Jesus’ healing restores us to ourselves, each other
When I was in seminary, the comment that I saw most often, in red pencil in the columns of the papers I wrote for my class for study of the Hebrew scriptures was: “Get out of the 20th century!”
Today’s text: Mark 1:29-31 – Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law
And I know that I was not alone in receiving that critique. Getting our minds to consider the culture and setting of a people who had lived thousands of years before us in a different part of the world was a challenge for all of us. But in order to understand what the writings of these ancient people intended to convey about their understanding of God and God’s relationship to them, it was essential that we begin to understand as much as possible about their time and place in history.
The era of the New Testament is closer to us by a thousand years or more, but far enough distant and set in a culture different enough and unknown enough to create pretty significant challenges in understanding what the writers were trying to express. But we keep at it.
Our biblical scholars keep digging away at ancient documents, and archeologists keep digging away…literally, at ancient sites of civilization, in order to help us increase our understanding of a time and place when God came to dwell among us as a fellow human being, to reveal the nature of God, to show us a way to escape from the never-ending cycle of violence and oppression that seems to be a persistent human pattern, and to teach us to how to love.
Jesus, God’s love fully expressed in a human being, was a real man, in a real time and place. What we know about him comes through the writings of men who lived in the same relative time and place (recognizing that the Gospels were written between 40-70 years after Jesus’ resurrection). So it’s important for us to know something about the time and place where Jesus lived out his human existence, in order to understand what he was trying to teach us.
A woman’s place
And so we come to this morning’s Gospel.
Jesus and the disciples have left the synagogue, and come to Peter and Andrew’s home, where we are told that Peter’s mother-in-law is bedridden with a fever. It might be tempting to pass this off as a minor illness that Jesus does away with, but the fact that the gospel writer tells us that she is “in bed with a fever” implies a very serious illness, with the very real possibility of being fatal.
So Jesus enters the home, learns that she is seriously ill, and proceeds to heal her. The instant the fever leaves her, she is up and out of bed…and she begins to serve them.
WAIT A MINUTE!!
Our 21st century sensitivities are likely to experience a very negative jolt at this news.
Hasn’t she just been seriously ill? And sick enough with a fever to be bedridden?
If you’ve ever experienced a high or prolonged fever, you know what you feel like when it’s finally broken- exhausted and rather like a wrung-out, wet rag.
“God does not go out looking for people who fit a prescribed pattern, but seeks to restore all of us to a life together as God’s beloved people, each of us discovering our place where our own particular gifts can be used to serve.”
So why is her first action to SERVE the men in her household? Why does Jesus allow that? Are these men so helpless or so inconsiderate or so chauvinistic that they can’t fend for themselves for ONE meal, and let the poor woman rest?
That’s our 21st century, cultural bias speaking!
Jesus: Outside the box
Let’s start off by remembering that Jesus HEALED her. And a healing by Jesus would have meant fully restoring her to health. He didn’t simply make her fever go away, he restored her to health as though she had never been sick. So there was no lingering fatigue, no evidence she had ever been sick.
In her world, her ability to provide a skillfully prepared meal with a popular rabbi as her guest would have been a mark of honor. She is not being treated as a slave, but with respect for her skill as a hostess.
Her healing has given her back her dignity and her ability to resume her place within her community. Jesus has not only cured her disease but has also restored her life.
The writer of the gospel of Mark has bracketed the opening to his testimony of Jesus with two very different kinds of healing, perhaps as a way of letting us know right from the very start that Jesus cannot be placed in a box with other teachers and healers.
Last week we read of Jesus’ healing of a man described as having an “unclean spirit.” That would have made him an outcast and unwelcome among respectable people.
I’m not sure that it matters whether we understand what was meant by “unclean” or “evil spirits.” What matters is that they were something that kept people from being a part of their communities, that isolated them. Jesus banished them, and reconnected people with their lives.
Right on the heels of telling us about the healing of the man with an “unclean spirit,” Mark tells us of the healing of a woman honored and beloved by her community, the mother-in-law of the disciple who would come to be known as the leader of the 12.
And in placing these stories of healing side by side, the writer of Mark is setting the stage for all that is to come in his Gospel.
An extraordinary new vision
He is about to reveal the life and ministry of a man who has a whole new vision of what it means to be the people of God; a vision that sees beyond cultural or religious bias about clean and unclean or appropriate gender roles (in the Gospel of Mark, as Jesus is dying on the cross, we learn that there were women present, Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James and “many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem.”
In beginning his Gospel with these two stories of very different healings, the writer is preparing us to hear the extraordinary truth that God does not fit neatly into our cultural and religious categories. Jesus shows us that God does not look on people the way that we do; and that God does not go out looking for people who fit a prescribed pattern but seeks to restore all of us to a life together as God’s beloved people, each of us discovering our place where our own particular gifts can be used to serve.
We should not forget that Jesus’ radical way of seeing the world and his inauguration of the reign of God were not welcomed by the popular culture of his day; he paid for his radical stand with his life.
And he invites us to be followers of that radical way of God, with all of its challenges and dangers. But in the end, just as he was lifted up he promises that we will be lifted up with him.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul wrote: “3Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?
4Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.
5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” – Romans 5:3-5
Thanks be to God.