First Reading: Job 7: 1 – 4, 6 – 7
Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 9: 16 – 19, 22 – 23
Gospel: Mark 1. 29 – 39
This Sunday’s Gospel is filled with a number of the themes that appear throughout Mark’s Gospel: priority of the reign of God, healing, preaching, community, discipleship, and the importance of the God connection. Jesus had left the synagogue where he had healed the man possessed by a demon and proceeded immediately to the house of Simon and Andrew. When he arrived, he discovered that Simon’s mother-in-law was in the throes of a severe fever. With what follows, we get a glimpse of the cryptic way in which Mark reveals Jesus and his mission to his readers.
We are all familiar with suffering in one shape or form, whether it is physical, emotional, mental or spiritual suffering. There is no getting away from suffering; it comes to us all and it comes in different guises at different times of our lives. To live is to suffer. Regardless of our differences, suffering is something we all have in common. Some people seem to suffer more than others. Yet, it is difficult to measure suffering, especially in others. Some who do not seem to be suffering can be in great pain and others who seem to be suffering greatly can have a deep peace. The cry of Job in today’s reading is one that comes out of deep suffering. He is in a very dark place indeed. Not only has he lost his health, his property and members of his family but he seems to have lost God. He had been living an exemplary life and he cannot understand why God has allowed so much misfortune to befall him. The God whom he worshipped when times were good now seems a complete stranger to him. The God to whom he related as a friend now seems to have become his enemy. The experience of loss, whether it is the loss of health or property or loved ones, can bring on something of a spiritual crisis. Some can be tempted to abandon God, when their prayers out of the depths are not heard. They feel angry at God; they sense that their trust in God has not been vindicated. That is very much the place where Job finds himself in today’s first reading. Job in that sense is every man or woman. The literary figure of Job is a very authentic depiction of the dark side of human experience, indeed, the dark side of faith in God.
Surely the people of Capernaum saw enough that first day of Christ’s public ministry among them to make them realize that this man from Nazareth who had come amongst them was no ordinary preacher, no ordinary rabbi, no ordinary man. They saw that he preached as one having authority; they saw that by a simple command he cast out demons and removed all bodily ailments. Yet though they were astonished and amazed at his power, their worldly outlook did not let them rise above their own small interests. Our Lord did not blame them or criticize them, he knew and fully understood their slowness of mind in regard to things spiritual, and he knew also that they would eventually give themselves wholeheartedly to his kingdom. While he was prepared to wait for the desired effects which his miracles and preaching would eventually have on them, he hastened the arrival of that day by praying to his heavenly Father to send the graces necessary for their conversion into their hearts.
Faith has to come to terms with the cross and it is at the foot of the cross that faith can be purified and deepened. Jesus himself entered fully into the darkness of human suffering. In today’s second reading, Paul says of himself, ‘For the weak, I made myself weak.’ That is certainly true of Jesus. He entered fully into the weakness of the human condition. Elsewhere, in one of his letters, Paul says of Christ that ‘though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.’ On the cross Jesus was at his weakest and poorest; it was on Calvary that, in the words of Lewis, Jesus went to God and found a door slammed in his face, as he cried out, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ Yet, that cry of desolation is itself an act of faith; it is the language faith uses when confronted with the harrowing darkness of loss. God did not forsake Jesus, but brought through death into the fullness of life. The Jesus who was crucified in weakness is the same risen Lord who is with us in our own experiences of suffering and desolation, just as he was with the suffering and the broken in today’s gospel. He is with us as one who knows our experience from the inside. Having gone down into the depths and having moved beyond the depths into a fuller life, he can enable us to do the same. He is the good shepherd who, even when we walk through the valley of darkness, is there with his crook and his staff, leading us to springs of living water.
This is true of all the healing miracles. When Jesus healed people, he did not only restore them to a former state of well-being. His physical healings were meant to be outward signs of a deeper transformation of body, mind, and spirit. For those healed, nothing would ever be the same afterward. Jesus freed people from whatever bound them – whether it was physical illness or systemic evil – so that they could participate with others in the community, proclaiming the transforming power of God love. When one has experienced that love, one is obliged to tell it forth – become a disciple – in keeping with their own gifts and calling.
By the end of that day, word about the events at the synagogue and at Simon’s house had made its way into all quarters of the village and we are told that “the whole city was gathered around the door,” including “all who were sick or possessed with demons.” Jesus spent the remainder of that day healing many of those afflicted.
