Monday, April 15, 2019

Mark 1: 29-45

and forthwith, 
when they were come out of the synagogue
they entered into the house of Simon and Andrew
with James and John.
but Simon's wife's mother lay sick of a fever,
and anon they tell him of her
and he came and took her by the hand
and lifted her up
and immediately the fever left her,
and she ministered unto them.

This incident is so brief it barely counts as a story. Simon's mother-in-law is poorly; Jesus arrives; holds her hand; she gets up and makes lunch. He doesn't preach a message or draw any conclusion: it isn't his doctrine which heals her. If anything Jesus makes her better just by being there. 

The slightly awkward word "ministered" reflects a word-play in the original: diakonos, a waiter, is the same word as diakonos, a deacon. 

In a few pages Simon will be given the sobriquet Peter. In a few decades, the Roman Catholic church will claim Peter as their first Pope. And the only way I know of acquiring a mother-in-law is by having a wife. The first Pope was a married man.

I suppose that extended family units consisting of a married couple, one or more of their parents, and any kids were fairly common in Capernaum. But I do wonder why Granny, rather than Mrs Peter cooked lunch for the important visitors. 

The obvious answer being: Peter was a widower.

and at even 
when the sun did set 
they brought unto him all that were diseased 
and them that were possessed with devils
and all the city was gathered together at the door
and he healed many that were sick of divers diseases 
and cast out many devils
and suffered not the devils to speak
because they knew him

Mark's Gospel unfolds at breakneck speed. Immediately after the exorcism, Jesus becomes famous; immediately after leaving the synagogue, they go to stay with Simon; immediately they arrive, they hear that his mother-in-law is sick; immediately Jesus holds her hand, she gets better. Our English translators use different words: straightway, forthwith, anon, immediately, at once. But that disguises the rhythm and the repetition of the original, where the same word is repeated endlessly. Euthys... euthys... euthys..... 

They should probably have picked "straightway" and stuck with it. This is, after all, a story which started with an admonition to built a straight way for the King. 

The fishermen wouldn't have been working on the Sabbath, so the first visit to the Synagogue must have been at least a day or two after the calling of the Four. Even if we take "the region round about Galilee" to mean "the villages near the lake" and not "the whole province" the news about Jesus would have taken days or weeks to get out there. So "immediately the news spread" and "immediately they went to Simon's house" are in two different time frames. 

There is no point in trying to create a chronology out of Mark's breathless narrative. This isn't "a probable outline of Jesus' career", telling you what he did and where he did it and in what order. It's a lot of short Jesus-stories strung together by an editor. The scholars are doubtless correct when they tell us that "As soon as they left the synagogue, they went to the home of Simon and Andrew" is an editorial link, and that in its original form the story started "So, Simon's mother-in-law was in bed with a fever". 

But the construction is not arbitrary. There is a story arc. This second half of the first chapter is clearly presenting us with "Jesus's first day": how he went from obscurity to fame. 

He arrives in town; maybe on Friday, and selects the first four people he sees to be his followers. On Saturday morning he preaches in the synagogue and performs an exorcism. On Saturday lunchtime, he visits Simon's house and heals Simon's mother in law. By Saturday evening, everyone in town is outside his front door. Mark underlines the time of day: "that evening, after sunset". Jesus waits until shabbat is over before starting the mass exorcism. He isn't going to challenge the lawyers on this point. Not just yet. The next morning he absents himself.

And then the narrative does something so strange I am almost embarrassed to draw attention to it. 

and in the morning, 
rising up a great while before day
he went out
and departed into a solitary place
and there prayed 

Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. So far so un-surprising. The Greek doesn't actually say "morning": it says something untranslatable like "very early in the night still much" but everyone agrees that that's an idiom for "before the sun had come up". 

So: Jesus gets up before sunrise. Before sunrise on the morning after the Sabbath. Before sunrise on Sunday morning. 

"Got up" is a perfectly reasonable translation: my understanding is that the Greek is actually closer to "he stood up". But "he stood up" -- anastas -- is elsewhere translated as "he rose" or "he arose". 


Very early on Sunday morning, while it was still dark, Jesus arose. 

He was Simon's guest. Simon must literally have gone to his bedroom and found that he was not there. Because he had risen. (Did he fold up his bedclothes neatly before he went?) And so, after the sun had come up, Simon went looking for him... 

I do not know what is going on. I do not know if Mark worked a credal statement into a passage which is really just giving out a fairly banal piece of information -- Jesus used to get up early to say his prayers. Or, more shockingly, if events we perceive as holy and mysterious were originally talked about in concrete, day-to-day language. 

"Very early on Easter Sunday morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up..." 

and Simon
and they that were with him followed after him
and when they had found him 
they said unto him, 
"All men seek for thee"
and he said unto them, 
"Let us go into the next towns, 
that I may preach there also: 
for therefore came I forth." 
and he preached in their synagogues 
throughout all Galilee 
and cast out devils

When the story started, some 50 verses ago, John the Baptist was in the wilderness, and everyone in Judea was coming to him. As the first section of the story draws to a close, Jesus is in the wilderness, and everyone in Galilee is looking for him. We know John as the precursor to Jesus; but if we were reading this story for the first time it would seem that Jesus was being presented as the second John. 

