Here's a mother-in-law story. This time, it's not a joke

Tue, Feb 20th 2018 12:00 pm

This month, during the weekend liturgies, we hear the story of Simon's (Peter's) mother-in-law. The earliest Christians would have heard Mark's Gospel spoken to them or read to them, probably in one or two sittings, not piecemeal as in our Sunday liturgies. So, it is valuable to see Mark's Gospel as an oral performance, similar to a theater play. Thus, it is enlightening to look at the placement of the story of Jesus' healing of Simon's mother-in-law within the gospel.

Early on, St. John the Baptist preached that one was coming who is "stronger" than I. Jesus came to John to be baptized, and then the Spirit drove Him out into the desert, where Jesus was tested by Satan. Obviously, Jesus won the struggle, since Jesus came into Galilee preaching that the "Kingdom of God is at hand." Jesus is the "Stronger One."

Then Jesus called four men, Simon, Andrew, James and John, saying to them, "I will make you into fishers of humans." They are not yet "fishers of humans," but by hearing Jesus and watching Him, they will become such "fishers."

Jesus is next seen teaching in the synagogue, and there He expelled an unclean spirit, described by Mark in terms of a genuine struggle with that spirit. Again, Jesus is the Stronger One, stronger than evil in a synagogue. The four followers see this. All this precedes the next three verses on Simon's mother-in-law.

Jesus left the synagogue and entered the house of Simon and Andrew. The early Christians would have noted the "leaving of the synagogue and entering a house," since that was their own experience. After encountering opposition in synagogues, they began to meet and worship in house churches. Jesus learning that the woman was ill with a fever, found her, took her by the hand, lifted her up, and the fever left her under a power of its own. In the minds of people at that time, illness was a mark of Satan's power, similar to demonic possession. Here too Jesus is the Stronger One. One should not miss that the verb used for "lifted her up" is the verb for the resurrection; it implies new life. Simon's mother-in-law's healing shows that Jesus is stronger than any evil in house churches. Again, the four followers see this action of Jesus, the healing and the raising up from evil power.

Finally, what did this woman do after being healed? The passage ends by saying that "she ministered to them," but what's in a translation? Some translations read "served them," and others "waited on them."

The verb describing her actions is "diakoneo," the verb commonly used for ministry elsewhere in the New Testament. Later, Jesus will say of Himself, "I came not to be ministered to, but to minister" - the same Greek verb. She is the first person in the gospel of whom this verb is used. "Them" would at least include the four followers and Jesus, probably also Simon's wife (and children?) This group would be the nucleus of the community. So, this unnamed woman ministered to the early community. "Simon's mother-in-law is a paradigm of all, especially women, who are raised for the life of the Kingdom and give expression to this new life by sharing in Jesus' ministry" (Brendan Byrne, SJ, "A Costly Freedom").

The four followers learn that raising women up from oppression is part of what it means to be "fishers of humans," disciples of the Stronger One, a message clearly needed in our global world today and here at home.   

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