For Medical Workers: a Report on the Vaccine Rollout in Capernaum (Mark 1:29-39)

by The Rev. Daniel P Strandlund on February 4, 2021
A friend of mine recently told me a story about something that can happen at coronavirus vaccine clinics right now.  At the end of a distribution day, sometimes the clinic has an extra dose.  Maybe a shipment was a little overfilled and there’s some leftover, or maybe for whatever reason the line of eligible folks who came for shots that day just didn’t exhaust the supply.  What’s important is this: when a shipment is opened for distribution, it has to be used within a certain timeframe or else it goes bad.  Therefore, when a clinic gets to the end of a day, if there’s still a dose or two of vaccine left, they either have to throw it away or rush to find someone to give it to.
 
As we all know, the vaccine rollout is happening in stages.  Frontline workers, folks of a certain age, and people with certain complicating health factors are all eligible early on, well before healthy 30-somethings like me.  This is all as it should be.  But you can also see the dilemma in which a clinic staff might find themselves: do we throw out an extra dose of vaccine in order to abide by the eligibility guidelines, or, if there are no more folks in line who meet the stage 1a and 1b criteria, do we just make sure that somebody gets the dose?  And if so, who gets it?
 
I have at least one friend who is not yet eligible but who has gotten a shot anyway.  He benefitted from a situation like the one I just described.  A batch of vaccine had an extra dose, and rather than throw it out, the staff decided to give it to him before its shelf-life expired.  Why him?  Because they knew him, and because they knew he could likely get there in time.  It really was that simple.
 
There’s an element of randomness to a big public health project like the vaccine rollout, at least along the edges.  Unforeseen situations emerge; individual healthcare workers have to make time-sensitive decisions about limited resources; people are exhausted and anxieties are still high.  It can be disconcerting, and playing by the rollout rules as much as we can is one way we deal with our collective discomfort.  The guidelines help us live together as families, communities, and society at large.  Still, I feel for healthcare workers who have to make time-sensitive decisions in situations for which there just isn’t a playbook.
 
As I’ve been thinking about the vaccine rollout schedule, I’ve been reminded of the conflict over the Sabbath that runs through Mark’s Gospel.  A caricature of the debate might look like this: on one side you have the scribes and Pharisees, who are concerned that everyone abide by prohibitions against work on the Sabbath (2:24; 3:2), and on the other side, you have Jesus, who is not so much concerned with the prohibitions themselves but with what the Sabbath is for (2:27; 3:4).  In short, the institution of the Sabbath was/is God’s way of inviting into His rest the Israelites, their livestock, and their land.  God’s intention in the Sabbath is liberation, recreation, the giving of life.[1]
 
What’s intriguing about this debate is that the scribes and Pharisees aren’t actually wrong: rest from work is part of the Sabbath and is part of what made the Sabbath commandment so lifegiving after generations of seven-day-a-week slavery in Egypt.  But for the citizens of Galilee in Mark—almost all of whom live at, below, or barely above subsistence-level security—to cease all work could mean jeopardizing where their next meal came from.  It’s possible that for many the cessation of all work on the Sabbath was not a source of life, but a source of stress.   Thus, Jesus argues that the Sabbath is a way God restores life to humanity; it’s not an end in itself.  As Mark puts it: “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath” (2:27).
 
To make the connection plain: the vaccine eligibility schedule is made for humankind, not humankind for the vaccine eligibility schedule.  This is why I am not disconcerted when clinic staff choose to distribute all the vaccine doses they can, even if these extraordinary distributions are somewhat random.  I’d rather they do this than toss one or two out at the end of the day for the sake of adhering to the eligibility schedule.  Abiding by the guidelines is not an end in itself, but an orderly way of injecting ‘new life’ into a populace that desperately needs it.
 
What does all this have to do with this scene at the home of Simon and Andrew in Mark 1:29-39?  Simon’s mother-in-law is a bit like someone who gets an ‘extra dose’ of healing ahead of schedule.
 
After last week’s exorcism at the synagogue, Jesus and his new fishermen followers go directly to Simon and Andrew’s home (1:29).  Simon’s mother-in-law is in bed with a fever—literally “burning up”—and Jesus heals her (1:30-31).  He banishes the fever, takes her by the hand, and raises her up.  All this happens on the Sabbath (1:21).
 
We know that for Mark’s audience, healing on the Sabbath is a point of contention (3:2).  We see it in this passage when it’s not until sundown, when the Sabbath was over, that a crowd in search of healing forms outside the door (1:32).  Why wait until sundown to find Jesus unless everyone in Capernaum thinks that going to Simon and Andrew’s house for healing would violate the Sabbath prohibitions?
 
