In this week’s passage from Mark, Jesus leaves the synagogue for the home of some of his disciples. Here, he heals Simon’s mother-in-law, then begins healing others as they are brought to him. The group at Faith in Real Life wrestled with Mark’s depiction of the mother-in-law’s serving the group and pondered what these healings meant in the broader context of Jesus’ ministry. As Vernon writes, though they are miraculous, they are just a part of the bigger picture that is Jesus’ work of restoration of the relationship between God and humanity.
29 As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30 Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. 31 He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
32 That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33 And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34 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.
35 In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. 36 And Simon and his companions hunted for him. 37 When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” 38 He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” 39 And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.
Though this passage includes a variety of interesting discussion topics, it is important to see where this story fits into the whole narrative. The headline for Mark is found in the first verse of the first chapter. He announces that he is writing “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” He does not explain. He announces and lets Jesus actions do the talking. Mark’s present tense, urgent style reflects his understanding that good news and action cannot be separated. Don’t look back; don’t try to explain. Look at this man Jesus and what he does. That is how you will come to understand that Jesus is the Christ.
Mark is describing Jesus’ expanding understanding and living of his call. We will not truly understand his call until Jerusalem but the seeds of understanding are being planted. This particular day was the Sabbath and Jesus asserted his authority in the synagogue—not only to the authorities but also to the unclean person present. In today’s verses, God’s work has moved outside of the synagogue into the home of Simon and Andrew. Jesus heals and restores Simon’s mother in law. Then, in the evening, Jesus is serving the larger community of Capernaum and by the next morning, God’s work has extended to the neighboring towns. There is a relentless motion toward expanding inclusiveness. The story will culminate on the cross. This is how Jesus is revealed as the Christ. Try to keep this fundamental principle in mind as we deal with some of the details of the passage.
Even more than Jesus’ healing and the nature of healing, The first detail that FIRL reacted to was the line “Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.” There was a visceral indignation that this woman should be delegated to serving the men. It felt like a biblical blessing upon gender stereotypes and ‘women’s work.’
I am sure some people have used these words in exactly that way, but I do not believe Jesus lifts up anyone to diminish them. Such an interpretation is contradictory to God’s expanding inclusiveness. It is unfortunate, but serving and service have a secular implication of ‘less than’. It is better to be served than to serve. It is understandable, but it is not Christian. The same verb that Jesus uses for himself and his mission in the world (diakoneo—from which we have the word deacon) is the word found here to describe Simon’s mother-in-law. The core of Jesus’ calling was to serve rather than be served. (“…whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Mark 9:43-45)
The key difference is that service that emerges from gratitude and choice is much different that the service that comes from obligation. It looks the same. The same food is cooked, served and cleaned up but the place in the heart is entirely different. Simon’s mother-in-law may have reflexively returned to her ‘role’—in which case, she was simply doing what was expected. She was a good Jew and a good hostess. But I prefer to believe that this story is included because when Jesus lifted her up, her relationship with God and her family was restored. She received a gift greater than her health and she was grateful.
Unfortunately, we, humans have a nasty habit of making almost automatic connections between our discomfort and our behavior. Just this week, Denise told me about a phone call to the church from a daughter wondering why her mother (a shut in) had not been receiving CD’s of our worship service. Her first thought and fear was that it might be because she was behind in her pledge. That is so often how people think. If something goes wrong, it must be because we did something wrong. That was not remotely the case. In actual fact, Denise had been particularly over worked and had fallen behind on the mailings.
Simon’s mother-in-law—as well as those around her—almost certainly ‘explained’ her illness in some negative way. Those explanations add to suffering. The last time I was in the hospital and awaiting a diagnosis, I spent several terrible hours wondering what I had done wrong. Had I failed to follow up properly on routine checks? Had I taken too much Tylenol? Had I been the agent of my own dilemma?, Etc. None of this was true—and even if it had been, it was too late for me to do anything about it. But it was hard to feel so threatened and to leave it to God.
