On Discipleship and Mothers-in-law


Mark 1:29-39

What do discipleship and mothers-in-law have to do with each other? This question might seem kind of out there, I realize.  But in today’s Gospel we encounter both Simon, one of Christ’s disciples; and his mother-in-law.  So I ask: what do discipleship and mothers-in-law have to do with each other?

Mothers-in-law.  How many jokes come to mind when I say this word?  How many caricatures pop into view in your mind’s eye?  I’m sure we all have lots to say about mothers-in-law we know.

Trouble is, it’s a lose-lose deal.  If I start to complain about my mother-in-law to my wife, it’s only a matter of time before she starts to complain about her mother-in-law to me.  Which happens to be my mom.  And don’t anyone talk bad about my mom!

So, yeah, it’s better to keep my complaints to myself.

On the other hand, if I try to offer a positive word in my mother-in-law’s direction, it is met with immediate suspicion.  What’s he saying this for?  Why’s he trying to butter me up?

It’s a lose-lose deal.  And so, despite the myriad mother-in-law jokes and caricatures, I mostly just keep my complaints to myself.

But if there’s anyone in the history of the world who had no right whatsoever to complain about his mother-in-law, it was Simon.  He had maybe the best mother-in-law in the world.

Jesus and the disciples were in the synagogue on a certain Sabbath, where Jesus taught with authority.  It was a new kind of authority too, not like the authority of the scribes.

His authority was demonstrated remarkably when a certain man stood up in the synagogue and challenged him.  The man was possessed by a demon, turns out; which Jesus cast out.

And the people said, “What is this?  A new teaching—with authority!  He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”

Meanwhile, down the street, a certain mother-in-law lay in her bed with a fever: Simon’s mother-in-law; you know, a. k. a. Peter; that impulsive disciple who walked on the water, yes; but who also denied Christ before his persecutors.

It was his mother-in-law who lay in bed sick with a fever while Jesus proclaimed his message and cast out a demon in the nearby synagogue.  And there she lay still some time later when Jesus and his disciples entered the house.

So they tell Jesus about her.  Jesus comes to her side; takes her hand; lifts her up; heals her.  And the fever leaves.

Then she gets up and begins to serve them all.

And isn’t that just the way things go!

The men are out having a good time.  Then they come home only to sit around the house and be waited on by the women!

She might have good reason to complain about him, but Peter has no right at all to complain about his mother-in-law—maybe the best mother-in-law ever!

Have you ever heard that one? The Gospels, so the argument goes, were written by men—men, who call the shots, who run the world, who write the history books.  It’s only natural, then, that the men in this story do what men have always done in Greco-Roman culture: they go outside of the home to work; but inside they sit and relax while the women serve them.

But what if we were to set aside our postmodern interpretation for a bit?  What happens in this Gospel when we try to look at it with fresh eyes?

For one thing, we see that Jesus is anything but conventional.  Jesus enters Simon’s house and is told that Simon’s mother-in-law is sick.  So far so good, as far as convention goes.  But it’s what Jesus does next, his response to this information, that’s unconventional: he goes into the private quarters of the house, where, conventionally, guests would never go; and there he heals Simon’s mother-in-law.

This is not the stuff of history books.  This is not a story written by someone blinded by his patriarchal culture.  This story bucks convention.

Then—for another thing—the mother-in-law’s service is an act of love.  No one compels her to do it.  No one asks her.  But she responds to Jesus’s healing hand by getting up and serving Jesus.

You know what this verb is—where it says to serve—in Greek?  You’ll recognize it: diakoneo.  Yeah!  From this Greek word we get our English words diaconate and deacon.

Simon’s mother-in-law responds to Jesus’s love in kind, with love.  But when the Bible says she served Jesus, she was more accurately ministering to him, just as the angels ministered to him when he fasted in the wilderness.  It’s the same word!

By the way, this is the first instance in the Gospel where this word is associated with a human being.  Or, to say it another way, Simon’s mother-in-law is the first deacon of the Church.  Conventional?  Hardly!

Simon, by contrast, is a piece of work!

