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Mark’s Healing of Peter’s Mother-in-Law
Mark’s Gospel certainly cracks on apace, especially in the early chapters; in some parts it is quite breathless. This morning, we are only at the 29th verse and already Jesus has been identified as “the son of God”; Mark does this in verse one. He has been baptised by John the Baptist, affirmed by the trinity of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, tempted for forty days in the wilderness, called the first disciples, (Andrew, Simon Peter, James and John) preached in the synagogue and now he heals Peter’s Mother-in-Law of a fever. Mark presents a succession of pictures in which a painter represents a complete history with bold strokes of his brush.
As I said in last month’s magazine, I particularly recommend reading mark at a single sitting (or at least treating it as a complete book as one would a novel.) This is the Gospel to which I first tend to direct new Christians, rather than John as many of my colleagues do. But who was Mark and would this help us understand his point of view? Really, the Gospel is anonymous; its own text gives no indication of the author and so we have to rely on long church tradition. It has always been attributed to Mark, thought to be the Mark referred to in the book of Acts, the cousin of Barnabus. Tradition says that Mark was closely associated with Peter and that he heard Peter’s addresses in Rome, that he knew Peter well and had written this Gospel to present a faithful recollection of the words and deeds of Jesus. The key point then is that Peter was an eye witness and this is a first hand account of what Peter remembered and preached. Apart from the writings of the early church fathers, (Papias, Justin Martyr, Iraneus, Clement, Jerome – all of them really), indirect support for this may be found whenever there is overlap between Mark and accounts in Matthew and Luke. However, Mark gives more detail and also there are several episodes relating to Peter’s personal involvement that do not appear elsewhere.
So one reason to recommend Mark is that it is the earliest and closest account of Jesus’ ministry, another is that there is a special approach that makes this a good read. Until recently, I thought there were essentially two types of detective story, either the readers know who the murderer is and we follow the detective and the team, watching the false turns and mistakes or we do not know and so we participate in the discovery along with Poirot or Miss Marple. But there is a third. Fred Vargus, who is a French lady detective writer, gives us a story where the lead Commissaire knows the identity of the killer but everyone else disbelieves him, to the extent that we, the readers, as we follow the narrative are not sure.
Mark employs a similar strategy. Even though he pronounces “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God” in verse one, after that, anyone recognising Jesus is sworn to secrecy as in today’s reading when he would not permit the demons to speak because they knew him. This is known by the theologians as the Messianic secret and it is especially notable that throughout the Gospel the disciples, despite all the proofs, remain at best sceptical and most often unthinking. So, we the readers, who are asked to identify with the disciples, are also kept in doubt. In the tradition of all good mysteries, we have to wait until the closing paragraphs of the book for the truth to be revealed. As the Roman centurion says at the foot of the cross, “Truly this man was God’s Son.”