The next morning, he arose early and went to “a deserted place to pray.” While Jesus remained focused on his mission from the time of his baptism onward, he still needed periods of aloneness with the Father to clarify the details of that mission and where it was taking him. Jesus’ absence sent the disciples out looking for him to tell him that the crowd was once again assembling looking for further healings. But he tells them that he is not going back, that – perhaps as a result of his prayer – he feels compelled to go on to the other villages “to proclaim the message there also,” stressing, “That is what I came to do.”
This episode makes me think of a cartoon that appeared in a ministry magazine several years ago. The drawing depicted a pastor on his knees in his office with a prayer book in hand. His secretary comes to the door, pokes her head in, and seeing him there in prayer says, “Oh good, you’re not busy.” Mark is saying something similar about the disciples and Jesus, begging the question, “What is this all about?”
In his most recent book, Diary of a Pastor’s Soul (2020), M. Craig Barnes, president of Princeton Theological Seminary, reflects on the “holy moments” of being a parish minister and pastor.
In one essay, he writes about Jenny Adams. Jenny meets with the pastor regularly to talk about how she hates her job at the bank and to ask (again) what she should do.
The pastor tells her (again) that she could quit if she wanted to – but she shouldn’t expect that a new job alone will make her any happier.
Barnes recalls being tempted to say one morning: “’Look, Jenny. We’ve been here before. You’re going to tell me how unhappy you are in your work. I’m going to tell you, again, that you’re free to quit. You’re not going to do that because by now you’ve realized that Shangri La isn’t hiring but you need a job. I’ll offer the nicest prayer I can come up with, and you’ll leave thanking me for my time. And nothing will change. Let’s just save ourselves the hour and cut to the end of the conversation.’ But, of course, I didn’t say anything like that. I just listened, again, biting my finger.”
The challenge for Jenny, Barnes writes, “is not to rise above the ordinary routines but to find the holiness in them. This,” he writes, “has always been one of the reasons people need pastors – to help them behold the quiet miracle of having the God of peace with us.”
Barnes goes on to say, “Now if I could just get Jenny to be as concerned about her prayer life as she is her job, she may find that peace. Then she would be free to get on with her mission of being a Christian in this very messed-up world.”
That still may happen for Jenny, Barnes hopes, but the call to minister to the Jenny Adamses among us “is not to love my dreams for them more than I love them as they are today. So, I keep on doing what love requires, again and again, while waiting for Jesus to do what only he can: change people.”
As he does throughout the Gospel of Mark, Jesus reminds the disciples in today’s Gospel that he has come primarily for one reason – the Kingdom of God. He has come to “change” us: to open our eyes to the real obstacles we face in trying to live our lives to the fullest; to move us beyond the unfulfilling things that monopolize our days; to seek instead the things of God that give our lives a sense of purpose; to change our attitudes about what affects “me’ and what “I” want in order to seek the greater good of all.
To make such a “change” in ourselves is the first step in changing the world, in realizing the priority of the Kingdom in the here and now. Jenny’s problem is not her job but her expectations of her job: she wants her job to fill that part of her life that can only be filled by the things of God. Christ comes to proclaim God’s presence in the ordinariness of her life, in the love of family and friends, in the good she is able to do for others – her attitude about her job might then change as well.
In the second reading today, Paul enthusiastically states, “Woe to me if I do not proclaim the Gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward . . .” (1Cor 9:16-17). We all want to be happy, free, and fulfilled. However, it is a paradox of human existence that genuine happiness, freedom and fulfillment seem to come mostly to those in the service of a noble cause or project.
A contrast is offered in the first reading where we see Job, somewhat like Jenny in Barnes’ story, caught up in his own losses and sufferings. And like many people today, Job sees life as all drudgery and slavery: “Do not human beings have a hard service on earth, and are not their days like the days of a labourer? Like a slave who longs for the shadow . . . my days . . . come to their end without hope.” Poor Job is filled with the conviction, “I shall not see happiness again” (Job 7:1-4,7).
Contrast this further with the picture presented in the other two readings. What Jesus tells the disciples is that he is totally in the service of the Father’s plan for the Kingdom of God. And Paul, for his part, is totally dedicated to the service of the Gospel. At the same time, both appear remarkably happy, free and fulfilled.
God bless. Have a blessed day.