This story takes place very early on in Mark’s gospel. So far, Jesus has ben baptized, called four disciples, and gone to Capernaum where he has taught and cast out a demon. On the sabbath, no less.
So they retreat to Peter’s house, where (still on the sabbath) he cures his mother-in-law. Once the sun goes down and sabbath is over, people flock to the house to have their loved ones healed. He silences the demons to speak about him, a curious little detail which is what I’ll look at in depth next week.
Jesus’ response to the growing crowd is a disappearing act. His disciples want him to know how famous he has become. Jesus announces that they are moving on to the next town where he can “proclaim the message.” And that he does all throughout the Galilee.
There are so many curious details in this story. One is the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law. As soon as he heals her, she gets back to the assumed role of the day, serving everyone in the household. No time for recuperation, no word or deed about her being an equal now. She goes back to what she was doing. Given Jesus’ radical take on gender roles for that time, part of me expects Jesus to say, “Get up and come sit with us and let Peter serve.” But why not?
And then Jesus intentionally submarines his own successes. He’s got a great racket going right there in Capernaum, healing everybody that is brought to him. Instead of continuing that, he takes off for some solitude. Not even the disciples know where he has gone, and it takes them a while to find him. This is a rhythm in Jesus’ ministry, the public versus the private, the overwhelming crowds versus the need to isolate, get away, regroup, recharge. What is at stake there?
And finally, once he’s been found and the disciples share with him this great news that everyone is looking for him, his response isn’t the expected one, especially for this Messiah. He’s supposed to be thrilled at the number of new recruits and followers, building up steam for the eventual restoration of the kingdom of Israel. No: he tells them that they’re going to head out into the Galilee, proclaiming the message and casting out demons. What’s with the career suicide?
It strikes me that there are several things at work here. First, the solitude. Jesus, throughout the gospels, is constantly trying to get away for a moment of prayer and quiet. It’s the natural rhythm of his ministry. He doesn’t often succeed, but it does strike me as a way that he remains grounded and keeps from losing perspective. We don’t have any sense of what he prays at this point, but from other prayers, we know how intimate his relationship with God can be. We can assume the same is true here. So perhaps there’s part of him that wants to be focused right now.
Second, Peter’s mother-in-law. The healing that she gets means that she stays where she is, in a sense. It’s not a freedom in the sense that we might want, but perhaps it is that she still has a role to play in that place?
Third, the moving on. Jesus is aware of the Messianic expectations of the day. And in a sense, he is trying to undercut them. He heals on the sabbath. He splits when the crowds surge to be alone. And when he learns of his fame, he takes off on a tour. Jesus, perhaps, was concerned that his fame might spread as a “mere” faith healer, and that he wouldn’t be known for the fuller ministry by which we know him now. Faith healers were a dime a dozen. So were wandering teachers.
And then I wonder about how this might connect with me, with us. I think there’s something to the rhythm of Jesus’ ministry that we can learn. Do we have times of solitude and quiet? Of prayer and restoration? Do we carve out places and spaces and moments to share our fears and hopes with God? Do we act as though we know God intimately?
I also think there’s something in the story of Peter’s mother-in-law. There’s something about knowing where it is that we are supposed to be. I don’t mean that in a “know your place” kind of way. I am passionate enough about Christian justice movements and see Jesus at work in those in profound ways. But I do think that there is something to our ministry “in place,” as it were. We are all connected in some way: to families, friends, neighbors, coworkers. How is it that what we do can be transformative? How is it that we can be healed and yet remain “in place”?
And finally, I think that Jesus is teaching something profound to us by moving throughout the Galilee. And it is in this place that the tension develops with the last point in healthy ways. In a very tribal time, Jesus was saying very clearly, “Let’s go. Let’s get beyond that tribe and move among the people.” Far from staying “in place,” Jesus is on the move.
So let’s go!