Jesus in Capernaum

Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time (B)

As we read the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel, it feels like a spiritual D-Day. Jesus appears in Capernaum. He quickly establishes a spiritual beachhead, healing, teaching, and driving out evil spirits. Having liberated that place, he moves on to take the rest of Galilee by the end of our Gospel passage.

Today’s segment of that story is not long, but it is dense. It leaves us with plenty of food for thought and prayer. I will focus on three moments in this passage and offer some reflections on each.

  1. The healing of Peter’s mother-in-law

Very near the ruins of the synagogue in Capernaum, the ruins of a Christian church can be found that go back to at least the third century. In recent decades, archaeologists discovered the remains of a house – or, more precisely, several small houses around a common courtyard – on the site of the church, remains that go back to at least the time of Jesus. This could well be the home of Peter and Andrew. So, when Mark tells us that Jesus entered this home immediately after leaving the synagogue, he may have meant it literally! The several small houses were typical of homes of the time, when extended families lived in the same place. So, Peter, Andrew, Peter’s mother-in-law, and others all lived there. Living so close to the synagogue, one wonders whether Peter or Andrew or their father had some important role there.

We learn that Peter’s mother-in-law is bedridden with a severe fever. The original Greek makes it sound as though she were practically dead already. Her condition is hopeless, as far as any human doctor would see it. Jesus takes her by the hand, and raises her up. Mark uses the same word to speak of Jesus’ own resurrection. Then, we are told that she begins to serve them.

Some people today may feel irritated or even offended by this, if they read it as yet another example where a woman has to wait on lazy men! But this is not what is going on here. First of all, it is the Sabbath. The Sabbath is associated in the Jewish Scriptures with freedom from any oppression. One of the reasons why the Lord frees the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt was that they might enter into God’s own Sabbath rest, free from all harm or slavery of any kind. Peter’s mother-in-law is in bondage to this fever and is set free.

Her response is to serve. This is exactly how Jesus describes his own ministry in Mark 10:45: “For the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve”. This is exactly what Jesus teaches his disciples to do, though they don’t really get it until after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Peter’s mother-in-law is the first in Mark’s Gospel to get it. She has been freed. In gratitude, she serves, without being told to. She is the first example of what a Christian is meant to be in Mark’s Gospel.

2. Other healings at Peter’s house

Mark tells us that “when it was evening, after sunset, they brought to him all who were ill or possessed by demons” (Mark 1:32).  The Sabbath is now over. It is the first day of the week. God began the creation of the world on the first day of the week. Now, a new creation begins with Jesus. This would be a foretaste of Jesus’ resurrection on the first day of the week.

Notice, further, that the gathering and the healings are happening at Peter’s house. In Jewish thought, the Temple was to be the focus and beginning of a new creation, from which God would remake the world so that it might be fully good once more. Here, people come, not to the synagogue, but to Jesus, who is the true Temple. He begins the process of freeing people from illnesses and evils of all kinds – thus beginning a new creation. Note, too, that Peter’s house soon became the place where a Christian community would meet for Eucharist – on the first day of the week. Jesus’ teaching and healing ministry continues in the Mass, as well as in many other ways, in the Christian community gathered in prayer.

Contemporary people might have a hard time understanding or accepting all this talk about exorcism and evil spirits that we see again and again in Mark’s Gospel. They may assume that what people at that time saw as “demon possession” was really some illness or condition like epilepsy or even autism. It is very likely that some incidents that were called “possession” were in fact some other disease.

Note that I said “some”, not “all”. True demon possession is not common, but it is not restricted to horror movies, either. I know of cases in this diocese where a priest was called upon to perform an exorcism. It does happen.

But think of various illnesses of body or mind or spirit. Do they not, at least some of the time, feel like a kind of “possession”? Do they not feel as though some foreign power has taken hold of us? Think of addictions, be they drugs or Internet porn or whatever. Do these not have a serious hold over some people? The Lord Jesus, who drove out demons of all kinds – both literal and symbolic – can break the power of whatever enslaves or possesses us. On our part, we need to be watchful even after being healed by Jesus, that we do not get enslaved again. If we let ourselves get into certain situations where we know we are very vulnerable to a certain sin or addiction, the battle is already lost. We need to know ourselves, read the signs, and make sure we don’t go near such situations if at all possible – and find trusted friends to help us in this. We also need to be in prayer and in communion with the Lord on a daily basis.

3. Jesus in solitary prayer

After a full day of healing, we are told that Jesus left “very early before dawn” and “went off to a deserted place, where he prayed”. Simon Peter and others track Jesus down and object, “Everyone is looking for you”.

It is one of the marks of Sacred Scripture that we can read the same line from various perspectives, and find that it fits each one in surprising ways. For example, someone who is called to a life of solitary prayer (a monk, a nun, a hermit) may find some people challenging this and asking why that person isn’t out there doing something. Thomas Merton, the well-known Trappist monk and author, was challenged in this very way by even Catholic theologians he was in correspondence with. Few there are who understand and value such a vocation, even though Church teaching has always praised it.

Another example. A parent who feels overwhelmed (at the moment) by all the responsibilities of family life and seeks some bit of refuge – even in the bathroom! – only to find some child crying out, “Mom!” “Dad!” “Everyone is looking for you”, indeed! The same can be said for anyone involved in pastoral ministry and feeling overwhelmed by all its responsibilities. They can also relate to the saying “Everyone is looking for you”!

What is actually going on when Jesus is out praying in a deserted place? We are meant to connect this with Jesus’ time in the desert after his baptism, when he is tempted by Satan. Jesus is facing temptation yet again. The temptation is not specified, but we can make a reasonable guess. Jesus has become a ‘sensation’ in the little village of Capernaum. Why not stay there and become the local healer? Why not fly under the radar of Jewish and Roman authorities? When Simon Peter and the others come, they have a similar message. (It would not be the last time that Simon would try to turn Jesus – even unconsciously – from his path.) Jesus, however, remains one with the Father. He wrestles with this temptation like Jacob did with that mysterious stranger, and overcomes it. Jesus tells Peter that they must move on. Jesus hasn’t come to play it safe or to bask in the acclaim of the crowd. He has come to do his Father’s will. So, on he goes.

Similar temptations await us, whether our day brings us seeming success or failure. We may find ourselves tempted to play it safe with our Christian calling. We may feel like flying under the radar, so that some people might not notice that we really are Christians after all. We may see a serious challenge looming ahead of us, and want to pull back from it. Or, the opposite may be true. We may be tempted to do something rash or hasty.

It is important for each one of us to have and to maintain a daily relationship with the Lord. It requires a commitment no less than that of two spouses who are learning how to love each other every day. Because it may not be easy to discern what voice in our hearts is God’s voice, it is also important to measure this by the tradition and experience of the Church, by what we learn in the Scriptures, and with the help of people who are experienced in the ways of the Lord. Temptations come from all sides. The challenge is to be able to identify what God’s will truly is for us, and to say yes to it every day, every time. It may require us to live a little ‘Gethsemane’ once in a while, but it is more than worth it. The Lord is, even now, re-creating us and freeing us. He means us to know a fullness of joy in him. He wants our hearts to find, in him, their true Sabbath rest.