Jesus decides not to return to Capernaum, but to go instead to the nearby towns. I don't think that he is saying "I came to preach in the surrounding towns, not just in Capernaum"; I think that he is saying "Let's go to the towns which haven't heard about the exorcism yet; so that I can announce my good tidings. I came to do that, not to perform miracles." 

and there came a leper to him 
beseeching him
and kneeling down to him
and saying unto him
"If thou wilt, thou canst make me clean"
and Jesus
moved with compassion
put forth his hand
and touched him
and saith unto him
"I will
be thou clean."
and as soon as he had spoken 
immediately the leprosy departed from him
and he was cleansed
and he straitly charged him
and forthwith sent him away
and saith unto him
"See thou say nothing to any man 
but go thy way 
shew thyself to the priest 
and offer for thy cleansing those things which Moses commanded 
for a testimony unto them"
But he went out, 
and began to publish it much
and to blaze abroad the matter 
insomuch that Jesus could no more openly enter into the city
but was without in desert places
and they came to him from every quarter 

If you had asked me to guess, I would have assumed that the Bible was divided into chapters and verses in the fourth century, when the text was being translated into Latin. But in fact, the chapter divisions only go back to the thirteenth century. Still, the editors knew what they were doing, and Mark chapter 1 works pretty well as a standalone narrative. Here endeth the first chapter; tune in next week for the further adventures of Jesus and his band. 

This first installment ends with Jesus leaving Capernaum to preach in the other towns; episode two will begin with him returning to base. But in between comes this story. And I think Mark put it here for a reason. Thematically, it represents the climax of this first cycle of stories; and psychologically, it represents a turning point in Jesus' career. 

We've seen Jesus heal a sick lady and expel a dirty ghost; and we're told that hundreds of people came to Simon's house for healing and deliverance. But this is the first time Jesus has healed a leper, and it is obviously of special significance. 

John washed people in the river: the point of washing is to get clean; literally, metaphorically, spiritually. Lepers are dirty. Some translations primly insist on "ceremonially unclean" and "ritually defiled". It is certainly true that the Jewish religion involved a lot of spiritual and ceremonial cleaning up, but it is also true that skin diseases and excrement and blood and mildew and pigs are yucky and icky and repulsive. Things which are physically repulsive and things which are spiritually repulsive are talked about in the same way. 

Lepers are dirty. If you touch a leper, you become dirty. The leper wants to be clean. Jesus can touch dirty things without getting dirty himself. When he touches something dirty, the dirty thing gets cleaned up. John's baptism -- his washing -- didn't actually clean anyone up. Jesus has cleaned up the leper just by being near him. He isn't disgusting any more.

Jesus left Capernaum because he wanted to announce his good message, not get trapped in a house healing sick people. So the leper's question could almost be seen as an accusation. 

"You could clean me up if you wanted to." 

"Oh, I want to...." 

Are we allowed to read psychological conflict into the life of Jesus? Or could we even (shades of Martin Scorcese) see the leper as tempting Jesus; using his human compassion to divert him from his divine mission? Jesus wants to proclaim the good-message. He has run away from Capernaum because the people there are demanding exorcisms and healings. But when confronted with a person who desperately needs cleansing, his compassion kicks in. He can't only be God's herald. He has to be a healer as well. 

And so the first chapter ends. Perhaps with a long, aerial shot of Jesus in the desolation (like John) and crowds of people coming out of the towns and the villages and converging on him. 

The sky has opened up; and this fellow from the North is walking around with a part of God inside him. Some law of spiritual attraction has kicked in. Fishermen leave their nets and fall in step behind him. Sick people get better just because he's there. Dirty ghosts run away. Physically disgusting people become clean. Congregations are panic-stricken by his words. Everyone is looking for him, all the time. But he hides from them. He keeps his identity a secret. He doesn't want to be found. He wants only to proclaim and teach. "That is why I have come forth." 

But what is this proclamation? What is this doctrine which boggles congregations?As the curtain comes down, this is still very mysterious indeed.


James Kabala said...

Is that interpretation of rising up etc. original to you? I tried some Google search strings such as "Mark 1:35 predicts Easter" and "Mark 1:35 foreshadowing" without any real success, although the Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary, whatever that might be (sounds Victorian), comes close: "His choosing this day to inaugurate a new and glorious stage of His public work, should be noted by the reader." That interpretation emphasizes the day of the week but not the rising up.

It is brilliant (in the American sense, but I guess really in the British sense as well). Thank you.

SK said...

The first Pope was a married man

Some of the later ones probably were too; the ban on married priests didn't come in until the twelfth century.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Give or take eight hundred years.

Andrew Rilstone said...

James: If I spot something in a Spider-Man comic which hasn't been noticed in the last 40 years, I assume it is because I am very clever. If I spot something in Mark's Gospel which hasn't been mentioned in the last 2,000 years, I am afraid it must be because I am wrong...

Lirazel said...

No worries, Andrew: I sometimes think I've spotted something in Plato's Republic that no one else has, which is almost certainly not a true perception. I enjoy it nonetheless.