the impression that being in the congregation will actually deepen their spiritual lives; all transform church into more than a social or religious activity. When people participate in congregational life, they feel more connected to the God who calls them, and they have more awareness of the intersection between their life and the work of that God.”
If that is in fact the experience people have in our faith communities, then perhaps people will come from every direction. As long, however, as we remain in bondage to our whiteness, our maleness, our allergy to constructive change, our loyalty to our real estate, our love of money and possessions, and our unquestioned centering of ourselves, we will have nothing of interest for people who are, in the words of the ELCA future priorities, “new, young, and diverse.”
The Kingdom of God has drawn near. Repent, and believe the Good News.
References and Resources
BAGD, page 190; page 608.
Daubert, Dave. The Invitational Christian. Day 8 Strategies. Kindle Edition.
Metzger, Bruce. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. New York: United Bible Societies, 1971.
Wenger, Timothy. The Freedom of a Christian 1520, (The Annotated Luther Study Edition). Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2016.