Mark hands homilists today’s topic on a silver platter. It jumps out at us as we proclaim the last paragraph of our gospel pericope.
The first evangelist begins his gospel by describing Jesus’ initial days of public ministry. Jesus starts by announcing God’s kingdom is at hand, calls his first four disciples, goes into the Capernaum synagogue where he exorcizes a demoniac, then ends up at Simon’s house in time to cure his mother-in-law, and eventually sticks around through the evening when he “cured many who were sick with various diseases and drove out many demons. . . .“ What a beginning!
No doubt at this point his followers have press conferences set up and TV interviews scheduled. But as we hear at the end of our liturgical passage, Jesus has other plans. “Rising very early before dawn, he left and went off to a deserted place where he prayed.”
It’s important to note that throughout his gospel Mark only has Jesus pray when he’s under “messianic stress” - when he’s trying to figure out what kind of Messiah he should be. We can surmise from this and other parts of Mark’s gospel that the historical Jesus wasn’t handed a divine script at birth which outlined every action he was to take and every word he was to proclaim for the next 30 years. Like all of us, he was expected to work out his own destiny.
He faces a huge temptation that morning. He can go back to Capernaum where “everyone is looking for you,” or leave town and preach in “the nearby villages.” If he decides to do the former, he’ll probably live a full, rewarding life, dying in bed peacefully with his admiring family and friends gathered round. If he opts for the latter, he runs the risk of going “one village too far;” a village like Jerusalem where he’ll stay alive only five days after he enters its gates. Marcan scholars often remind us that the Greek vocabulary he employs in this passage is only found in one other place in his gospel: the agony in the garden. The evangelist implies Jesus had more than one “agony.” This is his agony “in the deserted place.”
No doubt, on Good Friday night, some of his Capernaum disciples sat around sadly reflecting on what might have been had he listened to them that morning and returned to the security of that receptive town.
Like all of us, Jesus reaches a point in his life in which he can continue doing “God’s work” in a secure, sustaining environment. Yet he agrees to respond to a call to go beyond that peaceful existence, to go down roads which won’t offer the same security he experienced before. Our sacred authors believe God is also calling us to this “beyond.”
We especially see some of this beyond in today’s I Corinthians passage. Paul not only responds to God’s call to “preach the gospel,” he goes beyond. “When I preach, I offer the gospel free of charge so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel.” He doesn’t ever want anyone to accuse him of “being in it for the money.” He deliberately makes himself “weak to win over the weak.” Paul’s convinced that some will never have the opportunity to be saved if he doesn’t go beyond what he’s expected to do.
On the other hand, if we do only what’s expected of us and no more, we run the risk of identifying with Job, asking, “Is not our life on earth a drudgery? . . . If in bed I say, ‘When shall I arise?’ the night drags on.”
We presume both Jesus and Paul discovered that when they chose to go beyond, life was never as secure as it was before, but it certainly wasn’t boring.