There is an element of randomness, then, in Jesus’ healing Simon’s mother-in-law.  There are dozens or maybe hundreds of sick people in Capernaum, and everyone waits until the schedule says they’re eligible: at sundown, when the Sabbath ends.  But Simon’s mother-in-law just happens to be related to Simon, who just happens to have brought Jesus into her home, and so she gets healed before everyone else.  She gets the ‘extra,’ ahead-of-schedule dose simply because she knew somebody on God’s clinic staff in Capernaum. 
 
But why should this bit of randomness not also serves God’s purposes?  Why should Jesus not heal whom he can, when he can?  All the signs and wonders in the Gospels distill down into the simple, eternal act by which God’s compassion crosses the gap between heaven and earth.  When Jesus takes the fevered hand of Simon’s mother-in-law, when a nurse reaches out to swab a stranger’s arm, when the tech leaves the iPad in a quarantined patient’s room so his family can see him—in each of these, God’s compassion is once again on the move, closing the gap between His kingdom and this one.  The guidelines and the procedures and the terrible calculus of balancing need with resources are all very real.  But they are only means in service of God’s healing purpose in the time of our pandemic.
 
That doesn’t mean they are easy to live with.  Ridding Simon’s mother-in-law of her fever is Jesus’ first healing, and we’re still very early in Mark’s Gospel.  Thus far, Jesus has had no conflicts with scribes or Pharisees; all of that happens later, including debates about the Sabbath.  It’s worth considering whether Jesus’ encounter with Simon’s mother-in-law is not itself the very thing that sparks in Jesus a conviction that Galilee’s relationship to the Sabbath needs a little rehabilitation: the point of the Sabbath is always life, and this means exceptions have to be made.  Heal whom you can, when you can, as often as you can.
 
We usually imagine Jesus as emerging onto the scene fully formed with all his divine convictions, but I don’t think that’s the case in Mark.  After Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law, and after he’s healed the crowds outside the door, we see Jesus awake early and withdraw by himself.  He is restless.  He can’t sleep.  He wanders into a ‘deserted place’ (literally “a wilderness place”) to pray (1:35).  Why? 
 
I imagine that Jesus is wrestling with the reality of the situation before him. I imagine Jesus in the wilderness, full of inner turmoil, wrestling with the ethics of it all, and probably asking more than once, “Why me?”  Jesus is a good Jewish man who knows and values the Sabbath traditions, and yet he also knows and values human life and is moved with pity at the suffering before him and his unique ability to soothe it.  He sees the crowds upon crowds, the overwhelming need, his knowledge of his own limits as one man.  He’s someone who can be in only one place at a time, who needs sleep, who needs solitary prayer and rest and companionship.  He’s someone who wrestles with what is asked of him.
 
I imagine he feels a great deal like so many of our medical workers have for so long now:  overwhelmed with need, wondering if he’s up to what is ahead, wondering how long it will last, burdened by the impossible knowledge that he is the one who will determine who gets what resources and when.  The faces of all those people crowded in around the door…how to choose whom to heal first?  What terrible triage is this?  And what of everyone still at home who wasn’t able to make the drive?  How is he supposed to find rest and solitude and companionship when he is in charge of God’s full salvation rollout, not just in Capernaum, but in all of Galilee and beyond?
 
To the nurses, doctors, techs, administrators, and countless other hospital and clinic staff on whom we have relied for so much for so long now, thank you.  You are following in the footsteps of God’s Beloved Son, a man from Nazareth who was faced with too much need and too few hands to do it all.  And yet God sustained Him, turning Jesus’ human finitude into everlasting life for everyone.  Despite evidence to the contrary, there is no end to His saving help.  God sustains you, too, and through you God works miracles more numerous than you know.  You are God’s agents in this, and through your present struggle you wage the peace which passes all understanding.
 
My prayer for you is this: that in the midst of this fever you might feel the Risen One take you by the hand and raise you up, again and again and again, that you might serve in His name for as long as it takes, until the Sabbath comes and you find rest.
 
God’s Peace,
 
 
Fr. Daniel+
 
 
[1] These insights and interpretive possibilities, and those that follow in the next paragraph, are from Warren Carter’s Mark, volume 42 in the Wisdom Commentary series edited by Barbara E. Reid, OP and Sarah J. Tanzer (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2019).  See pages 24-25, especially.
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