Epiphany 5 · Mark 1:29-39 · February 8, 2009
By William W. Schumacher
The season of Epiphany is about the self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ, and the texts of the season relate in various ways how Jesus Christ shows himself to us and to the world. And so, in this Epiphany season, one question we always bring to texts is, “What does Jesus show us about himself—about God—here in this text?”
This reading from Mark’s Gospel (Mk 1:29-39) falls in the middle of a three-week sequence in which a long section of the first chapter of the gospel is included. The preacher may want to consider linking these three texts into a short series of related sermons, for the themes are closely related. The series begins with the exorcism in the Capernaum synagogue (fourth Sunday after Epiphany) and concludes with the dramatic account of Jesus who is willing and able to both touch and cleanse a leper (sixth Sunday). In the middle comes this present text, which shows us Jesus healing both privately and publicly, exorcising demons, praying alone, and preaching throughout Galilee.
The healing of Simon’s mother-in-law may count as a more or less “private” act of healing, both in the sense that Jesus healed her of her fever in Simon and Andrew’s house with only a few disciples present, and also because the results or effects of the healing were not public or obvious. In fact, the picture is of the woman being instantly and miraculously cured, and then returning immediately (one of Mark’s favorite words!) to the simple, mundane tasks of housekeeping and hospitality. The healing ministry of Jesus restores ordinary human lives of service. The people he touches are not freed from their human responsibilities or relationship. On the contrary, Jesus’ touch removes everything which damages or obstructs our human lives of service.
The focus of the narrative in Mark is never on the striking miraculous nature of the healing itself, or other miracles. The way Mark tells the story, Jesus seems intent on keeping both his healings and his victory over demons as quiet as possible. Thus, when the crowd gathers at the house in the evening, and Jesus heals many and exorcises demons, he does not permit the demons to speak. It is, of course, rather remarkable that Jesus is known and recognized for who he is by the evil spirits but not (often in Mark’s gospel) by Jesus’ own disciples. But it is also worth noting that Jesus commands those demons to be silent precisely “because they knew him” (v. 34). One gets the distinct impression that Jesus is not at all interested in creating a high profile public stir!
The same impression is reinforced in verses 35-38, as Jesus withdraws from public view and finds a quiet, lonely, and uninhabited place to pray by himself. When Simon and the others come and find him, they seem to urge him to return to the crowd who are now looking for him. But Jesus says instead that his path lies elsewhere: to those who have not yet heard his preaching.
Incidentally, it is worth noting that Mark’s grammar seems to spotlight the brief exchange between the disciples and Jesus in verses 37-38. The switch from the aorist tense of the general narration to the present tense is usually not captured in English translations, and its exact significance is hard to define. The effect of Mark’s use of the present tense in narration might be compared to a close-up shot in a movie, and it adds a subtle but distinct emphasis to this bit of dialogue.
Why is this little exchange placed in the foreground and brought to our attention in this way? Because here the disciples’ idea of what Jesus should do is contrasted vividly with what Jesus himself says his mission and purpose are. Simon and the others have seen the favorable response of the people in Capernaum, and think Jesus should continue to build on this promising beginning. Jesus knows that his purpose is in another direction, namely to preach to and serve those who do not yet know him.
The phrase Jesus uses to describe his purpose and mission is somewhat unusual, and deserves attention. The ESV renders it, “for that is why I came out,” but a more literal translation of eis touto gar exelthon might be “because for [or into] this I came out.” It is not immediately clear what is meant by “come out” in this context. Possibilities include “coming out” of Capernaum to this remote place (cf. the use of the same word in v. 35), so that Jesus is explaining his secretive departure from the crowds in the village. It is tempting to associate Jesus’ word here with a statement from John’s gospel: “I came [out, exelthon] from God” (8:42), in which case Jesus is making a much more profound assertion about the purpose of his whole ministry. It may not be necessary to choose between these options, since each step of Jesus’ ministry of preaching and healing aims toward that for which the Father sent him—and that road leads to Jerusalem, to the cross, and finally out of the tomb. We listen carefully—and help our people listen—when Jesus tells us what he is doing and what he came for.