Mark 1:29–39 (NRSV)
Jesus Heals Many at Simon’s House
(Mt. 8:14–17; Lk 4:38–41)
29 As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30 Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. 31 He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
32 That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33 And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34 And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.
A Preaching Tour in Galilee
(Mt 4:23–25; Lk 4:42–44)
35 In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. 36 And Simon and his companions hunted for him. 37 When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” 38 He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” 39 And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.
What does it mean to be a Christian? What does it mean to be a disciple of Christ? Over the centuries the church has tried to determine this to the best of their abilities, yet within each generation the question is again asked. And along with each generation that asks the question, those in the previous generation begin to question the faith of the younger generations. It is a vicious cycle but one I hope we can get past.
This is why the gospels are so important. The gospels are the testimony of those first disciples, it is their recollection of what life following Jesus looked like. Each gospel account is just a little different, which shows us the unique perspective of each of the writers. It shows us what that particular writer deemed important, and what convinced them to continue their devotion to follow Jesus. And that is exactly the definition of what a disciple of Christ is, one that follows or one who takes on the lifestyle of Christ.
The life of a Christian is a life of discipline, it is a life of continual practice of the same things to become more perfect with each repetition. The Christian life is something more like an art than a science. We come together and we practice as a group, then we go out into the world and we apply what we have practiced in the wider community. We learn and we apply. We have repeated exercises to highlight certain aspects of devotion so we can review and reapply those skills around those we love. Unfortunately, being a disciple of Christ usually does not have fancy indicators of mastery like the disciplines of various martial arts. I will not be passing out various colored belts to indicate to those around you that you have moved to the next level. But similar to the skills a student learns in those disciplines the life of a Christian has constant review and application. This is why we continue to walk with Jesus through the Gospels, this is why we continue to read the epistles and apply them to the testimony of Christ found in the gospels. This is why we look at the books of the law and the oracles of the prophets through the light of Christ in the gospel, because Christ is the master and perfecter of faith and he is the one through which we obtain life.
Jesus was spending time worshiping with his community at the synagogue in Capernaum, during this time of worship a man with an evil spirit came forward and started to make a scene. Jesus freed the man from this demon and the community was amazed. But this action had a cost. That evil spirit knew who Jesus was. During the exchange the spirit said, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” We might now realize what this might have meant at the time but this announcement by the spirit was an attempt to discredit Christ.
Everyone has some sort of idea as to what the purpose of Jesus is. As soon as those words were uttered certain those ideas were set into motion. The scriptures speak a great deal about the promised messiah and what his purpose will be. He will be a king that will restore Israel to a kingdom without an end. He would be a priest to bring Israel back to God. He would be a military leader to conquer all those nations who oppose the nation. He would be…
All these ideas going through the minds of everyone present at the synagogue that day. Everyone had some idea as to who Jesus might be. And Jesus goes home to Simon’s house. There was another prophecy that was on their minds as well, “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and he ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and he thirsty ground springs of water the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way…” The evil spirit announced that Jesus was the one, and Simon takes Jesus home and they tell him about Simon’s mother in law.
At this moment the disciples are not fully sure what life with Jesus might be. They have ideas in their mind but those ideas have not been fully developed or disciplined. Simon takes Jesus to his home and he is remembering the various things Jesus has said so far, he is reminded of the things that John the Baptist has said, and he concludes that if Jesus is in fact the son of God, then he should bring him home to see his mother in law.
Much of our faith begins like this. We hear stories of people’s lives being changed and we wonder if maybe Jesus could take away our problems or heal our pains and illnesses. That is basically what the prophecy in Isaiah indicates. The messiah will take everything wrong around you and make it right. This sounds great. But it is not the whole truth.
