Scripture notes – 5th Sunday of Ordinary Time – Year B – 4th February 2018

The readings start with impassioned words from one in deep suffering. In the Gospel we hear of Jesus healing those who came to him in mental and physical pain.

The readings are available online here.

Job 7:1-4, 6-7
Like Jonah heard recently, Job is a literary masterpiece with a serious theological message. It is, however, a very different kind work and not an ‘easy read’. Robert Alter describes it as the ‘most mysterious’ work of the Hebrew Bible. (If you want to read it, a guide is needful. One I am now reading is Alter’s The Wisdom Books.) The format is: an old folk tale on ‘The Patience of Job’ is cut apart by the author, who inserts a long middle section where Job is seen as anything but patient. This section is written in ‘astounding’ Hebrew poetry ‘which eclipses all other biblical poetry’. All of this is in long speeches of Job, his friends, then at the end God. The four unhelpful friends have given us the ironic expression ‘Job’s comforters’. These friends try to convince Job that since God is just, Job has to be sinful and deserves all his punishment. They cannot deal with his real problem that Job is innocent. Thus the author deals with the theological question of why if there is a good and powerful God, do the innocent suffer? This is often asked today, not only by believers going through painful times, but as a challenge from unbelievers whose sense of justice and love is at odds with what seem to be God’s actions.

The author of Job sees there is no simple answer to this which can be expressed in an argument. It is not a philosophic debate but a question of relationship. When God speaks to Job near the end, he only stresses that his wisdom is far above human understanding, and it is only in relationship with a God who does listen and care for all creation that Job can be satisfied. Job’s innocence will for Christians find an example in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus – the innocent one who accepts suffering and triumphs through it.

Our selection today gives us a small taste of Job’s own words expressing the pain of his life, mental as well as physical suffering. It is a good background for the Gospel reading, where many of those, especially the poor, who come to Jesus to be healed and whom would have had similar feelings of oppression and discouragement.

Psalm 146:1-6 – Psalm 147 in some Bibles
The Psalm response is usually tuned to the spirit of the first reading, but here after Job’s tale of sorrow, we are given words of joy. This is from one of the last of the psalms which form a conclusion of praise to the whole of the Book. They were sung on the great Jewish feasts, such as Passover. (In Mark 14:26, Jesus and his disciples sing such a hymn after the Last Supper.) The mention of Jerusalem re-built dates this psalm to a time after the return from the Exile in Babylon. The healing theme also fits into the Gospel account.

1 Corinthians 9:16-19, 22-23
This is one of the occasions in the Letters when Paul gives us a good picture of his character. The focus here is on his motivation for preaching the Gospel, his belief that he was called to this work by God. In his ministry he took pride in not asking for pay even if he was entitled to support from the community.

The second part of the reading describes his methods: Paul tried to meet people ‘where they are at’ – in the modern phrase. Modern psychology confirms that when people feel understood, they can be open to change. It is good advice for modern preachers and evangelists. Paul’s devotion to the Good News is like that of Jesus at the end of our Gospel reading.

Mark 1:29-39
This selection is made of three separate pieces; one can pause for reflection after each one. Just preceding this was the exorcism we heard last week. After that ‘teaching with authority’ in the synagogue, Jesus goes to the home of Simon Peter and Andrew. (A large household of extended family sharing quarters was common at the time.) After the public display, we have a contrast of a private healing. Some think Peter’s memories are behind Mark’s stories; if so, this must have been a memory he cherished.

The family already has a good idea of the power of Jesus, and although no request is quoted, with the confidence of perfect prayer they point out the ill woman. Jesus’ action is tender, taking her by the hand and ‘raising her up’ – Mark will use the same words for the resurrection. Her response is to start serving the family and their special guest. ‘One who serves’ is Jesus’ description of himself to be imitated by his disciples, and the mother-in-law demonstrates that.

The people have waited till the Sabbath rest was over at sunset to come looking for Jesus. ‘Many’ were healed: this verb comes from the Semitic idiom and the original Aramaic does not mean, as does our English word, ‘a lot but not all.’ It would better be translated as ‘he healed those who came’ or ‘all who came.’ The same word is the one that Jesus would have used when giving his bread and body at the Last Supper. The new English version of the mass uses ‘many’ instead of the ‘all’ of the previous translation, but the sense in Aramaic would be ‘shall be given for all’.

While the rest of the household slept, Jesus slipped away to pray. Mark gives no hint of the content of the prayer, just leaves us with the picture of Jesus in his humanity feeling the need to have time to relate to his Father. (It may also be taken as an example for us – if Jesus needed time to pray, how much more do we.) When they realize he is gone, Peter and the others go after him. The Greek word is a strong one – ‘pursued’ or ‘tracked him down’, which is softened in the mass translation. They don’t want to lose contact with him and probably can’t understand when he would leave when he is doing so well and has become so popular.

‘Why I came out’ may mean no more than he wanted to extend his preaching and healing to more than the local people. But it also could have the overtones of ‘why I came forth from God’, an expression typical of the Gospel of John that stresses the meaning of ‘God coming to save all’. The next stories in Mark, however, continue to show him frequently in the area of the lake and this part of Galilee. Mark leaves us to infer that the message and activity in these stories is meant for ‘all’.

Joan Griffith