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FEBRUARY 5, 2012: FIFTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR

Readings: 

Job 7:1-4, 6-7
I Corinthians 9:16-19, 22-23
Mark 1:29-39

Scholars frequently point out that the vocabulary in the second half of today's Marcan gospel pericope is found in just one other place: Jesus' agony in the garden. We'll see there's a good reason for this.

Mark continues to give us a glimpse of Jesus' first full day of public ministry. After this carpenter-turned-itinerant preacher exorcised a demoniac in the Capernaum synagogue, he now cures Simon's mother-in-law, then before he turns in "he cured many who were sick with various diseases and he drove out many demons . . ." Quite a full day. He's certainly the talk of the town. We'd logically expect him to pick up the next morning where he left off the night before. But, to his disciples' surprise, he's nowhere to be found. He got up before anyone else and "went off to a deserted place, where he prayed."

Though I presume the historical Jesus prayed often, Mark's Jesus prays only when he's under "Messianic stress:" he prays only when he's uncertain about what he, as Messiah, should do next. Zeroing in on Jesus' humanity, the evangelist tells his readers that Jesus' future course of action wasn't quite as clear as we'd presume it to be. He had to make decisions that morning, just as he'd later have to do in Gethsemane.

Here the choice is clear: does he stay in Capernaum as the local, well-received hero, or does he risk going to "nearby villages" and also preaching there? He eventually decides to do the latter. "So he went into their synagogues, preaching and driving out demons throughout the whole of Galilee." (No doubt, on Good Friday evening, the followers who searched for him early that morning would have paraphrased the late historian Cornelius Ryan, bemoaning the fact their leader went to a village and synagogue too far.)

One of the life-giving aspects which comes from our imitating the risen Jesus is a constant tug to go further than people expect us to go. Our faith always invites us to take that extra step, even when it entails risks.

Paul tells his Corinthian community about a risky step he took in his ministry. "When I preach, I offer the gospel free of charge so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel." Knowing the historical Jesus permitted missionaries to be supported by those they evangelized, the Apostle goes beyond that permission. Fearing some will accuse him of "being in the business for the money," he refuses to accept any pay from the communities he evangelized. If his tent-making business hit on hard times, he simply didn't eat.

It's at this point that our Job passage comes into play. All of us, at one time or another, identify with the picture the sacred author paints. "Is not our life on earth a drudgery? Are not our days those of hirelings? .. . If in bed I say, 'When shall I arise?' then the night drags on." Life can be a boring, unexciting experience -for those who refuse to step outside the boundaries of other peoples' expectations.

Mark's Jesus doesn't want his followers to fall into that trap. Though his plan often entails risks and giving up the security for which we constantly long, Jesus wants us to experience a fulfilling life. He refuses to let his disciples just sit around all day, patiently waiting for a death which will usher us into everlasting life. He expects us to begin living that life long before we hit the pearly gates.

We know what eventually happened to Jesus because he refused to return to Capernaum that morning. Had he chosen to do so, he probably would have lived a long life, doing good, praised by everyone in town. He'd have died peacefully, friends and family gathered at his bedside, not crucified and deserted on a hill miles away in Jerusalem. But then again, no one would ever have written a gospel about him, and we'd have no one to imitate.