I wonder how often Jesus thought of these words. He will have needed to.
Today, in our gospel reading, we see him coming to the end of a very busy day and, ironically, most of the day has been the Sabbath, the day of rest. In the morning he was preaching in the Synagogue, causing a stir not only with his words and with the authority with which he spoke but also by his confrontation with an evil force, personified in the form of a demon which was inhabiting a man in the congregation. Enough, surely, for one day.
But no. The day was far from over. Like all faithful Jews, Jesus and his new disciples went straight home, the better to spend the rest of the Sabbath quietly and restfully. They might have expected to have something to eat, which would of course have been prepared beforehand but, as soon as they got to Simon and Andrew’s house, Jesus was told that all was not well. Simon’s mother-in-law was ill. This was clearly a big worry for Simon, because it was the first thing he mentioned. One can imagine the mixture of emotions. On top of all the excitement of the morning, there would have been pride that Jesus had come to his house, but that would have been tempered by the knowledge that, because of his mother-in-law’s illness, they could not have been better prepared to be hospitable towards their guest. Perhaps these are the reasons why Simon told Jesus about his mother-in-law so quickly. Certainly, there is, in the text, no indication that he was asking Jesus to do anything about the matter.
But Jesus had another idea. Being filled with compassion, he went to the ill woman and, without speaking a word, took her hand and helped her up. At that, the fever left her and she was as if she had not been ill at all. She was restored to full strength and able to look after her guests.
Simon might have been relieved by this; certainly he would have been thankful that his mother-in-law was cured, but there is also much which we can learn from this event. In Mark’s gospel, this is the first healing miracle and, coming so close after the casting out of the demon, it serves to illustrate the fact that Jesus’ power and authority were truly awesome, that there was nothing which he could not do. But if we look a bit more closely at how people understood illness in those days, this little episode will tell us yet more about Jesus.
Mark does not explain it but, at that time, people had a very different understanding of illness than we do now. It is not so much that they did not know how it was transmitted that makes the difference but that their understanding of why illness occurs was so very different. In our time, very few people would see illness as reflecting upon the moral character of a person. We no longer think that people get ill because of something they have done. In effect now, illness is seen as morally neutral which goes some way to explain why people get so outraged by the suggestion that if health care is to be rationed at all, then those who smoke or are overweight should be disadvantaged. But back then, illness was seen as being the consequence of some sinful action. You became ill because of something you had done.
Notions of illness and evil were therefore very close, which helps to explain why so many of the accounts of Jesus’ healing miracles in the gospels sound like exorcisms. We get a taste of that here when Mark tells us that the fever ‘left her’ almost as if the fever were some kind of being. Because illness and evil were understood in very similar ways, illness was seen as something which was in opposition to God. If, through sin, you had laid yourself open to being infected by illness, then the effect was to move you further and further away from God. And the effect of healing was exactly the opposite. Simon’s mother-in-law, in getting up and serving Jesus as soon as she had been cured perfectly illustrates this. While ill, she had been unable to serve God. Now, restored to health, her first response is to serve God’s Son, Jesus Christ.
This is an exquisitely personal story. Although we do not know the woman’s name, we know who she was through knowing about her son-in-law. This healing, this act of compassion is very private, almost in the family. The contrast with what happened next could not be greater.
Because as soon as the Sabbath was ended and people could move about again freely, the whole town, the whole town beat a path to Simon and Andrew’s door, knowing that Jesus would be there. You can imagine how people must have been talking after what they had seen in the Synagogue that morning. They were desperate to see more, for although they did not know the full truth of who Jesus was, still they had seen something which amazed them. Amid the chaos and the excitement, the pushing and the jostling, Jesus healed those who were brought to him and cast out more evil spirits. As the day ended, he must have been exhausted.
And as Mark tells the story of this day, it swings back again from the public to the intensely private. For the next sight we see of Jesus is when it is still so early that it was still dark and nobody else was stirring. At this hour when he would be undisturbed, Jesus had slipped out to find a solitary place to pray. Time alone with God, time to wait upon him; as the Prophet Isaiah put it, time to renew his strength. It would be easy to forget the necessity Jesus felt for prayer. It is not mentioned that often, and then predominantly at times of great stress, but by mentioning it so early in his account of Jesus’ life, Mark establishes the fact that prayer was a part of Jesus’ life, that he did not rely just on his own strength but sought always to know and do his Father’s will.
But he did not remain alone for long. Search parties had been sent out and it was Simon who found him. They wanted him to come back, back to Capernaum, back to where the excited crowds were, bringing more and more people in need of healing. It would have been easy to give into the lure of popularity and adulation, to be a wonder worker in a small town, but it would not have been right. And Jesus, strengthened by God, knew he had to do what was right and, at this time, that meant moving on, finding new places where he could preach and new people to hear his message.
This passage contains two major challenges. In our increasingly frenetic society, where people live their lives in more and more of a hurry, with more deadlines to meet, more responsibilities, and perhaps fewer sources of support, what we have just read challenges our acceptance of incessant busyness. If even the Son of God needed time away from the demands of the crowds, how can any of us allow ourselves to think we are so superhuman that we can keep going indefinitely, that we are so indispensable that things will fall apart in our absence. These are diseases in our society, in the way many of us live, for which we need healing. These are diseases which do act in the way that people in ancient times thought illness acted, in keeping us from God, and in many cases from the families in which God has placed us and in which he has given us our most meaningful and intimate relationships. There are no easy answers and struggling to get up before dawn to pray may have been right for Jesus but it will not be the answer for many. Rather, what we see in this day in the life of Jesus is the balance between the public and the private, time with many people, time with a few, and time alone. And furthermore, we see that he was unafraid of disappointing, when he knew that the crowds were wanting something which was a distraction from his essential purpose.
And the other challenge is the question which arises from Simon’s assumption that Jesus would go back to Capernaum with him - What do we want Jesus for? The crowd wanted a healer and Simon, still caught up in the excitement, not yet knowing enough about Jesus and his ministry, wanted Jesus to continue that work. But Jesus knew that his real work was proclaiming the Kingdom and that without that message, all his healings and other miracles were essentially meaningless. Miracles for him were only ever performed in support of what he was saying. That’s the challenge. Do we, like Simon and the crowds of people, want Jesus for what we think he can do for us or can we see beyond those wonders to his essential message, and take the good news of the Kingdom of God into our hearts?