As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
I wish she had a name. Simon’s mother-in-law, I mean. I suppose we could chalk that up to the relatively patriarchal culture from which our Bible comes. Men like Simon warrant names; women like his mother-in-law don’t. To continue this line of thought, should we also wonder that as soon as she is healed she gets up and serves; after all, isn’t that what women do?
Except I don’t think it’s quite that simple. Don’t get me wrong. I do think that part of the way Mark tells his story about Jesus is influenced by the cultural views of women prevalent at that time. But I also think there is something about the Gospel that undermines even our most rigid social conventions. There is something about the Gospel, that is, that regularly challenges our assumptions about “the way it’s always been,” or even “the way it has to be.” But you have to listen carefully.
So, two things to listen carefully to and consider. First, as with the man in the scene before, Simon’s mother-in-law does not receive a name. She is identified by her relationship to Simon, a character we already know, but remains otherwise anonymous, defined by her need, by her fever. Fevers, at this time in history, often indicated a serious condition, one that might very well lead to death. And so finding her in bed with a fever is ominous, no less so than being possessed by an unclean spirit.
Is her anonymity, therefore, perhaps intentional? Does she represent all those who are ill, as the man before did all those possessed? I don’t know for sure, but I do think that in this first chapter, as we saw earlier, Jesus stands opposed to all those things that rob the children of God the life of abundance God desires for them. In the last scene it is possession; in this one it is illness. And so, as before, Jesus responds to this need. In fact, he “raises her up” – that is, restores her, bringing her back to health and even to life.
Second, about the matter of serving: Whatever gender constraints may be at work in this story, it’s important also to remember that to be ill in bed is not only to lose one’s health but also one’s place in the community. When Jesus raises her up he therefore restores not just her health but also her vocation and her place in the community. Moreover, in Mark’s Gospel the mark of discipleship is service (diakonia in Greek). Simon Peter, Andrew, and the rest of Jesus’ male disciples regularly misunderstand this, but Simon’s mother-in-law understands this intuitively and is, therefore, the model disciple.
I still wish she had a name. But maybe in her anonymity we are invited to see ourselves, persons whom Jesus wishes to heal, to restore, and to return to lives of purposeful service.
Prayer: Dear God, let us listen and hear your Word of grace that it may free us for lives of meaning and purpose. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Note: Much of this devotion is shaped by the excellent essay of my colleague Sarah Henrich in a commentary she wrote for WorkingPreacher.org.