Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time – a reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

Immediately upon leaving the synagogue, he entered the house of Simon and Andrew with James and John. Simon’s mother-in-law lay ill with a fever, and the first thing they did was to tell him about her. He went over to her and grasped her hand and helped her up, and the fever left her. She immediately began to wait on them…Rising early the next morning, he went off to a lonely place in the desert; there he was absorbed in prayer. Simon and his companions managed to track him down, and when they found him, they told him: “Everyone is looking for you!”…Jesus replied: “Let us go to the nearby villages so that I may preach there, too. For this purpose I have come.” so he went into their synagogues, preaching and driving out demons throughout the whole of Galilee. Mark 1, 29-39

Record keepers tell us that the best-selling book of all time is the Bible. It has been translated into almost every known language. The very first English version was translated from Greek and Hebrew by William Tyndale. He completed it in 1635, and a year later was murdered, seemingly for daring to translate the holy text into English. Since then, multiple English translations have been completed, including a translation of Tyndale’s original work. While we all might have our favourite translation, it’s important to remember that every translation is really an opinion, albeit a scholarly one. The challenge for every translator is to get into the mind of the original writer. Sometimes that involves looking closely at the original language used by the writer.

Today’s gospel reading opens with an account of how Simon and Andrew invited Jesus and his small group into their family home. It was the end of a hectic day, so they were probably looking forward to a breather and a meal. They soon discovered that Simon’s mother-in-law (we’ll call her Enid for convenience) was sick in bed. Without so much as a “How do you do? or “It’s good to meet you”, Jesus sprang into action, taking Enid firmly by the hand and lifting her up out of bed – cured. And Enid, in turn, set about extending typical Jewish hospitality to her guests. There have been some who have been quick to interpret this event as an attempt by Mark to reinforce the message that a woman’s proper place is in the kitchen, waiting on the males in the extended family. I suggest that a close look at the original language used by Mark is important for a proper understanding of this particular event.

The original Greek word used by Mark to describe what Enid did was diakoneo, which meant to serve, to attend to or to minister. Clearly, diakoneo is the origin of our word deacon. Scripture scholars suggest that Mark used this story as a way of introducing his community to the notion of service to the wider community, a way of translating the Gospel of Jesus into action. Those same scholars underline their interpretation by pointing to the fact that, in the whole of Mark’s Gospel, the word diakoneo is used on only two other occasions. – when Jesus himself described his own mission and that of his followers as one of service: “You’ve observed how godless rulers throw their weight around, and, when people get a little power, how quickly it goes to their heads. It’s not going to be that way with you. Whoever wants to be great must become a servant. Whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave. That is what the Son of Man has done: He came to serve (diakoneo), not to be served…” (Mark 10, 42-45). The third occasion on which Mark used this word for serving was when he used it in reference to the women who stood faithfully at the foot of Jesus on the cross, stating that “When Jesus was in Galilee, these women had followed Jesus and attended to his needs” (Mark 15, 41). Whatever words were exchanged between Jesus and Enid on the occasion of his visit to her house, Mark made the point that Enid was quick to respond to Jesus’ invitation to be like him – a servant to a world in need. If we are to participate in today’s gospel-reading, it is important we appreciate that the same invitation into service of our world in need is being extended to us, too.

While we are all familiar with the story of Job and the events that led to his losing everything he had, today’s first reading gives us a brief insight into his evaluation of the troubles and misery that can touch the life of every human being, from those who have everything to those who have nothing: “Human life is a struggle, isn’t it? It’s a life-sentence to hard labour” (Job 7, 1-2). Job’s situation is merely an example of the human hardship and struggle that Jesus came into our world to address.
In today’s second reading from Corinthians, we hear Paul talking in an unusual way about how he feels compelled to engage in a ministry of service: “Woe to me if I don’t preach the Gospel!” Woe is an Old-Testament word levelled by prophets against leaders who put self-interest ahead of service to those for whom they were appointed to care (cf Ezekiel 34,2 & Jeremiah 23,1). Jesus himself directed the same threat at the scribes and Pharisees: “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in” (Matthew 23, 13-14). In today’s reading from Corinthians, Paul is clearly stating that he had been so captivated by Jesus and his Gospel that he would be lacking in personal integrity if he failed to involve himself in teaching, preaching and service, as Jesus did. To what extent have we allowed Jesus and his Gospel to impact on us?

Finally, Mark pointed to Jesus’ need to find time and space for prayer and reflection to sustain him through the intensity of his ministering to others. Deep down, we know that we, too, have a need for that kind of sustenance as we reach out in service to others. We also know that there are times when we fail to allocate time for personal prayer and reflection. Professor Rachel Remen, a world leader in highlighting personal spirituality as a vital factor for cancer patients in their own restoration to health, tells the story of a woman who had spent decades of her life struggling with feelings of emptiness and dissatisfaction with her professional life. Unconsciously, she had tried to fill the void by amassing all kinds of collectibles – works of art, expensive books and magazines, pottery and precious stones. When she became ill and had to undergo surgery for an invasive cancer, one of the few things she took with her to hospital was a bathrobe. In the days following her surgery, she would put on the bathrobe and sit on the veranda of her hospital room. In time, she began to find comfort in its softness, to appreciate its beautiful colour and the warmth it provided, and to enjoy the way it clung to her body. One day, she confided in Dr. Remen: “Yesterday, as I was putting on my bathrobe, I experienced an overwhelming sense of gratitude. I know it sounds funny, but I felt so fortunate just to have it. The odd part is that it isn’t new. I realised that I hadn’t really noticed it before, probably because it was just one of five bathrobes in my cupboard.” Rachel Remen remarks that there is a vast difference between having and experiencing. Like Jesus, we all need a “deserted place” where we can connect with God and the things of the heart. It may be a daily, set time for prayer, a gentle walk in a park, a quiet corner of the back-yard or even a bathrobe – whatever keeps us aware of God’s presence in our life, and energises us to reach out in service to others.