Did demons ‘get’ Jesus better than his disciples?

This Sunday the lectionary invites us to reflect on Jesus’ healing of Peter’s mother-in-law, on his acts to liberate many people from diseases and demons, and on the first sign of disconnect between him and his hand-picked disciples.

The text is in the gospel according to Mark, chapter one, verses 29-39.

As I pointed out in my column last week, which I titled “Have you come to destroy us?” Mark reports a great number of encounters of Jesus with demons. He does so in order to show readers that the reign of the new king, Jesus, is expanding, and that the empire of Satan is shrinking.

Mark begins his gospel[1] by pointing out the popularity of John Baptist, the herald whom God promised through the prophet Isaiah 700 years earlier.

The herald who, even while in the womb of his mother, recognized Mary, the “ark” who carried God, Jesus – as I explained in my column titled “Why do some people call Mary ‘Mother of God.’

Huge crowds came to John. They came to be on the side of the Messiah, the new Davidic king whom they expected would take over as ruler of Israel. This is why they confessed their sins, vowed to turn their lives around, and allowed themselves to be baptized by John.

Every baptism was a public rejection of the rule of Caesar and his puppet rulers like Herod, Philip, and Pilate.[2] Every baptism was a banner waved in the face of the insecure rulers and their local, Jewish collaborators.

After John’s arrest, Jesus took over as organizer and leader of the protest. In this next phase, people assembled in synagogues and homes. They were attracted by the compassion of the new king. A king who healed people, a king who freed them from oppression by evil spirits.

If that account sounds surprising, it’s because we forget that Galilee and Jerusalem, the main sites of activity in the gospels, were under enemy occupation. Anyone who participated in any activity not sponsored or approved by the government was at risk of arrest, beating, imprisonment.

The land was filled with spies. The occupation forces flooded people with exhausting demands. But Jesus was filled with purpose. He flooded people with his invigorating compassion.

In Capernaum, Jesus healed all who came to him or were brought to him. He healed in synagogues, in houses.

He cast out evil spirits which oppressed people. He didn’t recite incantations or excrete loud cries like the healers and exorcists of the day. He just spoke and it was so. Just like God spoke at the creation and chaos became order – as we read in the book of Genesis.

Jesus got exhausted. He went to bed. Early in the morning, he got up to go and pray. Mark tells us he chose to go to “a desolate place.” These were places people avoided, for fear of satanic activity and influence. But Jesus didn’t fear. Earlier, he’d resisted Satan for 40 days in a desolate place.

His disciples[3] woke up. They couldn’t find him. They tracked him down, like hunters track their prey – Mark uses a word which expresses hostility.[4] Mark doesn’t tell us the details of their conversation. What’s clear is that Jesus had decided to move on, and they weren’t happy.

Jesus’ decision didn’t make any sense to them. They thought he’d be pleased that everyone was looking for him. He wasn’t. He obviously hadn’t taken any classes in marketing.

Think about it. He’d launched a new service. A service of healing and exorcism. The service showed great success on launch day. He’d launched the service after saying the kingdom of God had come. In Mark’s account, the first words Jesus uttered in public were:

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”[5]

People saw him as the promised Davidic king who would end all oppression. Surely, he should remain in Capernaum, where many testified that he’d done marvellous things. More people were already coming. More people would continue coming. More people than had come to John.

But as I said earlier, Jesus had a purpose. His purpose was to complete the task his Father had set for him. His purpose was to deliver a message and to model servant-leadership. As I said in a previous column:

“The symbols of King Jesus were not battle horses, arms, and armies. His symbols were a donkey, a towel and a bloody cross.”

One lesson from the reading is that crowds don’t always signal success. Crowds may simply signal the extent of need among the people.

A second lesson is that we’re not called to be consultants to Jesus, to advise him on how to do his work. No. We’re called to follow him.

A third lesson is that the ones who got it, every time, instantly, were the demons. The disciples were slow; they took over three years.

Jesus seeks disciples, workers, reformers. People who “see” who he is, and join him and serve others, like Peter’s mother-in-law[6] who served Jesus and his companions instantly, right after Jesus healed her.

How do we measure up?

Peace be with you.

[1] In my column “The gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” I explain the meaning of the word “gospel.”

[2] Non-Christians well understand the protest and power of baptism. This is why they object to their family members undergoing baptism.

[3] Mark refers to them as “Simon and those who were with him.” Mark will tell us of two more times when Simon Peter sought to “advise” Jesus: at the time when Jesus said he must be crucified (Mark 8:32) and at the time when Jesus was transfigured (Mark 9:5)

[4] Frank E Gaebelein tells us “Mark uses the verb katadiokein, which literally means “to track down” or “hunt” and usually has a hostile sense.”

[5] Mark 1:15.

[6] Perhaps you’ve heard that Roman Catholics believe Peter wasn’t married. My research indicates that they believe he was a widower (a person whose wife has died), and his mother-in-law lived with him. Catholic Answers has a simple discussion of this matter.

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