Br. Bernard Jean Delcourt, OHC
RCL – Epiphany 5 B – Sunday 08 February 2009
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
Your prophet Isaiah proclaimed that
…those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles,they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint. (Isaiah 40:31)
May we relentlessly turn our hearts towards You,
May we recurrently refocus on the building of your commonwealth of love, your republic of universal welfare.
May we remember that you are a God close at hand; as close to ourselves as our own heart, as close at hand as this neighbor you are giving us to love.
We ask that you may bless us with the strength that Isaiah described, that we may not grow weary but walk and not faint as we co-create your Kingdom, here, now.
Today, I would like us to move beyond the pretence of political correctness that make us smirk and say:
”Well! Ain’t that typical, that the guys would raise a woman from her deathbed, so that they don’t have to fix dinner themselves!”
And in order to move beyond the sexist cliché, we’ll try to look at the gospel with the understanding of Israelites contemporary to Jesus.
Last week’s and today’s gospel play out a showdown in Jesus’ hometown. Let’s call Jesus Yeshua for the moment. That is likely to be closer to the name he answered to in everyday life (before his name was made Greek-sounding for the purpose of disseminating the Good News).
Yeshua was a local in Capernaum where his errant family had settled down. To the villagers, Yeshua is one of them, but not one of the most honored villagers. Remember that honor, not wealth or power, is the highest value transacted in first century Palestine.
Yeshua is the son of a carpenter who re-settled with his family, in the village of Capernaum, a while ago. Yeshua would be considered as the kid of an immigrant who came there because something forced them to move from wherever was home before – and the gossips would be swift in pointing out that it must have been something dishonorable that must have prompted the move.
Yeshua would have to do a lot of honorable things to progressively rise into the ranks of the honor-wealthy. For that to happen, not rocking the boat would have been advisable.
Instead, Yeshua stands up and teaches with authority in the synagogue. You can already hear the proper and prim asking under their breath “who does he think he is to outdo the scribes at their own job?”
And then an unclean spirit tries to out Yeshua as The Holy One of God. Spirits, whether clean or unclean, were considered to have inside knowledge of higher levels of reality. But Yeshua silences the spirit and casts it out of the poor man who has been its host. Claiming such high honor as Holy One of God would be seen as unfathomable by the villagers. But in the process of quashing that high claim for himself, Yeshua has demonstrated that he is a gifted healer.
Unfortunately for his honor, he has done a healing on a Sabbath day and in the synagogue, no less. That’s not within code and therefore raises even more eyebrows amongst the self-righteous.
In today’s gospel, Yeshua next visits Peter’s house and proceeds to heal Peter’s mother-in-law. This is hardly a more private healing than the one in the synagogue. It is probably a numerous household in a smallish house. Both Simon Peter and Andrew live there. And from the mention of Peter’s mother-in-law, we can surmise that, at least Simon Peter, has a wife and probably children; Andrew probably too. Moreover, in good honorable fashion the outside door would remain open all day until everyone went to bed.
So it is no wonder that news of Yeshua’s healing capabilities spread like a wildfire through the village. The villagers, on the other hand, are not so bold as Yeshua with the Sabbath rules. They wait until after sundown, when the Sabbath is over, to transport their sick and bring the possessed, at the door of Peter’s house.
Mark the evangelist tells us that “he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.”
After a short night’s sleep, Jesus, who has been constantly pressed by people and their personal needs, chooses to isolate himself for some personal prayer. Since a simple villager’s house would offer no personal privacy, he goes outside to a deserted place.
This is a poignant lesson our Savior is giving us. Not even the Son of God could go long without drinking from the water brook of prayer. Jesus shows us just how critical it is to give ourselves times and spaces of quiet prayer. And he models for us that, if necessary, we may have to improvise to find the time and space; even when the needs of ministry urgently demand priority over everything else. Mark the evangelist isn’t subtle about the demands of ministry when he says that “Simon and his companions hunted for Jesus.”
They didn’t look for him or wonder where he was; they hunted for him. After all, Jesus only healed many (but not all) who were sick, and cast out many (but not all) demons present in his village of Capernaum. There was more work to do there.
And yet, Jesus chooses to expand the revelation of the Gospel by moving onwards to other places. He could have chosen to stay put; to cure all; to cast out all demons while letting them vouch for the fullness of his honor as the Holy One of God. And he could have built a power base right there from which to expand to neighboring Galilean villages.
But that is not the sort of Messiah that Jesus is. He is going to become a very upsetting Messiah for the Israelites, upturning expectations, challenging institutions, and overwhelming those who open their hearts to him.
And the demands of Jesus’ ministry for himself and for his disciples are going to be overwhelming right from the get-go. In asking Andrew and Peter to follow him to the neighboring towns of Galilee for starters, he is also asking them to leave their families behind.
There is no way to beat around the bush on this one. The disciples’ relatives were left to fend for themselves as far as economic and social supports were concerned.
The presence of Peter’s mother in law in Peter’s household is illustrative of what discipleship involved for both themselves and their families.
Peter’s mother-in-law has no other male relative to stay with (she is probably a widow without a son, otherwise those would be the men she would be living with). Women who ended up unattached to a male relative, often ended up in destitution and, not rarely, resorted to prostitution as a last effort for survival.
In a patriarchic society like first century Palestine, the fact that no other woman is mentioned in the story does not exclude the fact that Peter’s wife might still be alive and that they might have children. Mark’s early readers would know that he would not deem them worth mentioning unless they move the main narrative in some way.
So, can we imagine what it was for Peter’s mother-in-law to be healed from serious illness and brought back to constructive participation in the community and then to see her only social and economic support removed the very next day?
‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’ said Jesus in these early days. What sort of good news was that for the apostles and for Peter’s mother-in-law?
Well! Good News it was... but not of the sort that was expected. Jesus did not come to comfort the honor code of his society nor its family system, nor ours for that matter. The hope he brought to people like Peter, who left all behind, and to those like Peter’s mother-in-law, who was left behind, was a great re-ordering of whom we consider our kindred. If my kindred is each and every one of the neighbors I am called to love as myself then both Peter and his mother-in-law could be OK.
So it is in the incredible hope that no one will remain a negligible stranger that you and I must strike out with Jesus to announce and build up the commonwealth of love, the republic of universal welfare that is the Kingdom of God.
Let us pray.
Lord Jesus, Holy One of God, give us hope, guidance and protection in these difficult times.
Give us hope, guidance and protection as we turn away from a misguided focus on the short-term advancement of our self-serving wants and needs.
Give us hope, guidance and protection as we turn to one another to discover and love You in mutual support and advancement of the common good.
Global Crescendo photographer Kebeh Jallah took this photo of her sister, the village “sick woman” (in Liberia). Gang raped by militia men, she is partially paralyzed and bed ridden. The white chalky substance visible on her skin is said to relieve pain. Photo: Kebeh Jallah. From a 24 January 2008 entry in Ann Jones' blog Voices From The Field