In the past, I ministered at one of the prisons in Michigan. In that experience, I learned that there are basically two types of inmates. There are those who will benefit from the experience, take advantage of the counseling opportunities that are offered there, and once released, will go on to live normal productive lives. Then there are the repeat offenders. The ones that I would see there over and over again! It didn’t seem to matter how often they heard the error of their ways. They would serve their time, then be released into society, repeat the same offense, and then return to prison again.
I thought about that experience as I read our Gospel for this weekend, and I will explain why shortly.
Our Gospel reading for this weekend is taken from Mark, Chapter One, and it starts with verse twenty-nine. So, according to Mark, this is the very beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry and already Jesus is attracting crowds and performing miracles.
Just a few verses earlier, Mark tells us that Simon and his brother Andrew left their nets to follow Jesus. Mark said that James and his brother John also left their father, Zebedee, to follow Jesus. Then, shortly after calling these four men, Mark tells us that they all went to Capernaum. They entered the synagogue there on a Sabbath, and Mark says that the people were spellbound by His teaching. Jesus also expelled an unclean spirit from a man that was there. Our Gospel reading begins with them leaving this synagogue.
It is interesting to note that even though this exorcism took place on the Sabbath, there is no mention of any reaction to Jesus performing this exorcism on a Sabbath. That’s undoubtedly because this is just the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus’ ministry has just begun, and that opposition to Jesus has not yet developed.
I have never traveled to that part of the world. But I’ve read that today, in the city of Capernaum, there is a house that scholars believe is the home of Simon and his brother Andrew; and it sits adjacent to the sight of the old synagogue. So, it would have been just a few steps for Jesus and His disciples to move to and from the synagogue and the house. Matthew makes a point in his Gospel of telling us that Jesus made his adult home in Capernaum.
So in this weekend’s Gospel passage, they are in Capernaum. They’re still at home. The mere fact that they are still at home makes a subtle, yet very important, point about what is actually required to follow Jesus? In other words, what does it mean when we say, “They left everything to follow Jesus”?
Becoming a follower of Jesus isn’t about abandoning the people we love, because Simon and Andrew are still at home and obviously their family is there with them, because we are told that Simon’s mother-in-law was also there, sick with a fever. Becoming a follower of Jesus isn’t necessarily about abandoning the things of this world that God has placed in our stewardship, because in this Gospel Simon and Andrew still have their home and presumably all their belongings. The subtle point that Mark is making here, is that following Jesus is all about priorities. It is about making Jesus first in your life, and placing the Kingdom of God, and matters that relate to that Kingdom, first in your life. This is a very important point, and Mark concludes this passage with a short story that emphasizes the importance of this point.
The Gospel says that Jesus left early the next morning, before dawn, and went off to a deserted place by Himself. Our Gospel says that Simon and his companions went looking for Jesus. It is becoming clear that these men do not fully understand the real purpose of Jesus’ earthly mission, because when they find Jesus they say, “Everyone is looking for you.” There is a hint of reproach in that statement. The implication is that Jesus is making a mistake by seeking time to be alone. It is almost as if they were saying, “There’s plenty of time for prayer later on. But right now there are people, lots of people, eager to see you. So come on; let’s go; duty calls; opportunities like this don’t come around every day.” But notice Jesus’ response. He doesn’t say, “Okay, I’m coming”. No! He says, “Let’s leave and go somewhere else”. Why would Mark make a point of telling us this story? What is this story teaching us?
These Gospel stories make it clear that the people of Capernaum did, in fact, respond to the miraculous signs that Jesus performed. But there is little indication that their interest goes any deeper than their fascination and attraction to those signs.
When Jesus said, “Let’s leave and go somewhere else”, could it be that Jesus was displeased with how the people of Capernaum responded? This possibility becomes even more probable when you consider what Jesus says later on in His ministry. In Matthew, Chapter Eleven, Jesus said, “As for you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades. If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. But I tell you that it will be easier for Sodom on the Day of Judgment than for you.” (Matthew 11:23-24)
Yes, the people of Capernaum were attracted to, and impressed by, the miraculous signs and wonders that Jesus performed. But just like some of the people that I met in prison, that experience did not lead them to repentance, nor did it convince them to reform their lives. They kept on making the same bad choices over and over again. They were the repeat offenders.
I believe that we, the Church, you and I, can learn some very important lessons from this Gospel text. We may not have the privilege of encountering Jesus in the synagogue as did the people of Capernaum, but remember, Jesus did say, “Know that I am with you always.” (Matthew 28:20)
Once we encounter Jesus, recognizing His presence in our lives, we need to accept Him as our personal Lord and Savior. Then, in order to follow Jesus, we need to make Jesus first in our life. To follow Jesus is to live as if God knew our every thought, word and deed; because in reality He does. To follow Jesus is to frequently turn to Him in prayer. To follow Jesus is to serve others, not be served. And finally, to follow Jesus is to love as He loved.