Sermon for the fifth Sunday after the Epiphany
Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told Jesus about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.” As the New Testament scholar Matt Skinner comments, there is something about this passage that can make modern readers “bristle.” The fever left her, and she began to serve them… “Why,” asks Skinner, “Why didn’t Simon tell his mother-in-law to take it easy while he made sandwiches this time?”
- To listen to the sermon press play:
Maybe the point Mark is making as he tells the story is that Simon Peter’s mother-in-law was well and truly healed and restored right there, on the spot, without needing so much as a few minutes of convalescence. She’d been too sick to get out of her bed, yet all Jesus has to do is to take her by the hand and raise her up, and presto, she’s well. As Mark tells the story, Jesus doesn’t even have to say anything. There are no words or prayers; just this simple act of taking her by the hand. Maybe what Mark really wants is for his readers to stand in awe of a Jesus whose very presence is restorative, healing, transforming.
And maybe Mark’s use of the word diakoneo is significant. That’s the Greek word that our version translates as “serve” and which other translations render as “wait upon them.” It is, after all, an important word in the New Testament, with Jesus himself saying that he “did not come to be served, but to serve” – to diakonesai – “and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45) Perhaps her response is one of humble service, meant to express her deep thanks to her healer. Jesus himself would model servanthood by washing the feet of his disciples, and then again after his resurrection by cooking a breakfast of fish and bread for them on the beach. Isn’t Peter’s mother-in-law doing something of the same here, in her act of waiting upon Jesus and his disciples?
Still, as Skinner notes, “when Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead in John 11, Lazarus doesn’t respond with service.” In fact, in the following chapter we find Lazarus reclining at a dinner table while his sister Martha “serves” them. The account of the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law, comments Skinner, “remains indelibly gendered,” and so he asks, “Wouldn’t true healing and liberation allow her to take on other roles?”
That’s a question that Mark himself wouldn’t have dreamed of asking. He doesn’t again mention Simon Peter’s mother-in-law; in fact, Mark doesn’t make any other mention of the fact that Simon Peter was even married. From where we stand, you might imagine that Mark would have taken notice of the fact that Peter had a wife, and if a wife then probably children as well. But he’s silent on that count. As is true of the other gospel writers, Mark is apparently singularly disinterested in the wives and children of these male disciples.
It doesn’t do a whole lot of good to take shots at Mark for being so male-focused that he just skips over the wives and families of these men, but it is something of which we should at least take note. Once you realize that it is the male characters that most easily catch his attention – that it is the male characters Mark most naturally sees – then it is truly significant what emerges as his gospel account moves toward its completion. Mark pays even less attention to female characters than do the other three gospel writers, and so as Matt Skinner notes, it is only at the crucifixion scene that “Mark finally lets us in on the secret that the crowd of Jesus’ regular disciples includes more than twelve men.” Here is how Mark tells it:
There were also women looking on from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. These used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem. (Mark 15:40-41)
There are at least two things worth noticing here. First of all, while Mark names three women – “Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome” – he also notes that, “there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem.” In other words, set aside any picture you might have of Jesus wandering the roads with a little band of twelve male disciples. It is a bigger group that goes with him, of which a good number were women.
Secondly when Mark writes that these women had “provided for Jesus when he was in Galilee,” the word translated as “provided for” is again diakoneo. Now you could decide that this means little more than that the women were on kitchen duty, but I don’t actually think that goes far enough. By this late point in Mark’s account, he’s already told us that Jesus himself is exercising a ministry of servanthood or diakoneo, so the word has a very particular force. Mark has also shown us all of these pictures of the male disciples squabbling over positions of power and prestige and just generally missing the point Jesus keeps trying to make about the nature of his profound servanthood, and he’s highlighted the fact that these men apparently didn’t have the courage to stay by Jesus when he was arrested. The women, on the other hand, seem to have walked with Jesus in this posture of diakoneo, and when the crisis finally did come they were not about to flee. In spite of his culturally and socially conditioned tendency to focus primarily on the male characters and to skip right by the females Mark simply can’t help but notice how these women seem to have gotten some things very, very right.
So sure, bristle a bit at the seemingly patriarchal tones of this text, and even tell yourself that if you were in Simon Peter’s shoes you’d have made the sandwiches. From where we stand, we almost can’t help but be struck by such things. But then just remember that Jesus knew what he was doing when he took that woman by the hand and raised her up, and that in the moment maybe she was responding in the best way she knew. And who knows? Maybe that was just the beginning of her diakoneo with Jesus; maybe she was even one of the many women who accompanied him all the way to Jerusalem. Pure speculation, of course, but then you never know what the experience of being healed and restored—of being treated as a person whose life was worth touching, matters of gender and status aside—you just never know what that might have worked in her soul.
Some twenty years ago the sociologist of religion Rodney Stark published a book called The Rise of Christianity, in which he considered the question of how this little movement that arose in an insignificant corner of the Roman Empire became, within some three hundred years, the dominant religious faith of the entire empire. And wearing his sociologist’s hat he concluded that part of what made that movement so powerful was that it recognized everyone as a person. Gender issues didn’t matter; as a woman you could have a role. Slave or free, it didn’t matter; you could be a part of that movement. Age didn’t matter; young or old, you could be a member. In fact, they recognized the personhood of the infant girls that the Romans had abandoned and left to die, rescuing them and raising them as their own. The ancient church treated everyone as a person—they recognized their personhood—and the movement exploded.
Jesus went to her, took her by the hand and he raised her, because he saw her as a person. It is incumbent on us, as people who would call ourselves disciples of Jesus and heirs to the stories of the ancient church, to see with those same eyes, so that matters of gender or matters of orientation or matters of age or of race or of status don’t matter. Whoever comes through the doors or whomever we encounter in the other parts of our lives, we need to see them as people. And to know that in all of their woundedness and all of their complexities and all of their questions, like Jesus we reach out a hand. And maybe raise them up. And maybe see restoration.