Mark, Mothers-in-Law, and Ministry
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
©2020 Rev. Dr. Elisabeth R. Jones
As some of you are aware,
one of the ways I prepare to preach each week
is to meet with a midweek midrash group,
where we study the text, mind the gaps,
and follow various rabbit trails that the text throws at us.
As I prepared for the session on this text,
I was sure that the group would want to get to the bottom of this “demon” thing.
Well that was not the case!
We were more perplexed by the opening scene
where Jesus heals Simon’s Mother in Law.
At first glance it seems straightforward enough,
but there’s a problem,
… actually there’s a bunch of problems.
Mark is our first problem.
Mark the minimalist.
His is the shortest Gospel, where not a single word is wasted.
Mark is a master craftsman of the plotline,
which runs like an unbroken thread from beginning to end.
And along it, dotted along the way like beads on a necklace,
he places words, verbs, repetitions, signs,
that in hindsight we realize are crucial plot developments
which serve to create what he calls his
“Good News about Jesus Christ, God’s Son.” (Mk 1:1)
So, why does Mark tell this little story?
Why does Mark seemingly interrupt
Jesus’ teaching/healing schedule,
his rapidly growing fame,
his urgent compulsion to be on the move
with this tiny, insignificant, domestic scene
about a nameless matriarch who is healed?
If Mark wastes no words,
then we need to notice.
We need to pay attention
to the details of this little episode,
because in it is life, and Gospel!
So, what about these details?
She is the Mother-in-Law of Simon Peter,
living in his home, which means in all likelihood
that she is a widow with no sons of her own.
It’s not her house, but she makes what life she can
to support the household of her daughter.
And she is sick.
You all know all the Moms or Mothers in law
– I do?
who have to be deathly sick before they’ll take to their bed!
She’s one of them.
We 21st C readers don’t get that “fever”
in Mark’s day is a deadly matter.
No analgesics, no antibiotics, nor antivirals.
This older woman is so sick,
she’s in the CoVid ICU.
No wonder they told Jesus about her!
Nothing else was going to happen in that house
except the vigil by this mama’s bedside.
No wonder he went straight to her.
No wonder “he held her hand.”
Four tiny little words that sum up the fevered
agony of our global vigil, these days!
Don’t we all want to be able to do that
with our sick loved ones right now?!
Haven’t we watched the nurses, doctors, orderlies,
holding CoVid patients by the hand…
the only thing they can
to make the difference
between deathly anguish
and death or healing with love and dignity?
Equally simply, because this is Jesus,
Mark tells us that Jesus raised her, he egeiro.
Mark doesn’t use that verb very often.
He uses here, and again, to describe
what God did to Jesus’ prone body
in a tomb; (Mk 16:6).
And the other two times he uses it?
To describe what Jesus
does to Jairus’ dead daughter (Mk 5:41)
– “Talitha kumi” which is Aramaic for the Greek verb, be raised.
Herod uses it in fear when he hears of Jesus’ miracles,
and thinks he must be John the Baptist, “raised from” the dead (Mk 6:16).
So, of all the ordinary words
Mark might have used to tell us
that Jesus healed this unnamed woman,
does he choose to use this “resurrection” verb?
Is it, perhaps, so that we fully understand that
Jesus raises her from a death bed?
So, it makes far more sense, then,
when Mark goes on to tell us that
by day’s end, a matter of hours,
the news of her resurrection from near death
has gone viral, doesn’t it?
Everyone in Capernaum–a town of a 1000 souls–
knew, and brought their own sick and demon-bound,
to be touched, healed, set free, raised to new life
by the one who held her hand,
by the Miracle Man!
But I get ahead of the story, don’t I?
There’s that wee phrase between her being raised,
and the town descending upon the house.
It’s that moment in the text where the woman,
raised from her fever-bed does… what now?
Well it depends whose translation you use….
Peterson in The Message gets all homey on us and says
“No sooner had the fever left than she was up fixing dinner for them.”
NLT: “she prepared a meal for him.”
Now, I am beginning to know more and more as I get older,
what it means to be the matriarch, the Mother-in-Law,
the woman of the older generation,
bound to safety at home (especially during the lockdown).
A little sidelined from the rush and action!
We matriarchs do show our love and support
for our grown children and their families,
with a ladle, whisk and casserole dish.
Perhaps she did precisely that;
rose from her deathly-sick bed
and resumed her place of agency/power by the cooking pots.
But that’s not actually what Mark said.
(And what Mark said is huge and it makes me spit
that we’ve lost sight of it under all these manly translations !)
Mark uses two words, neither of which mean
meal, dinner, supper, preparation.
The verb he chooses, is again,
rare, and significant;
it is diakoneo.
The first time Mark uses it, it describes the service
of the angels who guard him in the wilderness.
In the middle of the Gospel he uses it to describe his own
mission and ministry call from God:
that he “came not to be served, but to serve others.”
And it’s used to describe the women
who stood witness at the crucifixion
when others had fled; saying
“they had been followers who served/cared for him in the Galilee.” (15:41)
Was Simon’s Mother in Law one of them, I wonder?
I think Mark wants us to wonder!
In a chapter where Jesus called
four fishermen to follow him,
he gains this fifth disciple, a woman.
Her response to her healing,
her response to Jesus’s touch,
to her rising to new life,
is to choose serve her Lord.
Now, as scholars rightly point out,
this is an indelibly gendered text,
bound to its patriarchal context,
where her service, her discipleship
would most likely have remained in the domestic sphere,
but it was discipleship nevertheless!
And do not let two thousand more years of patriarchy
and male-centered ecclesially-bound readings of this Gospel
erase her from your memory or your imagination
of whom God sees, touches, heals, restores, and calls.
This nameless mother in law,
in her home,
in her illness,
in her healing
chooses and becomes every bit a disciple of Jesus.
And the implications of this fifth disciple’s call
for us today are momentous,
any woman, and anyone
who is feeling that sickness, age,
race, colour, gender identity,
economic status, mental health status,
somehow sidelines us
from the call to live God’s Dream!
So, where Mark left a blank for her name,
(I still wonder why he did that),
perhaps so that we can
insert your own name.
Be touched, healed,
be raised to service
of God’s Kingdom Dream.