Lectionary passage: Mark 1:29-45
Jesus (or possibly someone impersonating him) currently has 591,000 followers on Twitter—not Katy Perry numbers, but not a negligible sum…on par with actress Brittany Snow, Grammy-award winning band The Black Keys, and the always-hilarious Albert Brooks. But surely a good social media consultant could help Jesus increase his Twitter following. Perhaps he could tweet out some March Madness prophecies, explanations of vexing unsolved mysteries, or GIFs of videotaped miracles. If Justin Bieber can amass 50 million followers by tweeting little nuggets of wisdom like “I love monkeys,” surely Wisdom incarnate can crack one million.
Now, of course, Jesus walked the earth in a pre-Twitter age—pre-Myspace, even—but I wonder if Peter and the other apostles were marveling at Jesus’s apparent lack of PR acumen when they found him praying in a solitary place outside Capernaum, hidden from the mesmerized masses. “Everyone is looking for you!” Simon Peter tells him. Peter had only recently left his fishing boat to follow Jesus, and now he was already seeing Jesus’s magnetism draw in hordes of others. This curious fish-for-people endeavor was working! “No time to be lying down on the job now, Jesus,” I imagine Peter saying. “You’re the talk of the whole town—let’s strike while the iron’s hot!”
But Jesus responds with the counter-intuitive suggestion that—right when conditions seemed so primed—they leave Capernaum to preach in another village. It seems that Jesus was after something other than popularity or fame, and that the “followers” he desired would be marked by something deeper than their multitude. If he could find three disciples who would be able to keep awake while he prayed in Gethsemane that would be preferable to an entire town following his every move.
Jesus and the disciples travel on to other parts of Galilee, and we hear next of an act of miraculous compassion as Jesus’s healing touch cleanses a man with leprosy. Yet again we see Jesus miss out on an optimal opportunity for self-promotion. Healing a leper? That’s got to be worth a few hundred thousand Twitter followers. But Jesus warns the man not to broadcast what had happened—a command that the man with a new lease on life regrettably (if understandably) flouts.
We learn a great deal from this passage early in Mark about what it does and does not mean to follow Jesus. Christ is not concerned with mere numbers—collecting nominal followers like so many feathers in a cap. He is not interested in wowing the masses to follow him by grandiose miraculous displays; his compassion moves him to heal when occasions arise, yet he tells his apostles that he hasn’t come to work wonders but to preach the gospel. And even good intentions are not enough—surely the healed leper’s open witness wasn’t coming from a malevolent heart, yet his disobedience complicated Jesus’s own mission. Following Jesus involves trusting him with our lives and with our destinies (not merely approving of him from a distance). It involves rethinking our commonsense notions of power and success. It involves following because of who he is, and not for what he can give us (like a cosmic ATM). And it involves humble obedience to the often counter-intuitive tasks and methods that he entrusts to us as instruments of his grace in the world.