Simon took Jesus home with him. His mother in law was laying in her bed sick with a fever. I want us to consider the situation here a bit because it is difficult for us to totally grasp what this would look like in our contemporary culture. Simon was a simple fisherman. His living space was not some grand manner house, but most likely a one room apartment. It is very possible that it might be attached to a complex of rooms that the other members of his family also lived, all joined together in a courtyard. In this court yard they would potentially have outdoor cooking facilities that all the rooms shared, but not necessarily because at times where all the rooms met would just be the place the children would be sent to play. But the family would live in one room. Everything they owned would be in one room. All the children and their parents would be in that one single room. The bedding, the various cooking tools, the clothing, the lamps, the fishing tools all packed into this one room. In the evenings they would all lay mats on the floor and sleep together in this one room. In the morning they would pick up the mats and would convert the room into a workspace. If a member of the family was ill, they would remain on their mat and the entire family would have to work and play around them. Simon’s mother in law was ill, the family was cooking and work around her. She was sprawled out in the middle of the floor while various members of the family attended to her needs. Everyone was very aware of the illness, and there was no place to go to get away from her. Jesus came into the house and he saw her laying there on the floor.
We are told that Simon and Andrew informed Jesus of the mother in law’s condition. I often wonder about this. Did they tell him with the hopes that Jesus would heal her? Up to this point Mark only informs us of one miraculous sign, the healing of the man with the unclean spirit. They quite possibly warned Jesus of her condition because of the ideas of illness at that time. Most ancient cultures believe that illness was caused by some transgression. In polytheistic societies they believed they angered the gods in some way and the only cure would be to offer appeasement sacrifices to spare the loved one. The Jewish culture was not as superstitious but even with them they believed that your life and its prosperity or illness was a direct result of God’s pleasure or displeasure with you personally. Could it be that Simon and Andrew were afraid of Jesus, afraid of what he might think of them when there was a member of their family sick laying on the floor? There is a third possibility as well, many illnesses that would render people ceremonially unclean. Especially illness that had any form of bodily discharge, we are told that Simon’s mother in law was ill with a fever, but maybe it was something more, maybe she was ceremonially unclean and for Jesus to enter the house he would then be unclean himself. This is a valid argument because religious leaders at this time were greatly concerned with cleanliness because it reflected their righteousness. They would not associate with people that were unclean. Of course, this was not the intent of the law, but ancient cultures without the knowledge of microorganisms could not understand the concepts of contagious diseases, which is largely what the cleanliness laws of Moses try to prevent. They try to prevent the spread of disease.
We do not know why Simon and Andrew warn Jesus of the mother’s illness, but we do know that Jesus was not concerned with cleanliness or her righteous standing. He went to the woman, he reached out and took her hand, and he lifted her up. As she rose to her feet the fever left her body and she was restored to health. She immediately began to serve the family. Remember she would have been laying in the middle of the room and the entire house would have been devoted to her care, the fact that she began to serve them means that she cleared out her mat and converted the space to accommodate a meal.
I want us to stop there for a moment. And consider what just happened. We do not know why Simon and Andrew warned Jesus of the mother’s condition. We often assume that they told him because they wanted Jesus to provide some form of healing, but there is no indication as of this point in Mark’s account of the story that Jesus had the ability or power to heal the body. But from the testimony of John the Baptist we do know that repentance of sin was a concept many in the area were aware of. We are also aware of the ancient concept that illness was a result of sin. Could it be that what Jesus demonstrated to Simon and the other disciples was that he had power to forgive sin? He had the ability to remove from anyone the root problem of sin?
Jesus spent the remaining day in the company of Simon’s family. And when evening came the entire village came to the house. They waited because it was unlawful to carry a burden on the sabbath day. The moment the sun set, the sabbath was over so the entire town brought all who were ill and demon possessed to Jesus. The entire city had heard or had seen what Jesus did that morning in the synagogue and they heard the testimony of the unclean spirit. They had all heard the preaching of John in the wilderness that there would be another who would come after him, who John would even be unfit to untie the thongs of his sandals. This greater person would not baptize with water for the repentance of sin, but would baptize with the holy Spirit and fire. They came because there were many in their community that were gripped by illness. There were many who would be seen as unrighteous and suffering the wrath of God. They came seeking hope. Hope that maybe Jesus would be the one that could chase away all their problems and restore the nation to its former glory.
