Dear Sisters and Brothers,
As you can see the Gospel of Mark runs through the life of Jesus at a pretty quick pace. In the first fifteen verses, we have moved through an introduction, the story of the John the Baptist at the Jordan River, a vision of the Holy Spirit, forty days of temptation in the wilderness, and then back to the Sea of Galilee to hear Jesus start preaching. It will continue on at nearly that pace through the whole book.
Before we continue, we should remark on a basic truth of Jesus and the disciples. By our standards, they were living with levels of poverty, illness, and violent death that we can hardly take in. The growth of nearly all these people was stunted because of under-nourishment: The availability and quality of food often pushed people to the edge of starvation. This made everybody more vulnerable to disease. Try to imagine living in a world where 75% of all children died before the age of 10.
The main causes of death in the Roman Empire were childbirth, simple infections of wounds, infantile diseases, exposure to the elements, malaria, cholera, crime, cancer, and domestic abuse (all in a world where even the richest people had no access to effective medical care). Everything was made worse by food deficiencies and simple parasites.
So far, Jesus is traveling alone in his ministry, but now it comes time to start gathering some students who can take the time to really learn his message. Without the disciples, we wouldn’t understand Jesus nearly so well. Even when they make mistakes, we can learn more about Jesus.
As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” At once they left their nets and followed him.
The first disciples that Jesus calls don’t take any convincing. All Jesus has to say is a single sentence and these two brothers, Simon and Andrew drop everything for Jesus. Mark doesn’t explain anything of the feelings or thoughts attached to this remarkable behavior. Do they follow because they have longed for a moment like this or does it strike them as being as sudden as it seems to us? There is no explanation.
When he had gone a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John in a boat, preparing their nets. Without delay he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him.
Then we meet two other brothers who are working in their father’s boat. Like many of the later disciples, these men are probably very young, perhaps even young teenagers. Later, we find out that their mother accompanies them on their later travels with Jesus. They follow Jesus as immediately as Simon and Andrew, but we are told they leave their father’s boat and nets with the “hired men.” It may occur to you that the first two disciples simply abandoned their own nets (which were among their most valuable possessions and tools of their trade).
They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law. Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an impure spirit cried out, “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”
Capernaum, a fishing village near the North end of the Sea of Galilee is the hometown of Simon and Andrew. Jesus will adopt it as his home base for his ministry. Jesus is accepted as a visiting rabbi at the local synagogue, but people are surprised because he speaks without the usual non-committal style of teachers in those days. Just then a man speaks up in the voice of a demon afraid of being destroyed. And the demon tries to reveal the identity that Jesus is yet to divulge as “the Holy One of God.”
When reading stories like this, we can let our understanding of the world inform us, but we can’t ignore the fact that this is depicted as an evil spirit. There was a general belief then (and for many centuries to come) that evil spirits were the explanation of all kinds of destructive and self-destructive behavior. It was not only the easiest way of explaining problems, but also seemed obvious to them.
There are descriptions of demonic possessions that we would identify as things as varied as autism, epilepsy, brain injury, rabies, advanced venereal disease, Tourette syndrome, dyslexia, and various mental illnesses. Whether or not you think you recognize the symptoms, it is best to look at these stories from Mark’s point of view. There is no point in arguing over details of how people were troubled. The point is that Jesus was able to heal people of their illnesses, their irrational impulses, and their injuries.
“Be quiet!” said Jesus sternly. “Come out of him!” The impure spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek.
The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him.” News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee.
So, this first miraculous healing in Mark is down with a word of command. Just as God’s power is most evident in his word, Jesus has the power of command over all things. Jesus does not need a staff like Moses or special offerings or actions. The word of Jesus is enough to heal someone. The word of Jesus is enough to drive away evil things.
Naturally, the people in the synagogue are amazed, and word will spread very quickly about Jesus. He was a very remarkable teacher and healer.
Keep in mind that he was a healer in a world without much real healing; once word spread, everyone would be coming to him with every kind of malady know to humanity.
A question to ponder: Put yourself in the place of any of the four fishermen. Assume that you didn’t immediately recognize Jesus as the Son of God, but simply saw him as a poor wandering rabbi. What could a person say or do that could make you drop everything and follow them into a new life?