One of the things I love about the Bible is that the Bible never makes you feel wholly comfortable. You can always find a comforting passage – a victorious song from Isaiah, soothing words from a psalm, a story of encouragement or inspiration about a beloved character. But as you read Holy Scripture, you can almost as equally find passages that make you bristle. This especially happens when you follow the lectionary, because, much to the chagrin of your preachers, you cannot pick and choose what texts you like. And so, you open up the assigned text and your modern sensibilities say, “Whoa! Hey now!”
Today’s lesson from Mark hit me that way at first glance. Jesus has had a pretty full day. On the Sabbath, Jesus and the disciples go to the synagogue and Jesus teaches with an authority that amazes those gathered. He rids a man of an unclean spirit, and the people marvel again. Jesus leaves the temple and goes to Simon Peter’s house. Before he can even sit down, the disciples tell him that Simon’s mother-in-law has a fever – which, in those days, is a dangerous condition. Jesus goes to her, offers her his hand, she rises, and is healed. And this is the part where I bristle. The text says, “Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.”
The timing of this text could not be worse. Our country is in the middle of a complete reevaluation of the treatment and role of women. Just a few weeks ago, women around the country, and even here in Williamsburg, marched to protest the ways in which women are being treated and the ways in which legislation is affirming that treatment. This year, Time Magazine chose the women of the #metoo movement as their “Person of the Year.” These Silence Breakers are women who have begun to take a stand against sexual harassment and assault. The magazine’s selection was timely, as story after story continues to break of prominent men are accused of mistreating and assaulting women. Even our political elections are seeing more women running for office, including three graduates from the Naval Academy.[i] In this season of women and men calling our country to examine the role and treatment of women, the last thing I wanted to hear was a story about a woman whose immediate reaction to a miraculous healing and resurrection is to go into the kitchen and serve the men. She does not join the four disciples as part of Jesus’ entourage; she does not sit with Jesus and learn more from his teachings; she does not become an evangelist of the Good News. The text simply says, “Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.”
One of the tricky things about reading Holy Scripture is how to interpret scripture in the context of our modern sensibilities. In my last year of seminary, I decided to write my thesis on the book of Ruth for this same reason. Here was an entire book on women – a rarity in scripture. The first three chapters of the book show women of agency and power, who make their way, even in a world where widows have very little power. Even Ruth is described as a woman of hayil, a Hebrew word reserved almost entirely to describe men of great power and military prowess. And what happens to this mighty, powerful woman? In the final chapter of the book, men determine Ruth’s fate, she gets married, has a child, and the child redeems her mother-in-law. This character who speaks throughout the book is rendered voiceless throughout the last chapter. It took me a year of wrestling with this book to realize that my modern lens and interpretation of the book of Ruth prevented me from understanding how Ruth’s fate does not mitigate her hayil, her power in the story. Reading Ruth would never translate the same way to modern ears. Ruth’s story is still a story of empowerment. But in order to hear that empowerment, I would need a deeper understanding of the cultural context. And I would need to be open to other messages from the text – not simply what I wanted to hear and have affirmed to my everyday life.
A similar reality is true in today’s reading from Mark. This is not a story about a woman’s role or a woman’s expected place with Jesus. This is not a story about the differences between men and women in the kingdom of God. This is not a story about gender and discrimination. This is a story about discipleship.[ii] The past three weeks we have been talking about discipleship – how discipleship is discerned within community, how discipleship involves sacrifice and a response to Jesus, how discipleship involves a sense of immediacy. Today’s lesson reminds us that discipleship is also about service.
Simon’s mother-in-law does not recover from an illness and immediately begin to serve Jesus out of a sense of gendered identity. She immediately begins to serve Jesus because, through her healing, she understands a key component in discipleship: service. This is something the disciples will not learn until many chapters later, when Jesus says, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.”[iii] Two of the same disciples who are there this night of the mother-in-law’s healing, James and John, after ten chapters of following Jesus think discipleship means power and privilege – sitting at Jesus’ left and right hand. But Jesus, the mother-in-law, and countless others show the disciples that discipleship is about service. Discipleship is about what we reaffirm in our baptismal covenant – to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves.
This story is not a story about gender and the role of women and men. This story is about discipleship. Now, for those of you who may still feel dissatisfied, what is interesting in this story is that in a room full of men, the woman is the one who actually understands what Jesus is all about. We see that point even more fully when Simon Peter approaches Jesus later as Jesus is praying. The text says, “In the morning, while it was still very dark, [Jesus] got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him.” Scholar’s argue that Simon did not simply “hunt for” or look for Jesus. The implication of the Greek word here is that Simon vigorously looked for and approached Jesus with the intent of forcing Jesus to get back to work.[iv] Simon misunderstands Jesus and the work of discipleship; Simon’s mother-in-law does not misunderstand. But taking this story to be a feminist text of the women getting it and not the men is probably reading too much into the text too. This is a text about one disciple getting it – getting it to strong degree. In fact, the word used for “service” here, is the same root of the word for deacon.[v] The service of the mother-in-law is akin to the work of deacons in the church.
I do not know where you find yourself in this text today. Maybe the text is reassuring because you have made your life of discipleship about the service of the kingdom. Maybe this text is reassuring because you understand that sometimes you do not always get the message, and yet you can still be disciples. Or maybe this text is reassuring because you are grateful to be surrounded by disciples on various points of the spectrum, who are all figuring it out. The point is – this is a reassuring text. This passage from Mark is not meant to be a text for bristling, for defensiveness (on either side), or for creating a sense of failure. This is a text which reassuringly reminds us that we are all on a journey to understanding discipleship and becoming more faithful disciples every day. This text reminds us that we need each other: men and women, old and young, married and single. Together we help each other walk with Christ. Together we teach each other the work of discipleship. Together we do the work of seeking and serving Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves. Amen.
[i] Michael Tackett, “From Annapolis to Congress? These Three Women Know Tough Missions,” January 28, 2018, as found at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/29/us/politics/women-annapolis-democrats-congress-trump.html on February 2, 2018.
[ii] Karoline Lewis, “A Call Story,” January 28, 2018, as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5052 on February 1, 2018.
[iii] Mark 10.45a.
[iv] Daniel J. Harrington, ed., The Gospel of Mark, Sacra Pagina Series, vol. 2 (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002), 87.
[v] Gary W. Charles, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 335.