February 8, 2015 | The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany

by the Rev. Robert C. Laird

Today’s reading from Marks’ Gospel
picks up right where we left off last week,
continuing a story that has already started;
it’s like we’re watching an old movie serial—
“previously, on Mark’s Gospel…”

Jesus has just called his disciples to join him,
and then they went to the synagogue in Capernaum,
where Jesus started teaching.

While there, Jesus encounters a man possessed,
and Jesus heals the man,
which is where we pick up our story today.

After leaving the synagogue,
they go back to Peter and Andrew’s house,
and where Peter’s mother-in-law is.

She has a fever,
and is so sick that she is confined to her bed.

Now, imagine for a minute
that you were sick in bed with a fever,
and your son-in-law comes home
bringing with him four men,
whom you’ve never met.

It’s safe to imagine that she was not thrilled to see them.

They told Jesus about her at once,
and Jesus went to her,
took her hand, raised her up, and healed her.

Note the next sentence:
“The fever left her, and she served them.”

She must have been so pleased,
this woman,
to have a son-in-law
who could meet such a nice guy like Jesus,
invite him over to her house
while she was sick with a ridiculous fever,
and heal her with just the touch of his hand,
so she could get back into the kitchen
and make dinner for them.

It’s easy to see this as another example
of women in the Bible getting short shrift,
a woman without a name,
only known because she’s Peter’s mother-in-law,
and how often do mother-in-law stories
make the woman in question look good?

In this light,
this story fits right in with the countless others
throughout Christian history,
in which women make the ministry of the men possible,
and get no credit for it at all;
just think of the countless women
it would have taken to keep Jesus’ band of roving men
fed and cared for while the men
“[went] to the neighboring towns,
so that [Jesus might] proclaim the message there also,
for that is what [he] came to do.”

 

But perhaps there is another way to view this story.

Simon Peter’s mother-in-law,
lying sick in her bed with a fever,
sees that Jesus has come to visit her,
along with the disciples that are there with him.

And Jesus does something unthinkable:
he reaches out and touches her.

The story doesn’t have him talking to her;
it’s not like a hospital where he’d say
“Hi, my name is Jesus,
I’m the Wonderful Counselor,
Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace,
and I’m here to help you with your fever.
I’d like to take you by the hand
and lift you up,
if you’re okay with that.”

Instead, Jesus walks in,
when Simon Peter lets him know that she’s ill,
and he lifts her up,
and he heals her.

Jesus doesn’t have to say anything,
he just heals her,
and she gets up to serve them.

Getting up to serve them
shows that she is healed,
that the fever has left her fully;
and we can also hope it also shows her gratitude,
that the transformation she experienced
simply by touching Jesus’s hand,
and being raised up by him,
led her to service in the way that she was able;
our of her recognition of what Jesus has done for her
comes an act of service,
simple and pure.

And what’s more, her gratitude
pours out of her being healed on the Sabbath;
Jesus transgressed in his healing,
at least according to the customs of the day,
in order to heal this woman,
and in her gratitude,
she got up to serve him,
again, in transgression of the Sabbath,
because that gratitude came pouring out of her,
and she couldn’t help but serve them.

This mother-in-law’s act of service
is sharply contrasted with her own son-in-law’s behavior
just a few verses later.

“That evening, at sundown,
they brought to him all who were sick,
or possessed with demons,”
Mark tells us.

The disciples waited until the Sabbath had ended,
and then they went and got everyone.

One can imagine that Jesus may have been inundated
by the crowds,
and the Gospel says that everyone was there,
but that he cured many of them;
he couldn’t get to them all,
and had to leave to pray,
to strengthen and recharge himself
after the work he’d done.

And for taking the break that he needed,
the Disciples snap at him,
“Everyone is searching for you…”
having hunted him down.

Unlike the gratitude that Peter’s mother-in-law showed,
we see in this response only anxiety,
“There’s more people to heal, Jesus,
how can you take a break now?”
which is easy for them to say,
since they’re not the ones doing the work.

It’s worth noting
that Jesus can’t heal everyone in this story;
there are more people left that need healing,
there outside Peter’s door.

Jesus needs to recharge his battery
and take time for worship and reflection
before he can go on to cast out more demons,
and heal more people in the surrounding towns.

It’s an important message for us, too,
who in our own culture
feel compelled at times
to do more, and keep busy,
so we can avoid letting other people down.

Jesus is clear from the first
that he can’t do everything the Disciples want him to,
and that he needs to stay focused on his mission,
on his work.

We also need to stay focused on Jesus,
to keep our own business and work balanced
with time of reflection, prayer, and quiet.

The things that vie for attention in our lives
may not be all the sick people in a town
gathered at our door to be healed,
but the people and things in our lives
can be just as demanding as Jesus encountered today,
and the pressures we feel can be as strong
as a group of disciples hunting us down
to ask “Where have you been?”

Doing the work we’re called to,
and leaving enough time for us to care for ourselves
is a balancing act that can feel impossible.

But the response of Peter’s mother-in-law is telling:
Her service rose out of her heart,
when she rose from her sickbed;
She couldn’t help but respond to Jesus,
because Jesus had healed her.

When our service is a response to Jesus,
as opposed to a response to the pressures
of the world around us,
we can be sustained,
and find time for prayer,
and be the disciples that we are called by Christ to be,
instead of the disciples that the world
would prefer us to be,
which isn’t the same thing.

I would invite you this week
to spend even a brief moment in prayer each day,
time to re-center yourself
and listen to Christ,
and the call he has given you.

Let your service this week come from your deep gratitude,
and not from what the world expects from you,
in Jesus’ name.