She got it

Nobody remembered her name. All they could remember when the story was written down was that she was the mother of Simon Peter’s wife. We can only identify her through her relationship to Peter, a man whose name the church never forgot. He was the first person Jesus called to be a disciple. We know his name, along with the names of his brother Andrew, and the brothers James and John. “Follow me and I will make you fish for people,” Jesus said to them. The church even remembers Zebedee, the old man James and John left behind in the boat — and that’s all we know about him, that moment and his name.

It was a man’s world, what do you expect, some have said. Others have suggested she remained unnamed because she represents women as a group. In the verses before today’s passage, Mark tells us about a man with an unclean spirit, a man in the grip of the demonic, whom Jesus liberates, and the scene takes place at a synagogue, a very public place. Following that he tells us about a woman with a fever, whom Jesus heals, and the scene takes place in the privacy of a friend’s house. Mark, they say, so arranges the scenes that those who hear or read his gospel narrative would know right from the beginning that Jesus brings liberation and healing to both men and women, in public and in private. I can see that, and it all takes place on the sabbath day; it’s like a thumbnail that represents the whole big picture. The two brief scenes are like the opening announcement of the crowning day of creation, the day of life’s fulfillment, that longed-for, long-awaited day when all God’s creatures rejoice in God’s shalom, freed from demonic possession and healed from every fever, fear, and sickness. I like that thought, I like that interpretation, but I still wish we could remember the mother of Simon Peter’s wife by name, because in contrast to her famous son-in-law, she was the first person to participate in Jesus’ mission. She was the first who got it.

Here’s the scene: they left the synagogue, walked across the street and entered Simon’s house where she was in bed with a fever. The next sentence is composed 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. It’s the kind of sentence that easily disappears on a page, amid the many words that want to tell you what happened next, that evening, at sundown, the next morning, and thereafter. But when the reader you’re listening to or your own eyes and voice just keep running, line to line, down the column, you’re likely to miss a lovely detail: this scene by the woman’s bed reflects the whole work of Christ. Jesus came to us to take us by the hand and raise us up. Jesus came to give power to the faint and strengthen the powerless. And Jesus came not just to make us feel better by restoring us to our former life. He takes us by the hand and raises us up to new life. Listen again to Mark’s words:

He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

What does this have to do with new life? Sarah Henrich says,

It was her calling and her honor to show hospitality to guests in her home. Cut off from that role by an illness cut her off from doing that which integrated her into her world. Who was she when no longer able to engage in her calling? Jesus restored her to her social world and brought her back to a life of value by freeing her from that fever. It is very important to see that healing is about restoration to community and restoration of a calling, a role as well as restoration to life. For life without community and calling is bleak indeed.[1] 

Jesus restored her to her place in the household and the village, a place of dignity and purpose – but that was the life she had before. What is new about a life where she goes back to the kitchen to fix supper for Simon and his guests, and wait on them? What is new about a life where a woman’s place is in the kitchen while the men eat and have deep conversations about the kingdom of God? Is it real healing when all Jesus does is confirm the status quo? Only the text doesn’t say anything about the kitchen, nor does it say anything about her returning to her household chores. It says, she began to serve them.

The word to serve first appears in Mark 1:13: Jesus was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan, and the angels served him. Then the word is used in the scene at Simon’s house and again in Mark 10:45, where Jesus says, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.” Serving is something angels do in Mark’s telling of the good news, and it is something Jesus does. The last time the word is used in 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 (Mark 15:40-41).

Apparently a good number of women had left the kitchen and followed Jesus to Jerusalem. They provided for him sounds a little like they made sure he had enough to eat, but the word is again to serve: they did what the angels did for him in the wilderness and what he himself had come to do. Serving is something followers of Jesus learn to do from him, and Simon’s mother-in-law was the first who got it; that’s why I wish the church had remembered 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 simple lines describe the whole work of Christ, as well as the work of those who follow him: they serve him in gratitude and serve with him in proclaiming the good news of God’s reign.

Lawrence Wood tells a story about some remarkable women he’s been blessed to know, “women,” he writes, “whose names may never be written large in church history, even though their influence has been widely felt.” 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. Lawrence went to check on her a day before the dinner.

“They’re not using boxed potatoes, are they?” she demanded. “The people who come expect potatoes made from scratch.”

“They’re planning to peel potatoes all morning,” he said.

“And the ham? Did they get a good dry ham, or the watery kind?”

“Honestly, I didn’t know,” writes Lawrence. “It was probably the same ham as always. I asked if she had always enjoyed cooking, and to my 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.”[2]

In the Liturgical Year of America, today is Super Bowl Sunday, with the central ritual of the game celebrating strength, skill and strategy, applied for the purpose of pushing into the others’ territory and taking the ball across the goal line. Minor rituals connected to the day include consuming wings, chips, dip, salsa, pizza, and beer, watching and commenting on various commercials, and, among serious followers, the wearing of special clothing and the chanting of songs and insults. And while the whole nation will be getting ready for that, somebody will unlock the doors to Fellowship Hall downstairs and set up beds; somebody else will put little bags with toiletries and cough drops on each pillow; yet another will put out board games, while two or three will be putting the finishing touches on a good meal. And then the van will pull up and our guests will arrive. “Welcome to Vine Street,” the hosts will say, “we’re so glad you’re here. Come on in and make yourselves at home. Dinner will be ready in just a few minutes.”

Remember what the woman said? “I love Christ, and there are only so many ways a body can do that.” And so she just did it, she began to serve. And soon others joined her, they came together as one body, and before long they discovered that her mission statement was also theirs, with just one small change that changes everything: We love Chist, and there are so many ways a body can do that. They dropped the only, because as one body, inspired by Christ’s love for them and their love for Christ, they could do all that was needed to proclaim the good news of God’s reign.

The mother of Simon Peter’s wife got it before anyone else did. Jesus took her by the hand and raised her up, and she began to serve. That evening, Mark tells us, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And Jesus proclaimed the good news of God’s reign. He took them by the hand and raised them up, and we don’t know how many of them, filled with joy and gratitude, simply returned to their former lives; and we don’t know if there were others who, in grateful response to the healing and liberating love of Christ, began to serve.

In the morning, Mark tells us, while it was still very dark, Jesus got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. The need for healing and liberation was still great in Capernaum, but they didn’t know what to do about it. “Everyone is searching for you,” they said, apparently still utterly unaware that they too had a part in Christ’s proclamation of God’s reign. Jesus said, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also.”

You know he didn’t move on because the work in Capernaum was done. He knew he could move on because in that town, in a house across the street from the synagogue, there was one woman who got it – don’t you wish we knew her name?




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