When the Gospel according to Mark was composed, nobody remembered her name. Everybody knew her solely as Simon’s mother-in-law.
The first disciples have names, Simon and Andrew, James and John, they will be remembered. Even Zebedee, whom his sons left behind in the boat – and that’s all we know about him – has a name, and his sons will always be remembered as the sons of Zebedee. Was it because it was a men’s world, that this woman’s name went unrecorded?
Some say that she remained unnamed because she serves as an example, as a representative for an entire group. At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus first drove out a demon from a man in the synagogue, a very public place – and that man remains unnamed – and then he healed a woman in the intimacy of a friend’s home. They say that for Mark it was important to show us right at the beginning, that Jesus brought liberation and healing to both men and women, in public and in private. Perhaps that’s the case, but I still wish we could remember her by name.
Let me tell you why. Last Sunday we had a Deacons’ meeting after church. Lise had made lunch for us, and after we had eaten we learned about the role of deacons in the church – in the New Testament, in church history, and here at Vine Street.
Deacon is a title, but long before it became identified with a particular church office, it was the greek word for servant. In English translations of the New Testament, the word diakonos is translated in a variety of ways as servant, minister, or deacon, but perhaps most simply and beautifully as one who serves. In Luke 22:27, Jesus says to the disciples, “Who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.”
A deacon is a woman or a man who learns from Jesus how to be great. A deacon is a leader who models Christian service and a servant who models Christian leadership.
When Jesus entered the house of Simon and Andrew, Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. The next verse is made up of plain, unadorned words, nothing printed in red, just simple descriptive terms for simple actions. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up.
When you have lots of words on a page it’s so easy to keep reading, to find out what happened next, that evening, at sundown, or the next morning. But when you just keep reading you miss a beautiful detail; this scene by the woman’s bed reflects the whole work of Christ: He came to visit us in our need, to take us by the hand, and to lift us up.
And he lifts you up not just to make you feel better or to let you return to whatever you were doing before the fever tied you to the bed. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
Some say that Jesus restored her to her place in the household and the community, a place of dignity and purpose. Others say, not without a hint of cynicism, that all he did was make her better so she could go back to the kitchen and fix supper for them and then wait on them. Real healing, they say, would include her liberation from oppressive norms. Gender expectations may not tie her to her bed like a fever, but tie her nevertheless to a place defined for her by others. When he took her hand, the fever left her, but her place as a woman in a men’s world hadn’t changed. It’s a legitimate concern.
I was pondering this gospel passage when I heard a report from Pakistan. Militant groups in the tribal areas on the border to Afghanistan had started moving further inland under pressure from increased attacks by U.S. military. They took control of a strategically important valley in the Northwest of Pakistan, one of the most developed areas of the country, with literacy rates in the 90’s; among the first things they did there was to blow up all the girls schools. In their vision of life, education is for men only; power is for men only; and only men have names. In such a world, healing that is only concerned with reducing the fever, doesn’t address the real sickness.
I believe Mark chooses his words very carefully. I believe it is no coincidence that after the fever left her, Simon’s mother-in-law didn’t go and do the laundry or scrub the kitchen floor or go to the market to get groceries. Mark writes, she began to serve them.
Jesus didn’t make her feel better so she could work harder. He lifted her up and enabled her to serve; he enabled her to participate in his ministry of loving service. He lifted her up so her actions would make God’s coming rule concrete and tangible in the lives of others. Jesus lifted her up, and she became the first deacon.
Do you know who serves in the Gospel according to Mark? The word is used in only four verses, and, like I said, I believe Mark chooses his words very carefully. It first appears in verse 13 of chapter one: Jesus was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan, and the angels waited on him. Serving is something angels do.
Then the word is used in the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law, and again in chapter 10 where Jesus says, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Serving is something Jesus does.
The last time the word is used in the Gospel according to Mark is immediately after the account of Jesus’ death.
There were also women looking from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. These used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem
Apparently many women had not only left the kitchen but followed Jesus all the way to the cross, and they served him on the way. Provided for him sounds a little like they were just writing the checks to pay the bills, but they served him and learned from him how to serve. They were with him on the way, they ran and did not grow weary, they walked and did not faint, staying with him all the way to the cross. Serving is something faithful followers of Jesus do, and Simon’s mother-in-law was the first who got it; that’s why I wish we knew her name.
He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them. These two brief lines not only describe the whole work of Christ, but also the work of those who follow him: we learn from him how to serve.
Lawrence Wood (Living by the Word, February 8, Christian Century January 27, 2009, p. 19) tells a story about some remarkable women whose names may never be written large in church history, but he names them for us.
Every summer, Sharon, Muggs, Wanda, and Joretta would help to put on a church dinner. Another woman couldn’t help out one year, having just had a hip replacement. He doesn’t tell us her name, only what she said when he went to check on her a day before the dinner.
“They’re not using boxed potatoes, are they? The people who come expect potatoes made from scratch.”
“They’re planning to peel potatoes all morning,” he assured her.
“And the ham? Did they get a good dry ham, or the watery kind?”
“I don’t know,” he said, and then he asked her if she had always enjoyed cooking. To his surprise, she adamantly said no, that cooking was a big chore.
“Really, I thought you enjoyed doing this.”
“I don’t love the potatoes,” she said. “Really, young man, you should know I love Christ, and there are only so many ways a body can do that.”
Spoken like a true deacon. When Jesus has lifted you up, and you have begun to learn from him how to serve, it’s not about loving the potatoes, the ham, or even the cooking, but about the people who eat the meal.
Jesus, on the night before he died, didn’t give the disciples one last sermon, something to think about when he was gone. He gave them something to do by washing their feet and sharing a meal.
“I love Christ,” she said, “and there are only so many ways a body can do that.” Washing tired and dirty feet, preparing a meal for twelve homeless men, or setting the table for disciples wearied by the long road – all these actions make the promise of God’s coming rule tangible. Do this in remembrance of me, he said. Simon’s mother-in-law got it before anyone else did, especially Simon and his fellow disciples.
In the morning, while it was still very dark, Jesus got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. The need for healing in Capernaum was still great, but the disciples didn’t know what to do – and so they ran and hunted for Jesus. “Everyone is searching for you,” they said when they found him, no doubt out of breath.
Do you remember what he said in reply?
“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.”
He didn’t move on because one day in Capernaum was enough. He knew he could move on because in that town there was one woman who got it – and we don’t even know her name.