Most sermons this weekend will rightly focus on Jesus’ healing ministry, detailing how he performed the first miracles reported in the Gospel of Mark. But we should take note that, just before, the evangelist alerted us to the arrival of a “new teaching” (Mark 1:27). It seems Mark wanted to invite us to find deeper meaning in Jesus’ actions.
Did you note where Jesus was just before he arrived at the house of Simon and Andrew? This detail is crucial to understanding the disciple’s explanation of Our Lord’s healing power.
In Mark’s text, we read that, “As soon as Jesus and his disciples left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John.” The point is, these observant Jews respected the sabbath by going to the synagogue for prayer. The religious teachings of the time were strict. They institutionalized the sabbath as a time of rest and devotion, when work was forbidden. But what did Jesus do? Upon encountering Simon’s mother-in-law with a fever, he chose to break the law and cure her!
Just in case we don’t grasp the full meaning of this situation, the text goes on to emphasize that Jesus even went beyond this private healing event, which might have passed unseen. That same day they brought to Jesus all who were sick or possessed with demons. “And the whole city was gathered around the door.” Jesus cured them, and cast out demons, in what had to be public events of obvious note, events which later caused intense controversy with religious authorities.
(As if he wants to make sure we get the point, Mark repeats this similar lesson in the readings for next week, the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time. A leper violates the rules laid out in the Book of Leviticus and approaches Jesus. But he is not sent away. Jesus breaks the Law by touching the “unclean” man, and then heals him, too.)
So, this Jesus whose example we are tasked with following, shows great respect for and adherence to tradition. But he exhibits no hesitation to break with those formalized religious strictures that prevent the giving of life, or that obstruct the common good.
Religions are often defined in the popular mind as traditions that must remain unchanged. That does not seem to be the way Jesus perceived his faith, nor religion’s role in guiding people to spiritual growth.
If invited, would faithful Catholics readily identify those religious straightjackets that, under the pretense of spiritual laws or customs of today or yesterday, prevent our communities from encouraging new life in the Spirit?
What examples of the ways religious structures operate would Catholic Christians like to see change?
Enhanced roles for women in ministry and church governance structures? Better protection of minors and an end to clerical sexual abuse? A national strategy for sincere reconciliation with indigenous peoples that allows respect for cultural and religious practices once outlawed as “pagan”? Ending what Pope Francis has often denounced as the scourge of clericalism? At the same time as the “#MeToo” movement rails against sexual assault and institutional misogyny in Hollywood, might we find it healthy to address the sin of patriarchy wherever it appears in our own religious structures?
Homilists this Sunday might ask their congregation how many have written to their member of Parliament about an issue of concern. (Most people likely will have done so.) But then, ask how many have written to their bishop to express their views concerning a change they would like to see. In my experience, the response to the latter question is always many, many fewer.
At my own parish as Advent ended, an unknown, large gentleman sat in the front pew, belting out Christmas carols. He managed to shout mostly in tune, but certainly not in time with the choir members who had practiced so hard for the Christmas celebrations. I was thankful the parishioners welcomed him, despite what certainly was an obtrusive presence. These incidents caused me to remember that in the days of the Old Testament, sick persons were often considered to be sinners. Yet, the multitudes drawn to the Lord, and those healed by him, were marginalized people who were made to feel valued and welcomed. All of us are sinners. All of us are needed to help religious practices better imitate Jesus’ healing ministries.
Mark emphasizes in this week’s readings that Jesus prayed in the temple as well as by seeking quiet time alone. Jesus served the ill and vulnerable by giving their needs priority over any manufactured religious rules that unnecessarily prolonged human suffering. We also see that the response of Simon’s mother-in-law, after her healing, was to serve the community. These can become important lessons for the Christian community to reflect upon, and attempt to imitate, today.
Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice, www.cpj.ca, a member-driven, faith-based public policy organization in Ottawa focused on ecological justice, refugee rights and poverty elimination.