Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time – Year B


George F. Riley, O.S.A.
St. Thomas Monastery
Villanova, Pennsylvania

Job 7:1-4, 6-7
Ps 147:1-2, 3-4, 5-6
1 Cor 9:16-19, 22-23
Mark 1:29-39

From the musical comedy Showboat, we have the beautiful song “Ol’ Man River” by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein, sung by the character Joe. I would like to draw a parallel between our readings and the last stanza of this song:

I get weary and sick of tryin’
I’m tired of livin’ and scared of dyin’
But ol’ man river
He just keeps rollin’ along.

These lines speak of the plight of slaves, working without respite or compensation while the great Mississippi keeps rolling along in seemingly effortless continuity. The persistent and persevering flow of this majestic river produces infinitely greater results than the combined efforts of the hundreds of workers along the river fronts. Men grow weary, need sleep, lose heart, become divided in their loyalties and disinterested in their work. Even when we love our work, we need rest. But not the river. The river is persistent, the river perseveres. It never grows weary, never becomes sick of trying.

In today’s gospel, the synagogue service ended and Jesus went with his friends to Peter’s house. According to Jewish custom the main Sabbath meal came immediately after the synagogue service, at the sixth hour, that is at 12 o’clock midday. Mark tells us that “Simon’s mother-in-law lay sick with a fever. They immediately told him about her. He approached, grasped her hand, and helped her up. Then the fever left her and she waited on them.”

This short account tells us a great deal. First, Jesus did not require an audience in order to exert his power. He was just as ready to heal in the little circle of a cottage. He was never too tired to help – the need of others took precedence over his own desire for rest.

Second, we learn about Peter’s mother-in-law. No sooner was she healed than she began to attend to the needs of her guests. Her renewed health immediately became the occasion for renewed service.

Finally, we learn that Jesus, too, moves quickly from refreshment to service: “When it was evening, after sunset, they brought to him all who were ill or possessed by demons. The whole town was gathered at the door.” The Sabbath-day of rest has hardly ended when Jesus again goes to work, curing the sick and casting out demons.

Rest and work, rest and work, more rest and more work! What are we to make of this? Is Job right, when he asks:

Is not man’s life on earth a drudgery?
Are not his days those of hirelings?
He is a slave who longs for the shade,
a hireling who waits for his wages.

Is there no more to this life than servile labor, drudgery, and weariness?

Our jobs and chores are not always fulfilling. Our hard work goes unappreciated, we are not thanked by those at home who benefit from our labor. Everyone would like a raise. Many dream of that tropical beach or snowy mountainside where peace and pleasure are a daily pursuit, and schedules and duties no longer hold sway.

For countless others, the situation is far worse. Millions of men and women must perform backbreaking, dangerous labor for subsistence wages, with no hope of improvement and no prospect of retirement to console them.

These are realities of our fallen world. Christ never promises men and women that, if they become his disciples, farming and shepherding and mining and sewing will become safe and easy occupations. He never says that the work of keeping a house and raising children will be a breeze. But for all of us, even the most burdened and least rewarded, there is in Christ a labor which offers joy because it is freely chosen imitation of Jesus Christ. Hear again the words of St. Paul: “Although I am free in regard to all, I have made myself a slave to all so as to win over as many as possible.” Called by Christ, Paul chose to follow the Lord and proclaim his gospel. This did not deliver him from hard labor. In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul recounts some of his sufferings for the Lord: “Five times at the hands of the Jews I received forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I passed a night and a day on the deep; on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my own race, dangers from Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers at sea, dangers among false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many sleepless nights, through hunger and thirst, through frequent fastings, through cold and exposure” (2 Cor 11:24-27). But the key is that all this hard effort has a purpose. Paul makes himself a slave, he accepts toil and hardship, for the sake of Jesus Christ. Unlike the slave who sings “Ol’ Man River,” or the great river itself , which flows because it must, Paul has freely taken up the Cross. Paul strives for a goal. Paul knows that his master has called him to a great work and a great treasure.

How else could Jesus call his yoke easy and his burden light? Because his followers labor for a great, great gift – and they do not work alone. The sacrifices of parents for children, the forgiveness of spouses, the care given the sick and the respect shown the dead, the comfort given to the grieving and the resources shared with the poor – all these are tiring, often painful, sometimes thankless. But we are co-workers with the Lord, and all these works have a nearly unbelievable purpose: to make ourselves and others more like Jesus Christ.