A little later in the story we find that Jesus is tired.  He’s been busy serving others—preaching to them and healing them.  The crowd has tired him out.  Understandably, he goes off into a deserted place to have some time alone with his heavenly Father in prayer.

The introverts here can relate, I’m sure.

But Simon’s an extrovert.  And he looks around.  And he can’t find Jesus.

“But the work,” he thinks, “the ministry; it’s just getting good.  His program is finally starting to be recognized for the awesome thing I’ve always known it to be.  He’s meeting people’s needs!  So, now where is he?  Doesn’t he know the crowd needs healing?  Doesn’t he know there’s work to be done?  Where has he gone off to at a time like this?  Something must be wrong!”

So Simon rouses the disciples and hunts for Jesus.

This verb, hunts, suggests something really quite serious.  They’re not just looking for Jesus, or searching for him as if he’s gone off to some place by himself for some alone time and now—whoa, look at the time; we’ve got to get back to business!  That’s the picture we often have.  But something gets lost in translation.  In the original Greek, the verb instead conveys something like a rescue or intervention.

When Peter and the disciples hunted for Jesus, Mark wants us to know they were in fact seeking to rescue Jesus—to intervene so that he would stop doing whatever it was he now did and get back to the real business of healing others, of serving others.

The problem here is not with Jesus’s ministry.  Proclaiming the message of good news and healing others is wonderful work.  Rather, the problem is with Simon.

For, first, Simon is saying here that he knows better than Jesus: “These people like what you have to offer; so why don’t you stop wasting your time being quiet and get back to the real work at hand?”  He doesn’t trust Jesus’s leadership—that Jesus actually knows what he is doing, that the quiet work of prayer is in fact necessary, and that Jesus might really have a bigger picture in mind.

And second, Simon shows that he is distracted.  In the past twenty-four hours he has seen an incredible program begin to take shape.  People are flocking to Jesus to hear his teachings and to be healed by him.  Word is spreading.  “Everyone is searching for you,” Simon says.  “The wave’s breaking now; ride it.  Don’t lose this opportunity by withdrawing into some deserted place.  Don’t let it go because you have some felt need to center yourself in prayer.  Can’t you see?”

But it’s you, Simon, who fails to see.

So: what do discipleship and mothers-in-law have to do with each other? Well, I still don’t have an easy answer for you.  But we learn some valuable lessons from today’s passage.  I offer three; and I offer them in the specific context of serving—of ministering—right here in our church, in St. Luke’s.

The first lesson comes from the mother-in-law: look for ways to serve behind the scenes.

In any organization, the jobs on the frontline have a way of seeming the most appealing—especially to extroverted personality-types like Simon’s.  But the vast majority of the work that takes place is largely unseen.

In our church we see this beautiful altar in this magnificent setting.  But we very often don’t see the people who minister to make it happen—the people who prepare the altar, the people planning to ensure we always have enough bread and wine, the people who clean up this facility.

Seemingly countless other behind-the-scenes acts go on all week around St. Luke’s; many more, in fact, than the frontline acts you see, hear, and otherwise enjoy week to week.

Try to become more aware of these behind-the-scenes ministries and the people who do them; and consider ways in which you might serve in one or more.

The second lesson comes from Simon: don’t be distracted by the hoopla.

We have many great programs around here.  And, while they are good, we can easily become too busy with them.  And it’s not just church, but all of life.  With school, sports, job commitments, family obligations, TV, video games, smart phones, and so on, show me someone who doesn’t feel busy!  The problem comes when we allow this busy-ness—or maybe even want this busy-ness—to distract us from taking time to commune with Jesus and our heavenly Father.

And the third lesson comes from Jesus: strive for balance.

Jesus was deeply engaged in active, messy, crowded ministry.  But he did not neglect the quiet and alone discipline of prayer.  What is this but balance?

Such balance is necessary for body health; and it works this way both on the individual and corporate levels—both as an individual person and as a member of a local church body.  We need balance in our life together.

Look for ways to serve behind the scenes; don’t be distracted by the hoopla; and strive for balance.  May God bless St. Luke’s in this year of radical service.


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