Feb 21 2006
29 As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30 Now Simon's mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. 31 He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
The demonstration of power continues. This time it is not an unclean spirit, but physical illness, although I do not know how clearly the distinction would have been made. The key thing is who has been healed, and what follows. It is a woman who is healed. Some say a good Rabbi would not approach the ritual uncleaness of a woman, especially on the Sabbath (thereby making himself unclean) and heal her. His action is a two fold repudiation of the customs of Jerusalem. He shows compassion is the ruling principle of life, not law or custom. And he shows that woman is also fully human, and as much a child of God, and the object of God's favour, as is man.
I believe these things to be true, without question. The argument that this little text actually teaches this has always had the sense of being slightly forced. It may support this teaching, but did Mark intend it?
One can argue that the text usually betrays material of which the author was unconscious. Few would want to disqualify an insight on the basis that it was not in the author's mind at the time of writing. I think my quibble with the interpretation is because I came to it late. Already I had learned much. This interpretation was not in it. It was new and strange. Perhaps it reflects a disbelief that something so fundamental as the full humanity of a woman could need teaching. But then I look at the misogyny of my culture, and at the tense relationships between men and women. We need to be always clear- even if Mark was not thinking about it at the time, women are fully human. The mere writing of this indicates how little we believe it.
The story continues with Peter's mother being left by the fever, and "serving" them. Our culture is conditioned to think it means she made tea, or similar. The word "serve" has it's roots in the word for ministry. She ministered to them. This is seen as a statement that supports the ministry of women. Again, we may feel the argument is forced. This betrays not so much our misogyny, as our poor understanding of ministry. Ministry is so often seen as a privilege from which women are disbarred. But ministry, privilege that it is, means to serve. The one who serves the others is at the bottom of the table, eating last. The minister (or priest) is our servant (who we often abuse.) The fact that she served them, is indeed an act of ministry, and an endorsement of the ministry of women.
These few verses about Peter's mother in law challenge our view of woman and ministry. Why else, when you could choose from a host of healings would you settle on the story of an un-named mother-in-law at home? The mere choice of this "little" woman is a statement about her importance.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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