Mark 1:29-31 (39)
Reading and studying the gospels is like a treasure hunt. Often the gems of faith and righteous actions are not obvious or apparent. You have to hunt for them and dig through the context and culture of the biblical people to find them. It can be quite an adventure. Especially the Gospel of Mark is a treasure hunt. Mark says a great deal with very few words. But the words are loaded with clues.
Our passage today immediately follows Markís first report of Jesus exerting his authority both in words and actions. Recall that Jesus went to the synagogue on the Sabbath and taught in an unexpected way. And then right after the service Jesus cast out a demon from a man and healed him of his demonic possession. Both of these acts were very public and astounding for people: for some they were wonderful; for others they were threatening.
Now Jesus goes to Simonís and Andrewís home. Simonís mother-in-law is in bed with a fever. They were anxious for her, so they told Jesus about her Ö obviously hoping he would cure her. Jesus went in to see her. He took her hand; that is, he held her hand. And as a result he lifted her up. We envision that she sat up in her bed cured. She got up and resumed her duty as the head female of the household.
Now on first reading we see a miracle. Jesus isnít a doctor. He didnít give her any medicine to break the fever. He just took her hand and the fever was gone. He apparently spoke no words of incantation. He didnít give her any potion to drink. He just took her hand and lifted her up. And she was cured. Now wouldnít it be nice if thatís all we had to do to cure a fever or the flu or whatever. It would be wonderful to have Jesus around to instantly cure us.
But if we dig deeper we find thatís not what Jesus was really doing. He actually didnít cure Simonís mother-in-law. He healed her. ďCuringĒ is a medical term that implies ridding the body and mind of whatever ails you and restores you to bodily and mental health. ďHealingĒ on the other hand is a much broader action. For example, possibly you canít be cured. Your condition is chronic, such as diabetes and you will always be struggling with it. But you can be healed inasmuch that you learn to live with the diabetes and carry on a near-normal life.
And I suggest this is more likely what Jesus did. Whatever was ailing Simonís mother-in-law (wouldnít it have been nice if Mark had told us her name!), Jesus was able to help her return to her life. And to do so, he broke many rules.
He touched her.† That was simply not allowed in Jesusí culture. A man never touched a woman to whom he was not related. Maybe Simon felt it was ok since it was in the privacy of his home, but it wasnít. Jesus was now a public figure and like any public figure is every act was being scrutinized.
He healed her on the Sabbath. Healing is work and the Jews are forbidden to work on the Sabbath. Again Jesus would be seen as a rule-breaker and disrespectful of the accepted traditions.
He became unclean. He touched a sick person and that made him unfit for the Sabbath. The ancients knew very little about contagion. It is likely that some would think that Simonís mother-in-law was possessed of a demon which caused her fever. But everyone would be concerned that Simonís mother-in-law by having a fever was an unclean person, not fit for the Sabbath. She needed to be purified before she could rejoin the community. Jesus joined her in her isolation.
Technically, he did not need to break any of these rules. Why didnít he wait just a few hours for dusk, when the Sabbath would be over? Jewish days go from dusk to dusk and it was already mid afternoon. Why didnít he just wait? And why touch her? He cast out the demon earlier in the day without touching the possessed man. Why didnít he do the same for her?
So we need to go deeper in our digging for the gold Ö or maybe even diamonds Ö underlying this very short story. The clue to what Jesus did is in the last sentence of the verse ďThen the fever left her, and she began to serve them.Ē
A first reaction is, why wasnít she given time to recuperate? After all sheís been bedridden and probably is weak. Women were second class and expected to serve the men in the house. Couldnít they let someone else do it for awhile? How about her daughter, Simonís wife? Yet Simonís wife is not mentioned at all in the story.
But given all that we know about Jesusí ministry this attitude that the mother-in-law had to push herself to serve men seems so out of character for Jesus. But if we dig deeper into the Jesusí culture we discover that the mother-in-law is the eldest woman in the house and it is her position and role to host guests. That is her place and without that her self-esteem is diminished. She simply becomes a left over.
Whatever her fever was, whether it was a physical infection or an emotional breakdown, Jesus restored her to her place in life. He did not allow tradition or religious barriers to keep him from restoring her. He healed her socially: he gave back to her her place in her family and therefore in the community.
He did this on the Sabbath, instead of waiting, so she could serve the Sabbath meal. He held her hand in solidarity with her second class position and by taking her hand he said to her that God was with her as much as with any man. He not only gave back her social role but raised her self-esteem with a promise of Godís support.
So what does this mean to us? Jesus understood that healing was holistic. Just banishing a fever, or setting a broken bone, or providing pain killers for chronic arthritis, or giving anti-depressants for depression are cures, but not healings. A human being is not an isolated, single individual unconnected from the rest of humanity and nature. We humans are part of the web of life and relationships. Healing restores are place in the web of life and in our relationships, even if a specific medical or psychological or social condition is not relieved.
This understanding that Jesus was a healer, not a doctor, is the treasure hidden in our verses today.
For example, one of commentators that I read to prepare this sermon reported a case in his church for which this understanding applied. He reported just the bare minimum: a parishioner had turned in another parishioner to the police for some unspecified illegal act. The convicted parishioner was now going to be released from prison and wanted to re-integrate into the church. And thatís about all he said.
But what might have happened between the time from the moment the imprisoned parishioner made his request and the parish made its decision? We can only speculate, but a few scenarios come to mind.
One would be that the minister, being a forgiving Christian would decide that the parishioner had done his pertinence in jail and the Christian community should rejoice in his transformation and welcome him back. Now, of course, if the minister doesnít consult with his parish, or at least his governing board, sheís likely to get a lot of push back. Depending on the crime, some folks may be frightened that he would harm someone or the church. Others may simply not want him back. And that leads to another scenario.
The minister could bring it to the committee of the whole and ask for a vote. This of course we raise all sorts of debate, some Ö if not a lot Ö may be quite angry and fearful. The end could force the parish into a split.
But neither of these scenarios take into account healing Ö not just healing for the convicted, but healing for the parish. After all, one of their own fell from grace. How does the parish heal Ö the whole parish, not just for the person who turned him in, or for individuals, of for the minister, but for the parish has a living, whole body of faith?
And this is where the work has to be done.
It falls to the minister to raise up the power of forgiveness and how it allows for release from suffering. The parish may feel victimized by the shame of his conviction. The convicted may feel betrayed by the parish.
It also requires repentance. Surely the convicted should be expected and willing to repent and to restore the parishís trust in him. But the parish itself must reflect on how it might have failed this person who turned to crime.
But maybe the very first act is to reach across the chasm of disappointment, betrayal, and suspicion and hold hands, as Jesus did for Simonís mother-in-law. And in that act restore the convicted man to personhood within the parish.
And along with all of this it is important never to hide what happened. The parish must be open about the fall, not to shame the man or to shame the parish, but to face the brokenness of the event and make it a teaching of how God calls us to faithful community for all of our weaknesses and blemishes. The parish must accept that there will be ups and downs, successes and failures. But if we keep the faith and always turn into Godís grace then God will not abandon us, not a single one of us, whether saint or sinner. So long as we hold Godís hand, God will hold ours and walk us through the temptations and trails of life.
Think about it Ö
Godís grace and love be with you Ö