After Jesus astounded people with his teaching (Mark 1:21-28), he went home with Simon and Andrew and cured Simon’s mother-in-law. Neighbors got wind of it, and soon the whole town showed up, bringing everyone who was ill, and he cured many of them – many, but not all (vv. 29-34).
And early the next morning, while people looking for a cure came looking for him, Jesus went off by himself to pray, and he decided to move on to other places. So he left behind all those people with their needs, expectations, and hopes unmet (vv. 38-39).
Why would the Great Physician turn his back and walk away from so many who came to him for a cure? Were other people more deserving? Was he not getting what he expected from the people in Capernaum? There are two reasons, I think, why Jesus left that day.
First, he may have discovered he was being tested in Capernaum like he’d been tested in the wilderness. Fixing personal problems for so many people would have been great, appealing work. It would have made him more popular. He could have lived out his life as a charismatic local rabbi with a huge and growing congregation.
But he went to that lonely place to get his heart and head right with God, and he decided to move on. When his disciples caught up to him and reminded him of all the people who were looking for him to fix their problems, he answered, perhaps with a vaguely distant look in his eye and a disengaged tone in his voice, “You know, it’s time to move on. There are other places where I need to spread my message. That’s what I came to do” (Mark 1:38, paraphrased).
In that solitary moment with God, he was reminded – or decided – it wasn’t his job in life to cure as many individuals as came to him for a cure, as many as possible. It was his vocation to proclaim to as many people as possible the good news that the long-awaited reign of God was at hand, to live immersed in its presence, and to invite others to live there with him.
Why people came to Jesus is not a difficult question to answer. The difficult question is: Why did Jesus come to us? It’s not difficult because it’s hard to answer. Jesus was very clear about why he came. It’s difficult because we probably won’t like the answer. Because, frankly, while many of us come to Christ with problems to be fixed, broken places to be mended, hopes and aspirations to be fulfilled, Jesus made it clear that he had better things to do than fix all of our individual problems.
By coming to Christ, some of us may be cured of what ails us. But more of us are likely to be left in the waiting room while Christ moves on to do the real work God sent him to do: proclaim the message of the nearness of God’s kingdom and invite people to join him in it. We have to learn how to deal with that. We have to learn how to work out a good, whole, mature relationship with God and with each other while dealing with problems and limitations we’d rather not have. We have to work out the shape of our salvation in the circumstances we’re in right now. And that brings me to the second reason why Jesus may have left Capernaum that morning.
By turning away from those who came to him for a cure, Jesus let us know he will not do for us what we can do for ourselves, what we must do for ourselves. He acted on his confidence that we have within ourselves the power to lay hold of the quality of life we seek.
On one occasion when a paralytic was brought to Jesus by his friends to be cured, Jesus responded by forgiving the man’s sins and restoring his relationships with God and his neighbors, knowing he needed that more than he needed a cure for his paralysis (Matt. 9:2-8). On another occasion, when he met a man who for thirty-eight years had been waiting for someone to help him be cured, Jesus saw through the man’s complacency and asked him directly, “Do you want to be made well?” and then said, “Stand up and walk.” The man stood up and walked, acting on the power that had resided in him all along (John 5:2-9). Sometimes we need to be healed more than we need to be cured, and we discover what Jesus observed time after time: It’s our faith – not Jesus, but our faith – that makes us well.
We won’t all find a cure for our particular illness, a fix for our particular problem, but we all have it in us to find healing in the midst of suffering, stillness in the eye of the storm, peace in the midst of turmoil, and wholeness of life even when we are deep in emptiness and great loss.
Of course we want healing and wholeness in our personal lives. We want health and vitality for our families and friends. And it’s right to come to Christ with those needs and yearnings. But we mustn’t be so nearsighted that we focus only, or even primarily, on our own empty cup. Our vision of Jesus and his gospel mustn’t be so nearsighted that we become consumers of religion, shopping for a religious expression that suits our needs or desires.
If we focus instead on the everlasting God who creates light and darkness, weal and woe (Isa. 45:7), who created all things – all things – and called them good, and who is reconciling everything into perfect harmony (2 Cor. 5:17-19), and if we wait for that God, we shall renew our strength, we shall mount up with wings like eagles, we shall run and not be weary, we shall walk and not faint (Isa. 40:31).