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SCRIPTURE STUDY: Mark 1:29-39 – Irrelevant widows, to be sick and poor, and when religion goes rogue

In this middle section of Mark’s first chapter, we’re seeing early scenes from the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. There are three distinct, short passages contained in these eleven verses, which continue the 24 hour period which began in verse 21 and sort of represents “a day in the life of Jesus.”

In verse 29, as the passage opens, Jesus is moving from the synagogue–a public, sacred space and the domain of the scribes, elders, et al–to a more private, intimate space–the house of Simon and Andrew. The shift in scene takes Jesus from a place of tension and conflict (in the passage just prior, Jesus was confronted by demons and the people openly privileged Jesus’ teaching over the teaching of their professional religious leaders) to a more relaxed, comfortable setting.

Upon entering the home, Jesus is told that Simon’s mother-in-law in sick. This verse has a few clues for us to consider. One, Jesus has not demonstrated his power to heal up to this point in Mark’s gospel (the earlier passage is an exorcism, distinct from healing), so to assume that Simon or Andrew bring up her sickness as a request for Jesus to heal her seems a little bit of a stretch. One person this week suggested that maybe the assertion that the mother-in-law is sick with a fever functions more as a warning to Jesus, i.e. Jesus should steer clear of her.

The second consideration is the status of Simon’s mother-in-law. Since she’s living with Simon and her daughter’s family, we can assume that she has no husband to care for her. As a widow then, she fits into that specifically Jewish list of those who are consistently the most marginalized and vulnerable in society–the widow, the orphan and the stranger/foreigner/immigrant.

So when Jesus touches her in verse 31–even though he has been warned to stay away, and even though she is a widow, i.e. a person of no account–it seems to be less about any miraculous healing and more about Jesus’ preferential option to see those who are typically rendered invisible, touch those who are typically deemed untouchable, take account of those who are typically considered of no account. Even the muted nature of the miracle–she’s in bed with a fever, not blind or lame–asks us to look elsewhere for deeper significance in the action. The passage asks us to consider how much sickness is intertwined with the feelings of being discarded, ignored, or uncared for by others, as much as it is about the actual physical discomfort. Jesus has not allowed the people’s astonishment or amazement toward him [verses 21-28] to inflate his own sense of self-importance that he would dismiss the sickness and loneliness of this silent widow.

Finally, we should also note that the Greek word interpreted here to say that the widow then “waited on” Jesus and his disciples is the same Greek word used later in Mark that is specific to the “service” that is associated with discipleship (see 15:41). The work of seeing to another’s need is recognized as an authentic exercise of discipleship, not devalued as “unimportant” work to be done by those of lesser status.

The next passage opens by noting that the Sabbath has ended (“after sunset”) and that a large number of people were being brought by their friends, families and others to the door of the hosue where Jesus was staying. The people being brought before Jesus are identified as “ill or possessed by demons.” So what does this identification mean?

Historically, these stories are circulating probably around the time leading up to the Roman-Jewish war of 66-70 AD. It is a time of increasing political and economic instability, helping to lay the foundation for the short-lived success of Jewish zealots and others who are able to temporarily drive the Romans out. In times of political and economic distress, the ranks of the poor swell with those who once were able to get by losing what little they had and those who had next to nothing to begin with reaching an even more severe level of destitution and desperation. For the increasing number of poor, to be sick meant much more than to be physically disabled. There are also emotional, psychological and spiritual dimensions to poverty, similar to what we saw with Simon’s mother-in-law. But we also know that illness holds more devastating consequences for the impoverished than for people of means and status.

First, the poor are more likely to get sick and to stay sick. This is directly related to their access to healthcare, their ability to pay for medicines, their lack of access to those things which lead to good health (healthy foods, clean living conditions, networks of social support) and the likelihood of lifestyles or jobs (lack of a home, hard or dirty manual labor) which expose them to greater risk of sickness.

But sickness has social and cultural, and certainly in Jesus’ time, religious dimensions as well. To be sick was to be in a “socially devalued state.” Sickness was a symptom of sinfulness, of ritual impurity, and it meant being excluded from worship, from one’s social networks, and in extreme cases, from one’s community or town. Besides suffering from an inability to access or pay for cures for the physical symptoms of an illness, the sick also could only return to worship and their various social units upon making atonement for their ritual impurity or sinfulness–which meant also having the economic means to satisfy the prescriptions of the sacrificial system which was administered by the priesthood or their proxies. The business of sickness (and at that time, ritual impurity) was big business, as it is now. And such a system put undue and sometimes impossible strain on the poor.

In summary then, those who are coming to Jesus in verse 32 are most likely overwhelmingly the poor and destititute sick, those whose physical condition have marginalized them socially, politically, economically, religiously and culturally as well. The ways to physical healing and social health have all been closed to them. They do not have recourse to the systems built and maintained by people of status, means, and power. What Jesus then represents to them is so much more than the simple curing of their physical symptoms. Yes, we can acknowledge a physical dimension to these stories of Jesus’ healing; but so much more than that is taking place. The act of healing includes the possibility of restoration to the community, the reopening of relationships, a chance at a new life, the ability to work and to worship, and the reclaiming of dignity. There is a social dimension to these acts of healings that we miss entirely if we narrowly attune our eyes to the “miracle” of a blind man seeing, or a deaf woman hearing.

Our passage transitions again in verse 35, with Jesus again withdrawing from a very public scene (masses of people at the door of the house where he is staying) to a private one, a deserted or “lonely” place where he goes to commune with God. His disciples “pursue” him or “hunt” for him in verse 36, telling him that everyone is looking for him in verse 37. Jesus’ reply to them is interesting. In verse 38, he does not answer that he will go back with them, but rather that they will “go on to nearby villages.” And for those of us who have maybe gotten too hung up already in the gospel on Jesus’ miracles of healing, Mark notes succinctly that Jesus’ purpose is “to preach,” an assertion which throws us back to the verses 14-15 where Jesus states unequivocally the message of that preaching: the good news of God, that the kingdom of God (as opposed to all the partial and fallen kingdoms of this world) is at hand. All of Jesus’ word and actions are aimed at this good news: that the poor will hear good news, that the imprisoned will be released, that the oppressed will be liberated, the blind will see, and the Jubilee will commence (return of lands, forgiveness of debts, etc.)

The passage ends on an ominous note. Referring back to verses 21-28, Mark now makes clear what was murky. The religious institutions of Jesus’ time have become possessed, no longer serving God or the needs of the people, but rather serving a corrupt and demonic power (greed? wealth? power? the market? nation? empire?) So Jesus embarks on a campaign, preaching and driving out the demons which have taken up residence in these places of worship and education and in the people who run them. His campaign is from synagogue to synagogue, liberating each of them, throughout all of Galilee.

Next week, we’ll look at the last passage from this opening chapter in Mark, 1:40-45.

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