Home Homilies Michael Whelan SM, PhD Gospel for the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) (4 February 2024)

Gospel for the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) (4 February 2024)

Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM

As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.

In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons. (Mark 1:29-39 – NRSV)

Introductory notes


Recall 1:14-15: “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news’.” One commentator writes: “Mark is able to summarize the whole of Jesus’ life and teaching in a single concept, ‘the kingdom of God’ (1:15). The kingdom of God takes its initial shape from Israel’s concept of God as king (Exod 15:18; 1 Sam 12:12; Ps 5:2). As creator of the world, God is exalted above his creatures, rules in majestic splendor, mocks gods of wood and stone, and brings kingdoms to naught. The reign of God was initially manifested in Israel’s history in the exodus from Egypt and the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, but it would be supremely manifested in the advent of a future Messiah, whose reign would usher in the eternal and heavenly reign of God” (J R Edwards, The Gospel according to Mark, Eerdmans; Apollos, 2002, 45-460).

There are fourteen explicit references to “the kingdom of God” in Mark. This fundamental perspective will assist us to understand the subsequent events, when Jesus drives out the demonic and heals the sick.

In this particular passage, Mark seems to be drawing a connection between “evil spirits” and “human illness”. This was in fact a common belief at that time. “This juxtaposition may be due to the ancient conception of the close connection between illness and the influence of evil spirits. These initial miracles also reflect the hope expressed in nonbiblical Jewish texts for the messianic age when Satan will be conquered (T.Mos. 10:1) and disease will disappear (e.g., “when the time of my Anointed One comes … health will descend in dew and illness will vanish,” 2 Bar 72:2; 73:3).” (J R Donahue & D J Harrington, The Gospel of Mark, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002, 84.)

Mark’s focus on miracle stories present us with something of a paradox: “Miracle stories (exorcisms, healings, resuscitations, and nature miracles) occupy over 200 verses (more than the Passion narrative), and form virtually half of the gospel prior to the Jerusalem ministry. Yet they are often accompanied by an injunction to silence and play little part in the second part of the gospel; the only miracles after 8:22–26 are in 9:14–29 (the epileptic boy), 10:46–52 (Bartimaeus), and 11:12–14 (the withered fig tree). Mark calls miracles not “signs” (sēmeia), but rather dynameis (“works of power,” 6:2, 5). Nor do they function as “proof” for the divine status of Jesus (8:11–13). In fact, false messiahs can also perform “mighty works” (13:4, 22; see also Apocalypse of Elijah 3:5–10).” (J R Donahue & D J Harrington, op cit, 85.)


As soon as: The Greek word is euthys meaning “at once” or “immediately”. The word is used eight times in this first Chapter of Mark, suggesting urgency and rapid progress.

Simon’s mother-in-law: No mention is made of Simon’s wife. She is, however, referred to by Paul in 1 Corinthians 9:5: “Do we not have the right to be accompanied by a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?”

he would not permit the demons to speak: “Demons (1:34) play an important role here and elsewhere in Mark’s Gospel. Mark situates all demons and exorcisms in the first half of the Gospel, thereby helping the reader to understand Jesus’ identity. The prophets foresaw that God would banish the names of idols on the Day of the Lord (Zech 13:2); for Mark the Day of the Lord is signified by Jesus’ vanquishing and banishing the works and servants of Satan. At the baptism (1:11), the heavenly voice announces that Jesus is God’s Son. This declaration is reinforced by a series of alternating questions and answers in succeeding chapters. The questions about Jesus’ identity come from the human side (1:27; 2:7; 4:41; 6:2; 6:14–16), and the answers come, in part, from the demonic side (1:24; 1:34; 3:11; 5:7). The effect of the interplay between human questions and demonic answers reveals that the human participants do not yet understand Jesus’ identity, whereas the demons do, for they, as he, belong to the spiritual world.

“Demons, in turn, are closely related to the command to silence, which occurs here for the second time (see 1:24–25). “[Jesus] would not let the demons speak because they knew who he was.” The command to silence touches one of the most controversial nerves of the Gospel. Why does Jesus seemingly work at cross purposes with himself by forbidding the healed to make him known? The command to silence seems to frustrate the publication of the kingdom of God for which he has come (1:14–15).

“An adequate explanation of the command to silence appears to require three components. First, on a practical and strategic level, it was necessary for Jesus to silence messianic utterances about himself since these carried connotations of military deliverance (see further on Christ at 8:29). Not only were such connotations inappropriate to his mission, but publication of the title “Messiah” (or an equivalent) would have invited swift intervention from the Roman occupation. Moreover, Jesus rejects any announcement of his person and mission by demons opposed to God’s kingdom.

