Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany / Proper 5, Year B
4 February 2018
Psalm 147:1-11, 20c
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
We always read the scriptures from our own perspective and, of course, we believe that God speaks to us through the scriptures and that God speaks into our own time and lives.
Sometimes, though, our own disposition can obstruct our understanding of a passage.
Take today’s passage. I have heard the quip more than once that Jesus healed Simon Peter’s mother-in-law for his and the disciples’ own benefit. After all, Mark reports that after she was healed she began to serve them. Them is Jesus and his disciples.
It is fair to be leery of places where patriarchal attitudes colour a story or instruction, after all, the Bible was written in a patriarchal world. In our assembly, however, women are permitted to speak, as well as hold any office in the church.
But we must remember that in other ways every time was like our own. Sometimes people would understand the will of God and sometimes they would take they own goals and dispositions and assume they were identical with those of God.
But even Paul who to the Corinthians (chapter 14) expresses that women should be silent in the assembly knows that in Christ Jesus, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.” He says this in Galatians 3.
When reading the scriptures it is important to remember context and to bear in mind that even within the scriptures there is a debate about these and other things, as there was a debate within Paul, and there may be a debate among us.
Simon Peter’s mother-in-law was healed by Jesus and it was not at all about servitude to men but it was entirely about her, because Jesus sees us, all of us, as created in God’s own image; and because Jesus never had ulterior motives.
It is an interesting story, however, especially perhaps because it seems unrelated and inconsequential. There is Jesus at the beginning of his ministry, disciples in tow, casting out demons, getting into trouble with the establishment (he is noted to have authority, unlike the scribes), and then he heals Simon Peter’s mother-in-law from a fever. Of course, I don’t think of much when I hear ‘fever’. Most fevers I have ever had were pretty benign. So it does not sound like much compared to the casting out of demons and the curing of diseases.
Yet regardless of the kind of fever she suffered – we see that Jesus noticed her, that she mattered to Jesus.
But word gets around quickly and at sundown, the whole town comes to Jesus, “and he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.” The next morning Jesus withdraws to pray. When the disciples find him and tell him that people are searching for him, he says, ‘let’s move on so that I may proclaim the message in the neighbouring towns also; for that is what I came out to do.’
Jesus heals but does not want to be defined as a healer. His ministry is for all people and it does not exhaust itself in healings. This must have been as difficult to understand for people back then as it is for us, for there are times when we pray for a cure and yet sometimes the thorn in the flesh remains. It is a mystery we don’t understand, and only learn to appreciate when we see it as the mystery that it is: God is not my genie and yet God redeemed the world in Jesus not by denying suffering but by entering into it.
Now, before Jesus moves on, Mark tells us that Jesus cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons – which he would not permit to speak, because they knew him.
And as Jesus moves on he heals a leper and a paralytic, calls Levi the tax collector to follow him, and defends the disciples against the accusations of the religious gatekeepers, in what amounts to his first questioning of the Sabbath.
This is the only time we hear of Simon peter’s mother-in-law. We hear in 1 Corinthians 9 that Peter travelled with his wife but we do not hear of his mother-in-law again.
Let’s go back to the beginning, via a detour.
In Genesis two we learn that Adam is lonely and God creates Eve who shall be a helper. To our modern ears to be a helper sounds inferior, yet throughout the scriptures, especially the Psalms, we learn that God is our helper and it turns out that Eve is not inferior at all.
In the story of the healing of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law we hear that once the fever had left her she got up and served them.
It turns out that she understands something most others don’t, including the disciples. Yet it turns out that in Mark’s gospel only women, angels, and the Son of Man act the role of “deacon,” as those who “serve,” “wait upon,” and “minister.” Simon Peter’s mother-in-law enacts discipleship, shows us what it means to follow Jesus: To serve, for the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Mark 10)
And when Jesus hears James and John ask the privilege to sit at his right and left, he shakes is head and says, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant.”
Jesus heals Simon Peter’s mother-in-law and she is not only cured but made well, taking on the life of a disciple. May too find joy in serving Jesus in our neighbour as Jesus first served us.