Our First Reading this morning is taken from the Book of Job, a story of a prosperous though righteous man overtaken by serious misfortune — everything he has is taken away: family, possessions, and even his own health. Through the ‘help’ of his ‘friends,’ Job is led to wrestle with the problem of suffering in the world, and more especially with the question: why do good people suffer? None of us is exempt this struggle. For ours is a world of suffering, in which at some time misfortune will touch each of our lives: a cancer diagnosis; the death of a loved one; suddenly finding oneself unemployed, perhaps even becoming homeless; gratuitous violence in one form or another; injustice; and many other ways. This is our world … and into it comes Jesus proclaiming: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:15) Last week and this week Mark’s Gospel has Jesus performing many miracles, which seem to address much of the suffering experienced by many of his contemporaries — which is good news for them but does little for us in our struggles.
Our Gospel, though, finishes with an enigmatic little story: ‘And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed. And Simon and those who were with him searched for him, and they found him and said to him, “Everyone is looking for you.” And he said to them, “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out.” And he went throughout all Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and casting out demons.’ (Mark 1:35-39) That is, he went throughout all Galilee doing what he had just done here in Capernaum (Mark 1:21) — for, as Jesus put it, “that is why I came out.” His ‘coming out’ could be a reference to his getting up early to go out to a desolate place to pray. (C.f.: Mark 1:12-13) But Jesus was speaking with reference to his preaching tour of Galilee. (Mark 1:38-39) Jesus ignores the fact that ‘everyone is looking for him,’ presumedly because he had cured many and there are still many more in need, in favour of going out to proclaim the Good News that the Kingdom of God is at hand, and that the time to repent and believe is now. Jesus did not come to cure the world of all its ills — as we ourselves know from our own experience of it; suffering is still part of our lot. Jesus came into the desolate place that is our world to proclaim that the Kingdom of God is at hand. (C.f.: Mark 1:12-13; 1 Corinthians 9:16)
What are we to make of all the rest of it? Later in Mark’s Gospel, some teachers of the Law/scribes from Jerusalem (that is, the establishment, the powers that be) came and accused Jesus of casting out demons by the power of Satan. (Mark 3:22) Jesus, of course, refutes this, and in Luke’s Gospel, he goes on to forthrightly challenge them: “If I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Let them be your judges then.” He goes on, “But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” (Luke 11:19- 20) In other words, Jesus’ casting out demons is not about miracle cures. Rather, it is more just another way of proclaiming that the Kingdom of God has come. Jesus came to preach in word and deed that God’s Kingdom is very near (c.f.: Rule of St Benedict 2:12); it is this that we need to hear and ‘see’/understand in what he says and does, instead of being distracted by the carryings-on of some wonder-worker. (C.f.: John2:23-24)
Again, later in this Gospel, Jesus will send his disciples out to do just as he himself had done: to preach and cast out demons. (Mark 6:7ff) On one of these ventures, a man brought his son to the disciples for them to cast a demon out of him, but they were unable. When Jesus came upon them, he cured the boy. Later, when they were alone, his disciples asked him why they could not cure the boy. Jesus replied, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.” (Mark 9:29) So, here we can see the connection between Jesus need to go out to some lonely place to pray (Mark 1:35) and his work of proclaiming the Good News about the Kingdom by either word or deed. We, as his disciples, are also sent out to proclaim the Gospel to all the world. (Mark 16:15) If Jesus had need to pray to do what he had to do, so will we if we are to do as he did, as he commands us. (C.f.: 1 Corinthians 9:16)
That leaves his healings. This morning we learned of Jesus’ cure of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. ‘Taking her by the hand,’ we are told, ‘he lifted her up, and the fever left her, and she began to serve them.’ (Mark 1:31) Jesus’ cures are about enabling people to ‘minister’ (c.f.: Mark 1:12-13), another word we could use instead of ‘serving,’ to do what they were previously unable to do. In Jesus’ day, sickness was seen as a manifestation of sin; sin disables people. And so shortly in Mark’s Gospel, we will hear of a man so weighted down by sin that to come to Jesus for healing he had to be carried by four others. (Mark 2:3) ‘Seeing their faith,’ Jesus initially says to the man, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” But prompted by the murmurings of these teachers of the Law and to show them that he really does have the power to forgive sin, Jesus then says to the man, “Rise, pick up your bed, and go home.” And he rose and immediately picked up his bed and went out in the sight all.’ (Mark 2:3ff) Jesus’ cures are about enabling a person to do what crippling sin now makes impossible — and it may just be that we simply feel unable or unwilling to join the worshipping community because of it; sin incapacitates us.
The man here in this story was told just to go home. But later we will see another demon-possessed man, whom Jesus cured and who then wanted to follow Jesus, being told, “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” (Mark 5:19) That is, he, too, is sent on mission to serve in the same way Jesus himself serves by empowering others through his proclamation that the Kingdom is now here. (Mark 10:45) This brings to mind Paul’s comment in his Letter to the Galatians: ‘Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted.’ (Galatians 6:1. C.f. Mark 1:12-13) Often the service we are to render is just to ‘restore that person,’ to help them to have done with what they are doing that causes alienation, often manifesting in enmity. That is, the service we are called to render is but another way to proclaim repentance that Jesus himself proclaimed. The service we are to offer, as Paul puts it in his Letter to the Romans, is to ‘help bear the weaknesses of those who are not strong’ ‘with a view to building them up for the good,’ or as St Benedict puts it: ‘They should each try to be the first to show respect to the other, and support with the greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body or behaviour, and earnestly compete in obedience to one another. No one is to pursue what he judges better for himself, but instead what he just goes better for himself.’ (Romans 15:1-2; Rule of St Benedict 72:3-7) Seeing it in this way we can better understand Paul’s warning that in so doing we need to ‘watch ourselves lest we also be tempted’: in dealing with others, it is so easy to lose patience with one another and stalk off angrily, leaving them to it and going off to please ourselves: “I’ll show them!” (C.f.: Genesis 4:7) The only way to protect ourselves in this service of healing, which we are called to render, is to beg God in prayer for ‘the help of his grace’ each and every time we begin such a good work in this service of the community. (Rule of St Benedict Prologue:4, 41) Again, the need for prayer in the service of proclamation. As good disciples of Jesus, we need to develop a habit of prayer. And we are going to need it, if we are going to do as Jesus did and help people in their struggles with disabling sin. And the Good News is that, should we fail in our attempts, there will be another there to help us pick ourselves up, that we may continue to serve.