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Week of Sunday 5 February - Epiphany 5
Gospel: Mark 1:29-39

The reading set for this week is only the section verses 29-39. I have included the first day of the public ministry of Jesus. It makes more sense.

14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’

16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen.17And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’18And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

21 They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24and he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’ 25But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ 26And the unclean spirit, throwing him into convulsions and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.’ 28At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

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

35 In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. 36And Simon and his companions hunted for him. 37When they found him, they said to him, ‘Everyone is searching for you.’ 38He answered, ‘Let us go on to the neighbouring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.’ 39And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

In The Piano, the woman is being rescued; taken away in the boat. The piano goes with her, that enigmatic symbol. She calls them to halt, out over the deep sea, and directs them to tip it overboard. This seems right. It is a shedding, a stepping into freedom. What follows is a marvellous piece of artificiality, which is one of the deepest parts of the movie.

The rope is somehow tangled in the piano, and uncurls from an unnaturally neat coil in the bottom of the boat. People do not recoil from the danger; instead, the camera focuses on the neatly, rapidly unravelling coil. There is a second or two of the woman’s face as she watches. Then, deliberately, drawn, not able to resist, she places her foot in the middle of the coil, and is whipped overboard, and dragged down deep. Somewhere down there, we see the struggle and indecision on her face, and she chooses life, untangles herself, and comes to the surface and safety.

It is a most artificial event, staged, planned to the half second, and yet that event of uncoiling, hissing, snake-like rope,  stretches into minutes in my memory as I meditate upon my inability to let go of the things which entrap me. The filmmaker has taken something unreal, artificial, most unlikely, carefully constructed, and told a profound truth.

I want to do something like this when I make the movie Mark. I want to take a few pared back seconds, almost sketches of action, vignettes, and present the compelling drama into which Mark has been drawing me. Our cultural difference takes the colour out of the text. It is bare, and I miss much of its richness on my first reading. It is my task as a preacher, and as a reader, to storyboard the text, bringing the colour back in, as I reimagine the scenes. How will I translate that sparse, and yet dense text, full of allusion, to my culture’s language? This was a vivid drama in Mark's day. I must overcome my being used to it, and rediscover the shock and the joy.

In this first day of Jesus’ public ministry, how will I highlight that the disciples Jesus chose only verses beforehand are the same ones who go with him to Capernaum? This is not filler destined for the cutting room floor. There is a point here; the disciples go everywhere with Jesus, they follow.

They go to Capernaum, not just any town. Why there?  Is it only a reflection of the historical events, or something else?

A lot goes on in Capernaum! The Gospel record concerning the life of Jesus would indicate that Jesus chose Capernaum as his home, as well as, the de facto base of operation for his ministry. [Perhaps it is simply because Capernaum was] the largest town in the region....

One other Biblical clue as to why Jesus [or, dare we say, Mark?] may have chosen Capernaum as his home and base of ministry, is the name of the town itself: Capernaum – the Town of Nahum or Nahum’s Village. ... So, who was Nahum and why would he have been of any importance to Jesus and Jesus’ very particular ministry?.... An element of Nahum’s uniqueness is his prophetic name. Nahum means “the comfort of Yahweh” and Nahum’s unique and important prophetic message was to “bring comfort and consolation” to the people of Judah.

Nahum was a prophet at the time of another imperial, aggressor power which was subjugating the people of Palestine. At a time when all seemed hopeless, at a time when there didn’t seem to be an end to the imperial oppression of Assyria, Nahum’s message was to tell the people of Judah that Yahweh had not forgotten them in their distress and that Yahweh longed to comfort them. Nahum’s message gave the people hope and as Nahum predicted, the Assyrian empire did fall and a time of some relative peace did come to the region.

The unique ministry and message of Jesus mirrored that of Nahum – to bring the comfort and consolation of Yahweh to the people – and in that Capernaum was “the Village of Nahum,” perhaps the significance of each one’s unique message of comfort and consolation was reflected in Jesus’ choice of home location.

Rev Robert Coats has to spell this out for me. However, someone who saw the first movie of Mark, in a market place drama, perhaps, would likely reflect on the meaning of The Village of Nahum without prompting. How will I get this into a few seconds of film in my movie?

The cultural gap between Jesus and us is enormous. It seems natural that he would go to the Synagogue on the Sabbath; we understand this. But how will I introduce the scandal of his healing; that is, his working, on the Sabbath? Without that being clear, my viewers will miss half the impact and shock of what happened that Sabbath morning. Not one of the people there thought to criticise him for breaking the Sabbath, so great was the authority of what he had done. Instead, they praised him again, and again! (1:27-28)  This is truly remarkable.