“But the command to silence is rooted in more than strategic interests. Second and more importantly, it appears to derive from the profile of the Servant of the Lord to which Jesus consciously patterns his ministry. The Servant is defined by restraint and humbleness: “a bruised reed he will not break” (Isa 42:3). That restraint comes to fuller expression in Isa 49:1–6. Although the Servant feels that he “has labored to no purpose” and “spent his strength in vain,” God assures him to the contrary that he will be “a light to the nations.” The deftness of the Servant’s message (“He made my mouth like a sharp sword”) and the range of his influence (“he made me like a polished arrow”) are concealed within hiddenness (“in the shadow of his hand he hid me … and concealed me in his quiver”). The Psalms know that the righteous one must be hidden (17:8; 27:5; 64:3), but the idea comes to fullest expression in the Servant hymns of Isaiah, where hiddenness becomes a defining element of the Servant’s mission. The prototype of the Servant of the Lord appears to have exerted the strongest possible influence on Jesus’ ministry (Matt 12:15–21). No other figure, whether Abraham, Moses, Samuel, or one of the kings or prophets, corresponds as closely to Jesus’ ministry nor influenced it more profoundly than that of the Servant of the Lord.

“The Servant motif is assuredly a key to the question why God’s Son channels his authority and power in hiddenness. That which truly changes the human heart and ultimately compels one to recognize and follow Jesus can never come from coercion or a display of miraculous power. Jesus will have no allegiance exacted by amazement and astonishment. The faith of his disciples must be evoked through humility and ultimately through suffering. If one will not receive Jesus in this form, one will not receive Jesus in all his power and majesty.

“The command to silence thus represents both strategic and typological interests in Jesus’ historical ministry. But the silencing theme plays yet a third role in the Gospel of Mark. In addition to its roles in Jesus’ historical ministry, Mark employs the theme for his own christological purpose, namely, that until the consummation of Jesus’ work on the cross all speculations about him are premature. Only on the cross can Jesus rightly be known for who he is. Until the confession of the centurion at the cross (15:39), all utterances about Jesus—and especially those coming from members of the rebellion—are either premature or false. Thus, strategic and typological motives in Jesus’ life and christological motives in Mark’s story cohere in Jesus’ command to silence” (J R Edwards, op cit, 61-63).

a deserted place: The Greek word is erēmon (from erēmos). Mention of the desert evokes deep and strong memories for the Jews. One commentator writes: “The term ‘wilderness’ (erēmos in Greek), which is virtually synonymous with ‘desert’, is a word with broad resonance for Jews, recalling the years of wandering between the Exodus and the entry into the land and the covenant at Sinai (Exodus 19–24), as well as the place where God would again deliver the people by bringing them back from exile (Isa 40:3). It has a dual connotation. It is used positively as the place of God’s saving acts and betrothal with the people (Jer 2:2–3; Hos 2:14–15; Pss 78:12–53; 105:39–45), and negatively as the site of testing and rebellion (Exodus 16; Numbers 11; Pss 78:17–22, 32–41; 106:6–43). The Qumran community also invoked Isa 40:3 for its location in the wilderness (1QS 8:13–14; 9:19–20). Jesus is tested in the wilderness in Mark 1:12–13, retreats there for prayer in 1:35 and to avoid crowds in 1:45, and feeds the people in the wilderness in 6:31–32.” (J R Donahue & D J Harrington, op cit, 61.)

Which “world” do you want?

In today’s Gospel – Mark 1:29-39 – we see the intertwining of different “worlds”. Firstly, there is the “world” that Jesus inhabits – a “world” of the totally real, the “world” of immediate and harmonious presence to both the Infinite and the finite, the spirit and the flesh. This “world” is clearly signalled in today’s Gospel: “In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, ‘Everyone is searching for you.’ He answered, ‘Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do’.” Recall Jesus’ earlier proclamation: “‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news’” (1:14-15). The “world” that Jesus inhabits is called “the kingdom of God”.

Secondly, there is the “world” we and the disciples inhabit – a disharmonious “world”, where the Infinite and the finite seem to be at odds, where there is – at times – a strange intermingling of real and unreal. Discipleship is defined by the slow and gradual discovery that the “world” we inhabit is a tiny “world” full of immense possibilities. We see glimpses of the “more than”, hints and suggestions of the kingdom of God here and now. Jesus’ call to “repent” is a call to re-think – in the light of his presence – what it means to be human.

Thirdly, there is the “world” the demons inhabit – a “world” totally at odds with and fatally threatened by the presence of Jesus and everything he represents. The demons, being of the “spirit world”, recognize Jesus instantly. Paradoxically, in Mark’s Gospel, the demons play an important role. They help the disciples to see who and what Jesus is by encounters with who and what he is not. The last we hear of the demonic in Mark’s Gospel is just after the Transfiguration. At Jesus’ baptism, “a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’” (1:11). At the Transfiguration, “from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’” (9:8). A decisive moment!

Having come down from the mountain, Jesus casts the evil spirit out of a boy. When the evil spirit has left the boy, he seems to be dead: “But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he was able to stand. When he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, ‘Why could we not cast it out?’ He said to them, ‘This kind can come out only through prayer’” (9:27-29).

Mark asks: Which world do you want to inhabit? The “world” of Jesus is on offer. All you have to do, is say, “Yes!”. It is free!