Year B: Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Cure of Simon’s Mother-in-Law.

Mark 1: 29-39

On leaving the synagogue he entered the house of Simon and Andrew with James and John. Simon’s mother-in-law lay sick with a fever. They immediately told him about her. He approached, grasped her hand, and helped her up. Then the fever left her, and she waited on them. When it was evening, after sunset, they brought to him all who were ill or possessed by demons. The whole town was gathered at the door. He cured many who were sick with various diseases, and he drove out many demons, not permitting them to speak because they knew him.  Rising very early before dawn, he left and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed. Simon and those who were with him pursued him and on finding him said, “Everyone is looking for you. He told them, “Let us go on to the nearby villages that I may preach there also. For this purpose have I come.” So, he went into their synagogues, preaching and driving out demons throughout the whole of Galilee.

Discussion Questions:

  1. When you pray for the sick, is your focus on God’s presence and healing to take place or for a miracle cure? How are these different?
  2. “The whole town was gathered at the door.” In your life what represents the noise of the crowd, how does this distract you from spiritual priorities?   
  3. These days, what are some of the demons we face in life and how do they possess us? What have you experienced regarding yourself, or seen in others? 
  4. From Shea’s reflection: Have you ever experienced suffering that has generated a “healing response” within you or regarding someone else? Explain. 
  5. What would need to shift in how you relate to God, to more openly receive and give God’s healing presence? 

Biblical Context

Mark 1: 29-39
Mary M. McGlone CSJ

Mark opens Jesus’ public ministry with a flurry of activity that all happens in Capernaum. After the synagogue incident we heard last week, we now hear that Jesus went out of the synagogue, the place of teaching, and immediately entered the home Peter shared with others. They let him know immediately that Simon’s mother-in-law was ill. Mark tells the rest of the story in very tangible detail: Jesus drew near her, took her hand and raised her. The details of this very short miracle account make a point of Jesus’ attentive personal involvement with this woman. It is very little surprise, then, that the next phrase is “she served them.”

As Mark introduces us to Jesus, he presents him as the victor over demons and a healer. It is striking that the first person Jesus healed was a woman — quite likely a widow and one whose social standing came through her daughter’s husband. In other words, she was one of the lowly. And what do we know of this lowly woman? Only that upon being healed, she “waited on them.” The word for “waited on” comes from the Greek diakoneo which we immediately recognize as the root for deacon. It is not a common word in Mark’s Gospel, in fact, it is used only twice more. After this verse, Mark 10 shows Jesus reprimanding the disciples who were seeking the first places at his right and left sides. He told them that he had not come to be served, but to serve. The only other people whom Mark presents as servers are the women who remained with Jesus when he went to the cross (15:41). Mark presents this woman, the first person healed by Jesus, as the first to understand his message and the implications of following him.

With this story, Mark has established Jesus’ reputation as an exorcist and healer. The sun has set on his first day in public ministry. In the second part of our reading, people begin to flock to Jesus at night. If his first exorcism and healing were symbol of what he offered, the “whole town” who came in the night represented the world in need. This is only the first of the crowds who would press on him, seeking healing, and there is no indication that they understood the message of his presence in the way that Peter’s mother-in-law did. He healed many and drove out demons, but Mark does not say that the healed people became his disciples and the demons seem more able to understand the implications of what he does than do the crowds.

That leads to the third part of today’s selection. Before dawn, Jesus escaped to a deserted place where he prayed. This is the first of three times that Mark will depict Jesus at prayer. The second comes after the sharing of the loaves among the crowd in Mark 6; the third is in the Garden of Gethsemane. Mark gives us the idea that Jesus’ prayer at the beginning of his ministry was a key to discerning what he was to do. He was an overnight sensation, and Peter and the disciples seemed to be ready to be his managers. But rather than defer to public expectations, rather than be caught up in fame, Jesus chose to extend his reach.

By way of explanation for his decision to go to other villages, Jesus says, “For this purpose I have come.” The word Jesus used that is translated as come is more like “come out” or “come forth.” This is a little like Luke’s depiction of Jesus in the synagogue at Nazareth (4:16-30) when Jesus proclaimed his mission in the words of the prophet Isaiah. Here, Jesus indicates that he knows his purpose, he has come forth for more than popularity in a small place. As Peter’s mother-in-law foreshadowed, his mission is to serve.

Curing, Healing and Serving

John Shea

Contemporary spiritual teaching often maps a different path of curing, healing, and service than is portrayed in this episode from St. Mark’s Gospel. But a similar challenge emerges in both renditions.

Ram Dass, an American spiritual teacher in the Hindu tradition who suffered a debilitating stroke in 1997, makes this distinction between healing and curing. “While cures aim at returning our bodies to what they were in the past, healing uses what is present to move us more deeply to Soul Awareness, and in some cases, physical “improvement.” “Although I have not been cured of the effects of my stroke, I have certainly undergone profound healings of mind and heart” Therefore, healing can happen without cure.

In fact, it is in the sickness that the healing begins. Michael Lerner, who works with people diagnosed with cancer, offered this description of what he would do if faced with a cancer diagnosis. “I would pay a great deal of attention to the inner healing process that I hoped a cancer diagnosis would trigger in me. I would give careful thought to the meaning of my life, what I had to let go of and what I wanted to keep” (Dass, 74).

Healing is initiated in the sickness. It does not wait for cure to arrive. In fact, in some illness literature patients report a greater sense of being alive and in communion with others when they were sick. When they were cured, they returned to normal life, a life often characterized by numbness and rote obligation. Cure actually threatened healing. This was the case with a man by the name of Fred. He was diagnosed with terminal cancer. After an initial period of distress, “something amazing happened. I simply stopped doing everything that wasn’t essential, that didn’t matter.” His terminally ill life became vital and peaceful. But the doctors changed their mind. He was not terminally p ill. He had a rare but curable disease. “When I heard this over the telephone I cried like a baby—because I was afraid my life would go back to the way it used to be”.

This is the same challenge the Gospel presents, only in a quite different context. Jesus’ cures and exorcisms are signs of the kingdom of God. They both complement and embody Jesus’ more explicit teachings. People are supposed to interpret these signs as God’s loving response to human need. This interpretation, in turn, is meant to change peoples minds and initiate new ways of being with one another. The proper response to cures and exorcisms, like the proper response to proclamation and teaching, is repentance, a change of mind and behavior. Just remaining dazzled by the miraculous activity is insufficient.

Although the consciousness of Simon’s mother-in-law is not presented in the text, the indication is that both cure and healing occurred. Fever lays her low. Jesus takes her hand (v. 31). His touch becomes a transfusion, his life flowing into hers. In loving the person at the hidden center of the sickness, he lifts her up. The fever leaves and service begins. God’s service to her becomes her service to others.

The cure provides physical relief, but it is also accompanied by profound healing. Healing reconnects us to the deepest center of ourselves and through that center to God and neighbor. The flow of life and love through the intimate communion of God, self, and neighbor results in the dignity of service. As the whole Gospel will attest, service is not menial work. It is the hallmark of the new humanity that Jesus came to establish (see John 13:1-17). “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve” (Mark 10:45).

The contemporary path suggests that suffering is an invitation to may not result in a cure. If cure happens, the struggle is to persevere in the healing that was begun in sickness. The Gospel path begins with the cures and exorcisms, restorations to physical and mental health. But these cures must affect the minds and hearts of those cured and those witnessing the cures. They are meant to be catalysts of personal transformation, relating people in a new way to the love of God and the wellbeing of their neighbor (see Mark 12:29-31).

Spiritual Commentaries and Teachings are excerpted from The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea © 2004 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.