The Sabbath-breaking was so obvious to Mark’s original audience, that it is not until 2:23-3:6 that he bothers to make the issue explicit. How will I draw this into my few allotted frames? Perhaps I will flashback to this scene when I deal with the healing of the man with the withered hand: “See, he’s doing it again, just like the first day in Capernaum! We have to deal with this man!”

Do you notice how Chapter 3 begins?  Again he entered the synagogue... Apart from the generic reference to “their synagogues” at the end of today’s readings, this is the next time we see him in the synagogue. It's the same story continuing! They are alert to the sin from last time! They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him....(3:2) They knew what to expect from the last time he was there! This was a major issue. It is where they begin to plot to kill him. Even when Mark makes it explicit, there is something unreal for us; the scandal is not vital; but more academic, something we have to learn.

In the movie Jesus of Montreal the Jesus figure chooses as his first disciple, an actor who we meet dubbing English subtitles over pornographic French movies. I took some people from church. Two of the elderly ladies laughed themselves silly as the actor tried to dub two voices at once in a hot scene replete with the four letter words. They told me it ''was lucky for me" that one of the other members of the congregation had not come.

The scene in the film nicely captures the scandal of the disciples. We don't see them as slightly dirty figures like a porn actor. But in their time fishermen were unclean and unsuitable for a proper Rabbi to have as his followers. Mark sets the gospel against what is proper. Disciples are not called on the basis of social respectability. (cross post)

I had forgotten this scene, when I persuaded people from church to come to that movie, and had a moment of horror and  panic when I remembered what was about to happen. Leaning forward, I looked across the curved row of seats at my parishioners’ faces in the screen-light. There was shock... and delight.

This Jesus was breaking all the conventions about what was right and fitting; they were shocked. But there was delight, because people saw the freedom the good news was bringing. Jesus was smashing through social convention, and breaking its chains, to set people free. In Montreal, this is happening in the choosing of disciples.  How will we read and re-present Mark to allow the same shock and delight in the healing of the man with the unclean spirit, and then, of Simon’s mother in law?  It is there in the original, and we always underplay it.

After the synagogue, the drama moves from the sacred house to the daily house in which we live.  Religion is not for the sacred place alone; it is for all of life.  From the drama of an unclean spirit, we move to the apparently very mundane issue of a fever.

Again, there is a cultural blindness on our part. Ben Witherington says (from Stoffregen)

Though there are later stories of rabbis taking the hand of another man and healing him, there are no such stories of rabbis doing so for a woman, and especially not for a woman who was not a member of the healer's family (b.Ber. 5b). In addition, there is the fact that Jesus performed this act on the Sabbath. Thus, while touching a nonrelated woman was in itself an offense, and touching one that was sick and therefore unclean was doubly so, performing this act on the Sabbath only compounds the social offense. But this is not all. The service of Peter's mother-in-law to Jesus (and the others) itself could have constituted work on the Sabbath, depending on what was done (.e.g., preparing food). In any case, later Jewish traditions suggest that women should not serve meals to male strangers. The important point about Jesus, however, is that he does not see the touch of a woman, even a sick woman, as any more defiling than the touch of the man with the skin disease. [p. 98]

When I first began formal study of Mark, it was fashionable to see in Simon’s mother in law, a pro woman motif. She was raised up to become a deacon. It always struck me as ironic that the deacon got up to prepare tea for the men; not quite the equality we wanted from the text. Loader says about this

Let us not romanticise Mark. He is a man of his time as are those who passed on to him the story. The woman remains unnamed. She is healed to do what women stereotypically did: look after the men. It is spinning a yarn to make too much out of the word, ‘serve’, here, as if she is the first deacon. We can espouse such values without fiddling the text. On the other hand, note that Mark tells us in 15:40-41 that many women from Galilee followed Jesus and they were there at the end when the men fled. (My emphasis)

So my movie will not try to portray something that is not there. But he will have the same courtesy and compassion and care for her, as he has for the man in the synagogue. She is equal.

How will I deal with the nature of healing? Traditionally, we have focussed on the miraculous, rather than the healing. Jesus says the word, and bang! it happens. But Mark uses the occasions of healing to carry a message. Probably the classic example is the raising of the girl who has died on the verge of womanhood. The miracle is sandwiched into the story of that other woman, who bleeds. To say that the raising of the girl is the miracle, and say nothing more, misses most of the meaning.

What does Mark mean, by healing? Obviously, it is restoring people to wholeness. It is part of the kingdom of heaven being  at hand. Is there more?

