February 5, 2012
In an episode of The Cosby Show, my one and only favorite show from the 80’s, Cliff and Claire – the mom and dad of the Huxtable family – are both laid low by the flu. So it is up to their children to run the household while they’re sick. I thought this was really funny in the 80’s. Now I see it as more of a nightmare scenario. But that is neither here nor there.
Theo, their teenage son takes charge of the house. He makes a list of all the things that have to be done – the cleaning, the cooking, etc. And he delegates chores to this two younger sisters. He delegates all the chores to his two younger sisters, claiming that his work was on the organizational and management side of things.
You can see where this is leading can’t you?
The two younger sisters eventually rise up in protest against Theo. He’s doing nothing but bossing them around and they’re sick of it. And where do they take their complaint? To their parents who are both sick in bed. And in a move that I completely get now, Claire declares herself well, gets up and goes downstairs to deal with her children. Because if she doesn’t the children are going to tear up her house. So she is well and she goes back to work.
This isn’t quite what happens in the passage from Mark, but I think it reflects the way that this story about Simon Peter’s mother-in-law has often been interpreted.
But before we take that on, let’s look at everything that’s happened around this event. As has been noted before Mark’s use of the word immediately is significant. It suggests the urgency with which Jesus’ ministry is taking place. And everything that has happened in the gospel up until this moment of healing has been immediate and urgent. My understanding is that it’s all taking place on one day.
And what a day this is. Jesus has come declaring the good news of God’s kingdom in their midst. He’s called the first disciples. He’s preached in the synagogue with an unheard of authority, cast out a demon who declared his true identity. Now they’ve left the synagogue and arrived at the home of Simon and Andrew who tell Jesus about Simon’s mother-in-law being sick in bed with a fever. Jesus goes into her, takes her by the hand and heals her. She gets up and begins to wait on them. Only now do we finally reach sunset. Because it’s after sunset that the people start bringing Jesus their sick and demon-possessed. Mark writes that the whole town is at the door. It isn’t until early the next morning that Jesus tries to find a solitary place to pray. And then they are off again, because Jesus has come to preach to the people.
That is quite a day! On even my best, most productive days, I can’t accomplish as much as Jesus did on this first day. But this is what he came for, to preach, to teach, to heal, to bear witness to the realm of God, this new state of being, is in their midst.
It’s taken us a few weeks just to cover in detail what Jesus did on this first day. This week the focus of the day is the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law. She was sick in bed with a fever. As one commentator wrote a fever was no small thing at that time. We know that a fever indicates that the body is fighting off an infection of some sort. In this day and age we have a variety of medicines at our disposal to deal with the underlying symptoms of a fever as well as the fever itself. But that wasn’t true in this culture. This woman’s fever could very well be an indicator of an illness that would lead to her death. It would have been cause for great concern among her family. So when Jesus arrives he is informed of her illness and he goes into her and takes her by the hand and lifts her up.
The word in Greek that is translated as “lifts up” would better be translated as “raised up.” And it’s a verb that is seen again when Jesus is also raised up from the dead. Jesus raises Peter’s mother-in-law up, perhaps quite literally, from the brink of death. In raising her up he restores her to health and wholeness. And when she is restored she is able to retake her place within her community. She is able to serve.
This is the moment of controversy in this passage. She is healed, but her first task after healing is to wait on the men. Is that what Jesus healed her for? So she could take care of them? Like Claire Huxtable declaring herself well so she could serve her family. I resonate with that interpretation. I get better and my first task is to take care of everyone else.
I think we have to take seriously the gender bias that would have been prevalent in this context. Women had specific roles and duties. They were the servers in that culture. It’s been true in our culture. The traditional church has kept the idea alive for centuries. I know I’ve bought into it as well.
I’ll never forget when I was a student intern in a church for a year. The men’s group asked me to be their guest speaker one month and give a presentation on my trip to the Middle East. After the meal was over, I went into the kitchen and started to clean dishes. The pastor, Greg, who was my supervisor and my mentor, came in and got me out of there, saying, “You are the invited guest. You are not here to serve.”
We go into this passage with the understanding that this was the expectation for Peter’s mother-in-law. She was supposed to serve. She was supposed to wait on the men. She’s healed so she can get back to work.
But maybe what we need to understand from this passage is the larger meaning of serve. Yes, we can see this woman’s service as mere menial waiting on the men. We can see it through the lens of the sitcoms from the 50’s and 60’s. Then this becomes a Ralph Cramden telling Alice to get better so she can get him his dinner kind of story. Because if she doesn’t one day he’s gonna send her to the moon!
Or we can see it through the lens of discipleship. Jesus restores the woman to health, he raises her up to new life, and her response is service. Yes, it was service in a particular way. It was the kind of service that she had been taught to do. She was the bearer of hospitality in her household. She served out of a sense of duty to be sure, but I also think she served out of love. Her response to being raised up, to being restored to full life was to serve.
And if we can see her through these particular glasses then she becomes an exemplary model of discipleship. Quite frankly, she gets what it means to be a disciple, she gets it, and the male disciples don’t. Her response to new life is to serve.
Shouldn’t that be our response as well?
Shouldn’t our response to new life be to serve?
This woman served in her particular context. And we serve in ours. It’s not about filling an expected gender role, it’s about responding in love to a need that is right in front of us. That’s what it means to serve.
And what I see as part of the promise in this passage is that Jesus doesn’t just restore her to life in her family, in her home. He restores her to life in a community. She takes her place in a community that has seen the embodiment of the kingdom of God in Jesus. She serves in a community that is touched by grace.
We are also that community. We have been touched by grace. We have seen the embodiment of God’s kingdom in Jesus. We are restored to health, and we are called to serve. Our service does not need to come in large, extravagant ways. Our service can be quiet and unassuming. I read a story from another pastor who was talking with an elderly member of her community. The member was lamenting that she was living in an old and weakening body. She lives in a nursing home. She cannot give of herself to her church as she would like to. Why didn’t God just take her?
So the minister asked her parishioner to describe her ministry. Because this minister was sure that this elderly woman did indeed have one. The woman thought about it and said that she sits at breakfast with a couple who have been married 67 years. They are both suffering from dementia. Every morning the elderly parishioner reminds the husband that he needs to pour milk on their cereal instead of juice.
The minister told her that in doing that, that small service, this couple was able to stay together that much longer. Eventually they will move to the dementia unit. Eventually they will not be able to stay in the same room. They may, through sad circumstance, be forced apart after 67 years together. But through this woman’s service, they are able to be with one another, eating breakfast, a little longer.
I think that’s what it means to serve. I think that’s what it means to respond to the love and the restoration Jesus brings. I think that’s what it means to be in community. We are given new life in order to serve. We are raised up so we can raise up others through love, through service. Alleluia. Amen.