The sick were not the only ones to be brought to Simon’s porch, also among them were those possessed by evil spirits. But this time Jesus did not allow the spirits to speak. Instead he commanded them to remain quiet. I wrestled with this verse this week. Why would Jesus command the spirits to be silent? When the spirits were confessing Jesus’ true nature, I would think they were actually promoting the mission of Christ. But this is where discipline comes into play.
If the spirits were all screaming that Jesus was the holy one of God, Jesus’ true purpose might not have been obtained. Instead everyone would be coming not for the change of lifestyle Jesus was teaching but for the spectacle. Everyone would come to Jesus for what they could gain instead of learning what it meant to live life with God and God with us. We still see this today. There are many who seek the miraculous, demanding that God provide healing for their loved ones, demanding that God set their financial distress in order, but where is their faith when God does not cave to their demands? I truly believe that God can do miraculous feats even today, I have seen things that I can only describe as being a miracle. But I do not believe that this is normative. The demand of the miraculous causes us to develop the concept that we are only in God’s presence when things are going well, but where is God when we are sprawled out on the mat unable to move because of fever?
Jesus’ miraculous healings were there to assist in the proclamation of the kingdom, they were not the sign of the presence of the kingdom. Jesus, the very son of God, faced everything that we face. He faced the exact temptations, he faced the family struggles, and the need to work hard to fulfill a request on time. He was fully human and yet fully God. He is God with us. The healings that Jesus provided were tools in the spreading of the message. Because of their concept of blessing and curses they thought that illness was the result of sin, to prove his power over sin Jesus provided the healing of disease to prove the point. As we understand both the nature of sin and illness these miraculous feats seem to decrease in frequency but they do not disappear. Because God will do what is necessary for the expansion of his kingdom here.
After the night of healing and silencing of demons Jesus withdraws from the house and goes to an isolated place. This is probably the most important portion of this passage. Jesus withdrew to a silent place to pray. Within the first chapter of Mark we are shone the complete cycle of Jesus’ holy lifestyle, the very lifestyle we are called to reflect. He withdrew to the isolated, the desert wildernesses to pray. In the first chapter we see this twice. The first occurrence was when Jesus was tempted in the desert and the second is here after he heals many. He then engages with the community and worships with them. And he ministers and serves their various needs. After this he returns to the isolated place to pray. Prayer, worship, service. Loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit and living the love of Christ with others. This leads us back the question I began with, what does it mean to be a Christian? Does it mean we perform miraculous signs? Does it mean we speak the languages of the angels? Does it mean we have a strong moral code? All of those are partially right or could be partially right, but none are perfect. To be a true Christian means we follow Jesus in his life. We take on his lifestyle and are not swayed by the winds of our day.
The first disciples lost track of Jesus that morning, they went out hunting for him. Searching everywhere, but why? They thought they might be in the presence of the Holy one of Israel. They went searching because Jesus had power to control the demons and he could heal the sick and they wanted him to begin to restore the kingdom of Israel the way they thought it should be formed according to their interpretation of scriptures. They wanted to go back to the town to bring more people to be healed to build a greater following and potentially lead the revolution. They sought Jesus and they found him in that isolated place and when they found him they said, “everyone is searching for you.” But Jesus looks at them and says, “Let’s go to the other towns.”
To be a Christian, to be a follower of Christ, or to be his disciple is to take on his life and lifestyle. It is to become a disciplined student following the training and teachings of the Master till we reflect his ways in all that we do. It is a constant return to the beginning and practicing all over again. It is setting aside the desires of our own selfish ambitions and answering the call deep within us to follow him. But what do we find when we do this? We find our true selves. We find the person we were created to be, and as we come closer to God with us in Jesus we also see who God is through those around us. What does it mean to be a Christian today? It is the exact same as it has always been, we meet Christ in the gospel and we follow him in prayer, worship and service to others. As we enter into this time of open worship and communion as Friends let us embrace the lifestyle of Jesus and answer the call to build his kingdom here.
Image by: Father Victor Hoagland