Mark’s Gospel gets right to the point. In chapter 1, it’s clear that Jesus’ teaching and healing are the mission. His healing of Simon’s mother-in-law challenges us today to listen to the unassuming folks who never demand acknowledgment.
There’s a mother-in-law in today’s scripture reading — Simon’s wife’s mother — but there’s not enough information about her to know how Simon might have felt about her. There’s enough, however, to view her as a whole person. More about that shortly.
Today’s scripture passage follows on the heels of the scene where Jesus drove an unclean spirit out of a man. In Mark’s Gospel, that’s the first public display of power in Jesus’ ministry. It takes place at the synagogue in Capernaum, where the crowd is amazed at the authority by which Jesus teaches and acts. In today’s reading, we learn that teaching and preaching are the core of his mission, along with casting out demons and setting people free from illnesses. It is obvious that Jesus’ teaching and his power to heal are a package deal.
The response to Jesus’ ministry always tells us something. The good people of Capernaum may not have written any thank-you notes, but they certainly showed their appreciation with words. That day was a good one, and the people were mesmerized by Jesus. Later in the reading Jesus said, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I come out to do.” Jesus was apparently pleased with how the mission was going so early on.
But before that happened, Jesus and his followers first went to Simon’s house, directly after leaving the synagogue. Why? Maybe Simon and his brother Andrew wanted their family to meet their new friend. Maybe they wanted to show him hospitality. Or maybe they knew Simon’s mother-in-law was sick and after seeing firsthand the display of power earlier, Simon was hoping Jesus could make her well, also.
Obviously, Simon himself could not heal her, and we can identify with that. So often, we in the church feel powerless to make a difference, to introduce someone to faith, to heal a deep wound, much less, to transform a life. Our role is simply to invite them into a place where we have encountered Jesus, and then trust that he will do the rest. In Jesus’ ministry, healing others seems to be a sign of the kingdom of God being close at hand. It is a foretaste of what is to come.
But these stories tell us more about the person of Jesus and his mission, than about who should and should not be healed.
This passage reminds us that Jesus is not afraid to enter places of sickness, or to stand where demons’ dwell. You see, he is not absent in sickness and death — he is in the midst of it. Jesus is with us in good times and bad times. Even those who experience healing are not immune to future sickness, misfortune and eventually, death itself. That fact alone tells us there is a deeper meaning beyond physical healing in this text.
There seems to be woven into this first chapter of Mark’s Gospel a theme about identity. Earlier at his baptism, God declared that Jesus was God’s Son, the Beloved.1 In the synagogue, the unclean spirit asked Jesus; “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”2
And then we have Jesus, the Holy One of God, healing Simon’s mother-in-law, one of several women in scripture not identified by name. According to the story, immediately after Jesus healed her, she arose and began to serve the visitors. Some people, reading this story with modern sensibilities, might ask whether the men in that day viewed serving as the action that brought value to women. Some could even wonder if we had been the one brought back from the edge of death, wouldn’t we be looking for something else, something new, like a new vocation? But this woman was glad to be well and apparently wanted to be a good hostess.
As Jesus restored her to health, he restored her to her complete self. The woman who was the consummate hostess. This woman’s calling was to serve. This woman was brought back from a place where she was too ill to be her whole self. How many of us can say the same? Have we ever been in a place where we did not feel we were living our best life? A place where we were not allowed to truly be who God created us to be?
Think about all the people that Jesus healed. Some of them had been forced by their illness to live outside of the community. Certainly, that was the experience of those impacted by leprosy and of some who had “unclean spirits.” And what about those who were too sick to take the place that they once held inside the community? The real healing in all these stories may not be physical healing. There is also “social healing” when people are restored to the community.
Often, Jesus’ real power is displayed when we are no longer cut off from others. Simon’s mother-in-law was so sick that she was unable to offer hospitality to her guests. Through her healing, she was now able to return to her normal and honorable place of caring for her guests. That’s who she was! We should expect no more or less of her. The fact that she is not identified by name invites us to put ourselves in her place. Who or what is God calling us to be? What does it mean to be healed by God, and then how are we called to serve in response? Just as we receive compassion, healing and freedom, we are called to offer the same to others.
This woman gives encouragement and strength to those whose ministries include acts of humble service, whether shoveling snow, preparing a meal, giving someone a much-needed ride or simply the gift of your presence. Every act of love and compassion makes a difference. This woman shows us what a faithful response to Christ’s love looks like. This woman’s right response is the first of many responses by women as told by Mark. The poor widow,3 the woman with the costly ointment,4 the women at the cross5 and the women at the tomb.6 These stories point to the fact that all of us can make a difference. Even those whom society treats as of little value. Simon’s mother-in-law challenges us today to listen to the unassuming folks who never demand acknowledgment, as well as to listen to ideas that may have been overlooked.
Jesus lifted her up. When Jesus lifts us up, it does not just point to a distant future; he holds us in our present reality, dwelling in us — today. We discover that God is not asking us to be something we are not, but rather is restoring us to be our whole selves — who we really are. God brings us back from disease, from depression and from despair, to live.
1 Mark 1:11.
2 Mark 1:24.
3 Mark 12:41-44.
4 Mark 14:3-9.
5 Mark 15:40-41.
6 Mark 16:11.