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Homily notes: 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B, 4 February 2018

Fr Brendan Byrne SJ |  28 January 2018

Lectionary reading

First reading: Job 7:1-4, 6-7.

Responsorial Psalm: Ps 146(147):1-6.

Second reading: 1 Corinthians 9:16-19, 22-23.

Gospel: Mark 1:29-39.

Link to readings.


Last Sunday’s Gospel described the first blow that Jesus struck against the rule of Satan in the world: his teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum in the course of which he dramatically frees a man possessed by an evil spirit (Mark 1:21-28). Today’s Gospel (Mark 1:29-39) continues the account of that inaugural day of ministry. Leaving the synagogue, Jesus goes to Simon Peter’s house and cures his Simon’s mother-in-law, who is ill with a fever (vv. 29-31). He then extends his healing and liberating activity to the whole town (vv. 32-34), before re-launching his mission on a wider scale (vv. 35-39). 

The First Reading, an extract from the Book of Job, 7:1-4, 6-7, provides an effective background to the situation addressed by Jesus in the Gospel by dramatising the limitations of the human lot with such poignancy  

We should note, however, that the healing ministry of Jesus begins on a rather modest, even domestic scale. Simon’s mother-in-law is in bed with a fever, a more threatening condition in those days but not necessarily something out of the ordinary. Simon (Peter) is the leading disciple of the four that Jesus has just called to leave off being fishers of fish and become “fishers of people” (1:16-20). Responding to his call has meant leaving both livelihood and family behind. The fact that Jesus performs this healing for the benefit of a member of Simon’s family shows that having the family’s menfolk follow Jesus is not entirely a loss. They are going to gain something as well—be drawn into the sphere of new life and healing associated with the new “family of God”, the band of disciples Jesus is beginning to gather around himself. 

The language in which the healing action of Jesus is described, “He came and took her by the hand and raised her up” echoes the language of resurrection. The “service” that the recovered woman then provides for Jesus and his disciples is at one level simply the standard domestic service of preparing and serving a meal that a woman in that culture would provide. Here it certainly signals her complete restoration to health. At the same time, the language used (diakonein) seems to foreshadow the “service” (diakonia) that Jesus himself will provide as the Son of Man who has come “not to be served but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many” (10:45). Simon’s mother-in-law thus anticipates the ministry that disciples who have experienced the healing and reconciling power of Jesus will go on to exercise in his name. Moreover, this healed woman, at the very start of Jesus’ ministry, may also anticipate the loving service of the unnamed woman who, just before Jesus’ passion, will lovingly and appropriately anoint him for burial (14:3-9). She begins a pattern to be played out in this gospel where women by and large grasp the true meaning of Jesus’ mission, especially its entrance into suffering, and the male disciples, including Simon Peter, do not.

With the Sabbath ended at sundown, the townsfolk are free to bring their sick and tormented for healing as well. The prominence of exorcisms in the account raises for homilists the problem of how to explain this kind of activity to hearers of the gospel today. Undoubtedly, we find in the gospels generally and in Mark, in particular, the attribution to demonic possession of many conditions that modern medicine would prefer to ascribe to various kinds psycho-physical pathologies. There is no good reason to suppose that the Galilean towns and villages where Jesus laboured were any more prone to cases of true demonic possession than is the case today. The gospel highlights the demonic, not only because its author attributed many more conditions to that cause than we would, but also out of the desire to portray all Jesus’ activity — whether teaching, healing or exorcising — as a life-and-death struggle with the powers opposed to God for the freedom and enhancement of human life. 

The gospel stresses the eagerness of the crowd to access the power of Jesus — both on this evening and then after his brief moment of retirement to a lonely place to pray. It dramatises in this way the desperation of the human condition and the sense that Jesus and he alone can provide the liberation they so deeply desire. So, from the family of Simon and the afflicted people of Capernaum, Jesus moves on “to the neighbouring towns” to because as he says, “It is for this that I came out”—came out from Nazareth but “came out” more radically as the Son of God to confront and overcome the evil of the world.

In the Second Reading, 1 Cor 9:16-19, 22-23, Paul powerfully defends his commitment to freedom in his apostolic service of the Lord.


Brendan Byrne, SJ, FAHA, taught New Testament at Jesuit Theological College, Parkville, Vic., for almost forty years. He is now Emeritus Professor at the University of Divinity (Melbourne). His commentaries on the Gospels can be found at Pauline Books and Media


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