Malina & Rohrbaugh’s  Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (quoted by Brian Stoffregen) says

In the contemporary world we view disease as a malfunction of the organism which can be remedied, assuming cause and cure are known, by proper biomedical treatment. We focus on restoring a sick person's ability to function, to do. Yet often overlooked is the fact that health and sickness are always culturally defined and that in the ancient Mediterranean, one's state of being was more important than one's ability to act or function. The healers in that ancient world thus focused on restoring a person to a valued state of being rather than an ability to function.

Anthropologists carefully distinguish between disease -- a biomedical malfunction afflicting an organism -- and illness -- a disvalued state of being in which social networks have been disrupted and meaning lost. Illness is not so much a biomedical matter as it is a social one. It is attributed to social, not physical, causes. Thus sin and sickness go together. Illness is a matter of deviance from cultural norms and values. [p. 210, italics in original]

Perhaps we unconsciously preserve some of this when we say people who are not helped by our “biomedical treatments,” are invalid.

Brian refers back to his commentary on last week, continuing to quote this source.

It is not that long ago in our history when we felt it necessary to expel the mentally ill from normal society. They would be locked up in asylums -- not as places of healing, but as places to keep them away from "normal" people. We didn't want "their" strange behaviors disrupting "us".

I can only note that this also applies to people suffering in ways we don’t categorise as mental illness. There is a profound sense of disruption caused by cancer; such a person is an affront to prosperity gospel.  They embarrass us. How do we relate to them, or to the recently bereaved? The illness is ours, as well as theirs!

Brian goes on to say,

This is a long introduction to help explain the fact that Peter's mother-in-law, immediately after being healed, was serving (diakoneo) them. Perkins (Mark, New Interpreters Bible) writes:

Peter's mother-in-law lies wracked with fever. She cannot fulfil the role of preparing and serving a meal to the guests, which would have fallen to her as the senior woman in the household. Jesus' healing restores her to her social position within the household. Many women today react negatively to the picture of a woman getting up after a severe illness to serve male guests. That sentiment hardly seems appropriate to the complex gender and social roles involved in the household. Certainly, Peter's wife or a female servant may have prepared food. The privilege of showing hospitality to important guests falls to Peter's mother-in-law as a matter of honor, not servitude. We even exhibit similar behavior. When special guests are expected for dinner, no one gets near the kitchen without clearance from  the person who has the privilege of preparing the food. [p. 546]

Jesus restores her to her proper position in domestic society. Her healing and subsequent actions are not just physical, but also social (according to 1st century standards).

In my movie, Simon’s mother-in-law will stride out to the kitchen from her sick bed, and take charge, rescuing her flustered daughter-in-law, and getting preparations for the guest back on track. She'll do it with pride, lifted up by what has just happened. Somehow, also, I want a moment of kindness, a new appreciation, for her daughter-in-law. She has been given a new humanity, and will pass it on.

All the while, this hive of activity is in breach of the Sabbath. The presence of Jesus causes a new honouring of God’s  call; compassion to the visitor over keeping of law. How poignant that, away from the presence of Jesus, the rest of the town must wait until sundown, after the Sabbath, before it feels free to come for healing.

It says they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons.(1:32) We think so easily of us and them. We are OK, and they are not. They need healing. They have the demons. What is Mark telling us then, when he says,

they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door? This is not a scene where the desperate and downcast come to Jesus, as the healthy look on.  This will be a scene, in my movie, where everyone realises there is a greater hope. The whole city smells new rain on the wind.

We will cut to the early morning, where he is on his own, regenerating, discerning his path, praying. There we will see the first dispute with the disciples, who think he should go back to Capernaum.

Stoffregen says

This dispute might be characterized as the disciples' (and people's) desire to have Jesus go back to where he was vs. Jesus' (and the Father's?) desire to move ahead to new areas. Jesus did not come to keep the gospel hidden in Capernaum, but to spread it throughout Galilee and Judea and the world. (Brian’s emphases)

I think I’ll walk them off into the dawn, without even going back to Capernaum for breakfast.

Perhaps Margaret and David will review my efforts.

“The funny thing is,” says David, “that after all the drama, he never deals with the great problem of Mark. There is no resurrection! All the endings printed in New Testaments are add ons.

And in this movie, Prior has done the same. The women are fleeing in silence. There is no resurrection.”

“Ah,” says Margaret. “Don’t you see it? Resurrection happens on the first day! He reaches out to Simon’s mother-in-law and raises her up! The same words are used for the story of the girl who died while Jesus was being interrupted by the woman with the flow of blood— and for the boy who appeared to be dead in chapter nine, when they come down from the mountain.

The resurrection is there if we wish to see it; right from the first day. He is offering to reach out to us, and lift us up!

I’ll rate it as five!”

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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