Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time: The Pillars of Safety

The coming of God in power — that’s what these first Sundays of the Year have been about.

Feb 06, 2021

5th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Readings: Job 7:1-4, 6-7;
1 Corinthians 9:16-19, 22-23;
Gospel: Mark 1:29-39

The coming of God in power — that’s what these first Sundays of the Year have been about. Mark has been our guide, showing us first the Baptiser, and then the Stronger One who, after thirty years of anonymity, has burst onto the Galilean scene announcing this coming-of-God-in-power using the language of kingdom. At the beginning of his gospel, as his first illustration of that power, Mark had chosen not a word but a deed, the deliverance from demonic oppression of the poor man who, one Sabbath, interrupted Jesus teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum (see Mk 1:21-28).

That episode is worth noting, since it will prepare the way for this Sunday’s Gospel. While Mark could well have begun his account of the public ministry with an example of Jesus’ teaching — a parable, say — he chooses this dramatic action (accomplished, though, by a sharp word: “Quiet! Come out of him!”*). Strikingly, the people respond to this expulsion of the evil spirit with, “What is this? A new teaching with authority.” Implication: Jesus’ good news is not simply a new idea or an alternative lifestyle; it is the announcement and the inauguration of a fresh intervention of divine power. When people respond to Jesus’ teaching, things happen. Salvation is not “pie in the sky by and by.” Salvation turns out to be a matter of getting rescued from concrete evils. This Sunday’s Gospel continues that theme. The four fishermen, only recently called from their tackle and trade, follow Jesus to Simon’s house, where they alert the Master to Simon’s mother-in-law, sick in bed with a fever. And here, not with a word but a gesture — “he grasped her hand, and helped her up” — Jesus restores the good woman. Her response to the healing: she begins to serve them, presumably fixing a meal for the four of them. It is another of Mark’s cameos of Christian life: a person in trouble is rescued through encounter with the Lord and proceeds to serve others. The single word Mark uses to describe her action, diekonei (“she waited on them”), resonates with the primary Church word for service, diakonia. The kingdom shows in a simple act of hospitality.

When the sun sets on that Sabbath, thereby signalling the start of a new day in Jewish reckoning and thus the end of the Sabbath's no-work regulation, people bring to Jesus all who are sick and/or demonised. And what Jesus did for a man in the synagogue and a woman in the home, he now does for all of them. The coming of God’s rescuing power in Jesus is meant to touch all. Jesus’ muzzling of the know-it-all demons is a cue that, though the kingdom is demonstrated in healing and deliverance from the demonic, there is even more to it than that.

That “more” is suggested when we see Jesus rise before the break of day and head out to a deserted place to pray. Jesus serves a cause larger, even, than himself. All of this preaching and healing is a “coming out” impelled by the divine Father whose power Jesus is mediating.

Now it becomes clear why the Church has chosen to introduce this Sunday’s service of the word with a lament from Job (First Reading). In these words we eavesdrop on a drama set in pre-Israelite Edom, and we hear the complaint of a man who has lost children, property, and health. These sad words of sleepless hopelessness have a universal ring that anyone who has ever had a bad day (or night) can relate to. We read them today as a reminder of the power of God that Jesus announces and brings, which is meant to address just such emptiness. The Gospel is indeed a new teaching with authority, one that actually rescues.

The short quotation from Paul’s letter to the Corinthian community shows us that the urgency with which Jesus spread his Godspel is typical of his followers and ministers (diakonoi). How does Paul put it? “If I preach the gospel, this is no reason for me to boast, for an obligation has been imposed on me, and woe to me if I do not preach it!” (1 Cor 9:16). This is not the complaint of a workaholic. It is more like a healed mother-in-law’s spontaneous instinct to serve. — By Prof Emeritus Dennis Hamm, SJ

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