+In the Name of God who was, and is, and is to come.
As soon as [Jesus and his disciples] 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. Mark 1:29-31
Well, of course she did! What else would a woman do in a society as permeated with male privilege as the one that existed in first century Palestine? I wonder how many of us listening to this morning’s Gospel reading came away from it more than a little angry. Talk about entitlement! Why does Mark’s Gospel report that Peter’s mother-in-law’s first response was to serve Jesus and his four disciples? A woman who has just gotten over being sick serving the men. . .
Oh, and by the way, it would have been nice if they had included her name when the story was passed on from eyewitness to storyteller to preacher to evangelist. She did have a name after all, you know.
Mark doesn’t say how long Peter’s mother-in-law had been sick when Jesus came into the house in Capernaum, or how sick she had been. A fever can mean something serious or nothing much to worry about. Maybe she’d just gotten the 24-hour bug – one of those things that knocks you out for a day or so and then disappears as quickly as it came. Or it could mean that this unnamed woman was facing a bleak prognosis. Before antibiotics, illnesses we think of as pretty routine could be very worrisome – sometimes even fatal. The fact that Peter’s mother-in-law was in bed, and that they told Jesus about her at once, indicates that she wasn’t well at all. So, she was more seriously ill than not.
It doesn’t matter whether the illness that Jesus used his powerful healing touch to cure was serious or not, you’d think this woman would at least be allowed a little bit of time to recuperate.
Matt Skinner, who teaches scripture at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, writes: “When we learn that [the word] “serve” [in the passage] translates [the Greek word] diakoneo, most likely indicating food service, and means she “waited on” them, it doesn’t help. Why didn’t Simon tell his mother-in-law to take it easy while he made sandwiches this time?” My guess is the thought never entered Peter’s mind. It wasn’t on his radar. Male disciples gathered around their rabbi for instruction; women cooked and served them. That’s how things worked. That’s what male privilege looks like.
As I’ve dug deeper into this story and researched how it has been interpreted in sermons and in commentaries, I’ve been reminded of the ways preachers and scholars – all of them men – have looked for ways to soothe the uneasiness this detail arouses in us. Let me share a few examples with you.
There’s the “What A Miracle!” explanation. It goes something like this – yes, the little detail about Simon’s mother-in-law serving Jesus and his disciples matters, but it just means that the woman was fully healed all at once! No need for any convalescing. To be healed by Jesus means to be healed totally and completely with no lingering effects of the illness.
Then there’s the “I’m so grateful” interpretation – the one that goes like this: Sure, Simon’s mother-in-law served the men, but her doing so was her way to show how thankful she was for what Jesus had done for her. And because Jesus was the Son of God, her service was a way of serving God, too. Being grateful to God is a good thing.
And let’s not forget the “We mustn’t ignore the historical and cultural context” approach to this story. The approach goes something like this: It would have been unseemly, even shameful, in that culture for a woman to neglect a guest who had come into her household. Yes, caring for Jesus and his friends would have honored them. But it would have also restored Peter’s mother-in-law’s honor and dignity. Now that she was healed, she could do the things society expected her to do – the very things that her sickness had kept her from doing! She had not only been healed – she’d been freed!
Needless to say, there’s an element of truth in every one of these approaches to the story. But for many, if not most of us, these interpretations aggravate rather than soothe our irritation about the passage. If it’s appropriate that this unnamed woman began to serve Jesus and his disciples once the fever left her – in whose eyes is it appropriate? Wouldn’t her new freedom, her liberation, make it possible for her to do something else besides serve?
If we set this story side-by-side with another miracle story about Jesus – the story of the raising of Lazarus – there’s a huge contrast. Lazarus emerges from the tomb and is unbound from his burial wrappings, but he doesn’t head to the kitchen, fix a nice meal, and serve Jesus – no! In John’s Gospel, Lazarus gets to recline at the table with Jesus while his sister, Martha, serves – and there’s that Greek word again – diakoneo – that means Martha waited on them. To quote Matt Skinner again, “Jesus’ healing of [Simon Peter’s] mother-in-law and the miracle’s outcome remain indelibly gendered, and gendered in ways that veer too close to the stereotypes we know to be tired and destructive.”
So, let’s acknowledge that this story, like other stories from the Bible, poses problems for us, not the least of them is that it reinforces categories that should be jettisoned altogether.
I would love to tell you that your preacher this morning is fully enlightened – that I understand my role in perpetuating the patriarchy, that I am aware of my entitled position as a cisgender, heterosexual male. But that would be a stretch I’m afraid.
