Jesus, Social Distancing, and Health Care Mark 1:16-37

At the beginning of Mark’s gospel, a medical crisis in Galilee overwhelms Jesus. Everything seemed to happen at once. It was the beginning of his ministry. Imagine launching a company and all the new things that go along with opening a business. First, you have to hire staff. It can be challenging to develop job descriptions, ideas for how big the company needs to function, and then look at resumes, all before interviewing people. That’s before setting out to speak to a single person about the kingdom of God. Until this part of the plan takes hold, success depends on one person doing all the work. Every aspect of the ministry depends on Jesus and the driving force of his personality. Before he’s called the first disciple, he’s already exhausted. (We know this because he tells us.)

John baptized Jesus, and the pace of Jesus’ life and ministry went from 1st to fourth gear overnight. He saw the need for help and he called disciples to join his ministry team. Whatever thought, planning, and ideas Jesus put into calling the disciples (people like Peter, James, and John), it came down to one question: Will you follow me? Jesus can make the distinction between fishing for people and actual fishing. Still, it’s a question of following Jesus, as a rabbi (or teacher), to build a movement around the idea we now understand as the kingdom of God. That’s the question: will you follow me? The question is not: “will you discuss following me, will you consider supporting me, will you follow me for a couple of hours a week on Sunday morning, or will you follow me when you like the way the church is going? No, Jesus asks a simple question: will you follow me? Are we able to give Jesus an honest answer?

If not, why not? What’s stopping us from being honest with Jesus? Will you follow me? And that’s Jesus of the Gospel, not the Jesus of our filters. Are we ready to follow Jesus?

Once Jesus gathers followers, people who said “yes” without context and explanation, they begin the work of the kingdom of God. What’s the first thing they do? Does Jesus start preaching a message of fire and brimstone? Do these first disciples warn others of the dangers of hell? No, they do none of these things. Remember, the pace hasn’t stopped.

First, the group goes to see and observe Jesus heal a man with an unclean spirit. The man is possessed. Or, as we would say in our day in time, he’s mentally ill. Wouldn’t we say that an evil spirit possesses an addict?  We all would! Jesus’ exorcism, his first action in Mark’s gospel, is an exercise in mental health treatment. Jesus is caring for the man’s soul. The sad thing about this story is we are never encouraged to see this story about health care, mental health care, and human compassion. We hear “exorcism” and think scary movies. How about we believe in Jesus making a man’s life better and whole, which is what the Bible says occurs. Jesus, the healer, is a practical healer. Jesus begins his ministry by doing two things: preaching and health care. We see it here in Mark 1. Yes, this is still jam-packed Mark 1.

The pace has not let up. All these things are occurring one right after another. It is as if Jesus is working at a pace to meet the needs of a spiritual and public health crisis. Jesus keeps going, and the action is about to pick up to an even higher intensity.

After the story of the healing of the possessed man, Mark tells us, “At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.” Did you catch that? As soon as he’d healed the man, everybody wanted to come to seek medical care and be treated by Jesus. Jesus knew this would happen but it also goes the needs people had the sheer volume of people who would be coming to find Jesus in the coming hours.
How would he prepare to see them?

Where would Jesus encounter them? Would there be enough beds and disciples to listen to their needs? The one thing he wouldn’t do is ignore them or minimize their concern. They were why he was here.
After quick consideration, it seemed the best place to go was Simon Peter’s mother-in-law’s house. I can only imagine what that phone call was like. “I’m coming home with my new Rabbi Jesus and a few other friends, and there might be crowds of sick strangers gathering at the door looking for medical care.” Her house in Capernaum isn’t huge, so I’m guessing this must have been the most significant thing happening in town.

Mark, as I’ve always said, has a sense of immediacy that is lacking in the other gospels. After the man’s healing, it was, “At once.” Now, as they are on the way to Peter’s mothers-in-law, it is “as soon as.” This sense of urgency is essential. There is a near exhausting pace for all the participants involved. Mark is doing his best to convey this.

Once they arrive at the house, it is like they are in the worse Corona ward. Mark says, “Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her.” Fevers and respiratory illnesses were all around him. Mark continues, “That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases.”

All-day and night, Jesus worked to heal sick people in the most conventional way we understand medicine to this day. Given the pace, you that you realize things have been going in this chapter, how exhausted must you think he feels? Given what he’s seen and heard from his patients and neighbors, where must his mind be? I ask these questions because Mark gives us an answer. We don’t have to guess how Jesus might feel or burden ourselves with a faulty Christology.

Jesus needs a break. We might even say he’s opting for some social distancing, to recharge his body and mind. He can’t care for others if he can’t care for himself. After it all seems to be over (and we are still in Mark 1) look at what Jesus does, “In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.” Jesus, in the midst of carrying for the sick, isolated himself. This bothered his disciple friends. Verse 36, “And Simon and his companions hunted for him (they wanted to keep Jesus on a leash). Everyone is searching for you.” Here’s the thing: Jesus knows where he is. But even Jesus needs some space to pray. Jesus’ friends get so wrapped up in the chaos and anger. Jesus sees the need. Let’s look for the human need at the heart of the kingdom of God.

Richard Bryant