Love is always a gift and it is independent of our behaviors or our physical circumstance. When we come to know that, we are restored to God and we are made whole—even if we are in the middle of dying. It is absolutely possible to suffer, to feel alienated from God, even to die and still be whole with God. That is what the cross is about. In real life, I yearn for that kind of safety. It has happened a few times in my life but mostly I get fearful and anxious when I feel threatened—whether that is physical, emotional or vocational. I can only imagine that is how Simon’s mother-in-law felt as she lay feverish and uncertain of her future. Jesus’ touch lifted her and restored her. We have the same promise.
As I indicated above, this story in Mark serves to illustrate the larger mission and calling of Jesus. His primary mission was about holiness and wholeness. He was not to be measured by the percent of people physically healed nor by the extraordinariness of the healing. Physical healing is part of the larger task of restoring us to God—it is not the measure of such restoration. It is the reason that Jesus so often told people NOT to tell about their healing. He did not want to be reduced to a magic man. He had a greater mission—and that mission could not be fully understood until after his death. Our health nor our prosperity are indications of our standing with God. People were confused about that in the first century and are confused about it now. It is not the way humans typically think but it is the way God breaks into our lives.
His own disciples did not see the difference. In fact, in this passage, when Jesus went missing, the disciples hunted him down (in the Greek this is almost a hostile action). Where are you Jesus, there are still people who need you! The text tells us that Jesus had helped many—not all. Why would he leave people in the lurch? We often have the same question.
After spending what I can only imagine was an exhausting day responding to the needs of the people, Jesus withdraws to pray He needed to discern his calling. I’m sure he could have stayed and have a lifetime of work. The needs of people never end and the work of love never ends. There are always valid and important claims on our time and energy. I’m sure the disciples expected Jesus to ‘finish the job’. They viewed his primary ministry in Capernaum to be healing and casting out devils but his call was larger. It was to restoration, to expanding inclusiveness.
Part of the teaching here is that the needs of world, the needs of our families often (if not always) exceed our willingness and our ability to respond. That is an unexpected bit of real life in this story. When confronted by the needs of world, there is no ‘right answer’. In real life, there is a man who has been sleeping in the portico outside of the parlor. As you all know, it has been very cold lately. This morning he was hallucinating. It is impossible to walk by him into the church without feeling troubled. What can we do? How much can we do? We do not have those answers but we must confront the questions. We too must struggle with how, when and how much we are to do as we seek to respond in love.
That requires prayer—and prayer begins to restore our relationship with God. We are not alone. We can bring our fatigue and uncertainty to God and seek to listen to his call. It may mean staying. It may mean moving on. It may mean taking a break. It may mean we need better focus. Your answer will likely be different than my answer and it will likely vary with time. The call is not to do it all. Such a call is impossible. The call is to respond in love. That means we are always struggling with discernment. It is why we are told to pray. It is what Jesus did when he was tired, uncertain and in need of restoration.
May we accept God’s restoring good news. May we trust God with our fatigue, our limitations and our sinfulness in the confidence that he is always with us. And may we live and serve in gratitude. Let it be so.
P.S. The line “he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.’ also garnered a great deal of interest in FIRL. I began to wonder where in ordinary life we might hear demons and what it might mean to rebuke them. I thought of the phrase ‘Don’t even go there! Often the statement is used to cut off recycled complaints or justifications—both of which are antithetical to love. Most of us maintain a gunnysack of ‘go to’ complaints that we pull out and repeat to give our case (or our indignation) credibility. This can be so embedded that couples can go into separate rooms and write the dialogue of the argument. They are almost choreographed into our relationships.
Sometimes we need to be told ‘Don’t go there!’ Those voices are circular and repetitive. If we are fortunate enough to see them for what they are, they lose their power—and the work of resolution and regard can begin. This is at least one way I imagine rebuking the demons. Take it for what is worth.