Fortunately, my children have been hard at work and continue to flip the script on me. Where once I used to teach them, they now teach me. I can’t tell you exactly when they began their work, but I’ve kept something sent to me by one of them early on. It’s a drawing of Pooh and Piglet sitting side by side on a log in the Hundred Acre Wood. “What day is it today?” asked Pooh. “It’s the day we burn the patriarchy to the ground,” squeaked Piglet. “My favorite day,” said Pooh. Point made. And there are many other examples coming from my children.
For Christmas this year, one of the gifts that arrived in the mail for me was Kate Manne’s latest book, Entitled: How Male Privilege Hurts Women. If you’ve never heard of Kate Manne, she’s an Australian philosopher who teaches at Cornell University these days. She’s been described as the philosopher of #MeToo. Entitled is her second book – the first was Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny. Manne defines misogyny as “the law enforcement branch of the patriarchal order.” She defines sexism is “the theoretical and ideological branch of patriarchy.” In drawing the distinction between the two terms, Manne argues that misogyny can survive without sexism, and that people can uphold misogynist structures without holding sexist views about women.
When I first unwrapped the book, I hoped there would be some kind of inscription in it – something like the inscription my mother wrote inside the cover of a book she gave me many years earlier. She had sent Miss Manners’ Guide to Raising Perfect Children after our first two kids were born. Inside the cover she had written, “not that you need it.”
No such luck this time. There was no inscription. The only logical conclusion I can draw is that I need further instruction – that I still have a ways to go. This is undoubtedly true. So, I am reading the book, Entitled, right now – in fact, I’m a couple of chapters into already.
But you don’t need a book to recognize that the gender issues raised in this morning’s Gospel have continued right down to the present day – issues that have been exacerbated by Covid-19. USA Today had an article just last week about how differently many husbands and wives are dealing with the pandemic.
Jessica Calarco, a professor of sociology at Indiana University reported that, “Women are being gaslit in some cases by their partners, with women being the ones who are reading the science and listening to the experts, taking in this information, making informed decisions for their family’s health, and then having those decisions undermined by [male] partners who refuse to wear masks or who tell women that they are crazy, or that they are being driven by emotion and overly fearful about the pandemic.”
And my financial adviser sent out a newsletter this week with the headline, “Side effects: COVID-19 spurs women to rethink finances and careers.” One of the most telling statements in the article was this one: “Women say that growing responsibilities at home are hurting their careers.” Unsaid, but certainly implied, was that men’s careers had not been impacted in the same way as women’s because men weren’t doing their part at home.
Where does this leave us? And can we still find Good News in today’s Gospel passage? Because that’s what we claim whenever we read one of the Gospels – that there’s Good News in there somewhere.
First of all, we still have a long way to go when it comes to getting people to take the problem of misogyny seriously, or even to face it as a problem whatsoever. These last few years have not only seen a conscious attempt to reverse the progress that had been made in combatting racism, they have also seen a serious bid to annul and invalidate advances made in gender issues. Kate Manne says she is still far from hopeful, but she isn’t so despairing either. In the last chapter of her book she writes: “There is still an enormous amount of energy that goes into denying and minimizing misogyny. . . But there is also a lot of momentum – extant and building – in the efforts to resist it.” As the mother of a young daughter, Manne says, “It will be a long, perhaps indeterminate flight. But for her (meaning her daughter), I can say: I am in it.”
As for finding Good News in this passage. . . another professor at Luther Seminary, this time a woman, gets credit for the assist. Sarah Henrich goes back to the Greek word we’ve already talked about a couple of times this morning – the word diakoneo – to serve. Dr. Henrich notes, as the other scholars do, that this is the word used to describe what Peter’s mother-in-law does after she’s been healed by Jesus. Then Dr. Henrich continues: “[This is] the same verb Jesus uses to describe the essence of his own ministry [later on in Mark’s Gospel]. It is “to serve” rather than “to be served” that characterizes the Christ of God. It is also “to serve” that characterizes his disciples.
She continues, “Simon Peter’s mother-in-law is far from being an exemplar of a pathetic, un-liberated woman for whom serving men is her whole life. Rather she is the first character in Mark’s gospel who exemplifies true discipleship.” Henrich then adds this lovely side bar: “it will be women who are described as having served Jesus in chapter 15 as well when he’s on the cross. This is not a verb used of Jesus’ male disciples [in Mark} who famously do not quite “get it” within the gospel itself.”
Let me end with words from “The Servant Song,” a song we have sung many times at All Saints’. They capture who we are called to be as Christians no matter where we are on the gender spectrum. And they recognize that we are all still on a journey together:
Will you let me be your servant,
Let me be as Christ to you;
Pray that I may have the grace to
Let you be my servant, too.
We are pilgrims on a journey,
We are trav’lers on the road;
We are here to help each other
Walk the mile and bear the load.