The weeks between Christmas and Lent introduce us to Jesus’ ministry and present the most important scenes from the Gospel of the year – in this year, the Gospel of Mark.
The ten verses form a wonderful ‘snapshot’ of Jesus’s work on earth in a single passage: his bonding with his disciples and getting to know their families; healing people who are ill and freeing people who are oppressed by evil; needing to escape by himself to pray; and his sense of how he needs to fulfil his mission.
Job 7:1-4, 6-7
The first reading, which is always from the Old Testament/Hebrew Scriptures, is chosen according to several criteria. We don’t read continually from a single book of the Bible in turn. Instead, there is an overall aim that the congregation hears the most important and great passages through the cycle of three years; but on any given Sunday, the reading is chosen to correspond in some way with the Gospel. It is meant to illuminate the ‘principle of harmony’ that the Church believes in between the Old and New Testaments; that as the first disciples and the Gospel writers clearly believed, Jesus in some way fulfils the prophecies and deepest spiritual needs and desires of the Jewish people throughout time.
In that case – it is really intriguing to think about how this passage of Job relates to the snapshot portrait of Jesus’s mission on earth.
The Book Job overall is a striking text, which tackles head-on the terrible challenge that the existence of evil brings for those who believe in a good God – if God is good, why are these terrible sufferings allowed to happen? There were conventional answers to these questions; and as one disaster after another hits Job, his unhelpful friends visit him and trot out the usual cliches, like ‘you must have sinned in some way, and you’re being punished.’ The aim of the Book of Job is to explode these answers as inadequate. After all these human speeches, God then speaks to Job out of a storm or whirlwind, which stresses how impossible it is for a human to understand the deep wisdom of God. The author of Job sees there is no simple answer which can be expressed in an argument.
It is not settled by a philosophic debate but rather is a matter of re-lationship. It is only in contact with a God who does listen and care for all creation that Job can be satisfied. He concludes, ‘I knew you only by hearsay, but now my own eyes have seen you. I retract and repent.’
But none of that shows up in today’s reading – it focuses purely on a lament by Job which in vivid and moving poetry, illustrates what it feels like to suffer in this way. Perhaps we can imagine that this is how the people in the Gospel felt, when they flocked to Jesus seeking healing from their pains and deliverance from their demons? Perhaps those who selected this passage wanted to imply, ‘the answer to the age-old problem of evil is only found in contact with Jesus himself’?
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 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 portrait 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, evangelists, and teachers. Paul’s devotion to the Good News is like that of Jesus at the end of our Gospel reading.
This selection is made of three activities of Jesus. We heard last week the passage preceding this with Jesus’ healing and ‘teaching with authority’ in the synagogue, Jesus then 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 the contrast of a private healing. Some think Peter’s experience is behind Mark’s gospel; if so, this would have been a family memory that he cherished.
The relatives already have a good idea of the power of Jesus, and although no request is made, 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’. She then begins to wait on 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. (Mark 10:43)
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 ‘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 ‘for all’.) We may hear an echo of the suffering of Job, with Jesus showing God’s caring for those with illness and disability.
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 alone to relate to his Father. When they realize he is gone, Peter and the others go after him. The Greek word is a vigorous 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 why he would leave when he is doing so well and has become so popular.
Jesus’ response is an example of a constant theme in Mark’s Gospel, which some scholars have called ‘the Messianic Secret’. It is the strange fact that Mark frequently depicts Jesus shushing people – or demons – who want to publicly proclaim him as the Son of God or the Messiah. Here, right when his ministry is meeting a huge early success in popularity and acclaim, he wants to hurry away and go somewhere else.
‘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’. Mark leaves us to infer that the message and activity in these stories is meant for ‘all’.
Perhaps we can understand it like this: Jesus wants to say to the apostles that he did not come to attract crowds and be a celebrity; he wants to extend his message and his healing compassion to as many as possible as widely as possible. Once he has healed all the people here, he’s not going to rest on his laurels and enjoy his popularity.
We also may take a lesson from Jesus’ feeling the need to be alone in prayer, and find a time to ‘slip away’ from the pressures of daily life to seek the presence of God.
Joan Griffith/Gwen Griffith-Dickson
Suggestions for prayer or reflection
- ‘Months of futility’, ‘nights of misery’, tossing and turning until dawn [Job] – is this something you can find in your own experience? What happens if you reach directly for the presence of Jesus at such a time?
- There is a passage from an anonymous Christian monk for those times when you feel horrible, and utterly sick of yourself, do this: ‘Take good gracious God just as He is, like a plaster, and lay it on your sick self just as you are.’ He explains: bear up your sick self and try to touch God by your desire, like the woman in the Gospel said to herself, ‘If I can just touch the hem of his garment, I’ll be healed.’ – All you need is to be born up in eager longing and love, to be ‘knitted together’ and united to God’s own being.
- Listening selection: ‘darkest midnight was my cry – give me Jesus’. The African-American spiritual ‘Give me Jesus’ seems to me to unite beautifully the link between the Job and the Gospel reading; sung wonderfully here by Florence Quivar.