A man, his wife, and his mother-in-law went to the Holy Land. While they were there, the mother-in-law unexpectedly passed away. The undertaker told the man, “You can have your mother-in-law shipped home for $5,000, or you can bury her here in the Holy Land for $150.” The son-in-law thought about it and told the undertaker he would pay to have her shipped home. The undertaker said, “You must really love your mother-in-law, to pay that much money to have her buried near you!” The son-in-law replied, “Look, a man died and was buried here 2,000 years ago and three days later he rose from the dead. I’m not taking any chances.”
Mothers-in-law get a bum rap. I did an internet search for mother-in-law jokes, and Google returned more than 56,000,000 results! The first one was titled “Several Thousand Mother-in-Law Jokes.” This negative attitude towards mothers-in-law goes back to ancient times. Roman historians recorded stories about the lives of numerous mothers-in-law, and they were always in pretty unflattering.
There aren’t any jokes about mothers-in-law in Scripture that I know of, but we do hear stories of a couple of them. One was Rebekah. We don’t know what the Hittite wives of her son Esau thought of her, but we know what she thought of them. Rebekah told her husband Isaac, “I really loathe these Hittite women. If Jacob marries one of the Hittite women, why should I go on living?”
Two other stories about mothers-in-law are more positive. One is the story of Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi, whom Ruth loved so much that she made that beautiful pledge: “Whither thou goest, I will go; and where you lodges I will lodge: your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” The other story is in our passage for today—about Peter’s mother-in-law.
We know nothing about this woman beyond the fact that Peter was married to her daughter, that she’s in their home in the family compound where Peter’s brother Andrew also lives, and she’s sick. Generally, it’s assumed that she lived with Peter and her daughter, but Scripture doesn’t actually say that. Maybe she had just been visiting and fell ill. But, because Mark tells us that after her healing she began to serve, it’s likely that she did live there. After all, guests didn’t just take over hostess duties in someone else’s house then any more than they do now.
If she was living there, presumably she was a widow, since there’s no mention of her husband. This in itself seems unusual. In the ancient Near East, a widow was still considered part of her husband’s family. After her husband’s death, she became the obligation of her sons. Why was this woman living with her daughter and son-in-law? Maybe she had no sons and had become a widow too late in life for her father-in-law to arrange another marriage. Maybe, even though Peter had no legal responsibility for his mother-in-law, he honored his moral responsibility to her, caring for this particular widow as Scripture demanded that all widows be cared for. Maybe (and this is the possibility I like best), Peter invited his mother-in-law into his home because he loved both her and her daughter.
In any event, there she is, confined to her bed by illness, wracked by fever—a high fever, Luke tells us. (In these days of COVID, that sounds even more ominous than usual.) Jesus, along with Peter, Andrew, James, and John had just left the synagogue, where Jesus had astounded the congregation with his teaching and amazed them by casting out an unclean spirit from one of their members. Peter and Andrew had brought Jesus and the other two home with them. As they entered the house, they told Jesus about the situation, maybe explaining that they’d need to be quiet so as not to disturb the patient. But instead, Jesus goes to her, takes her by the hand, and raises her up. The fever left her.
Immediately, she gets up and gets to work. This might ruffle your feathers a little, especially if you’ve been the one in your family who’s expected to care for everyone else no matter how lousy you feel. The poor woman had been deathly ill, and already she’s making sandwiches and waiting on these guys? That hardly seems right. But, we have to remember that Mark has a theological purpose in mind here—something he wants to tell us about Jesus and our relationship with him. The key to that message lies in two words—the words translated here as “raised” and “served.”
The Greek word for “raised” has lots of meanings. It can mean the physical act of being lifted up or helped to one’s feet. But it can also mean to bring the dead back to life. Mark uses the same word to say that some people thought John the Baptist had been raised from the dead. It’s the word he uses to tell how Jesus brought a little girl and an epileptic boy back to life. John uses it to tell the story of Lazarus. Matthew uses it when he quotes Jesus’ instructions to the disciples: “Cure the sick, raise the dead.”
All the Gospel writers use it in connection with Jesus’ resurrection. “He is not here, for he has been raised,” the angel of the Lord said to the women from his perch on the rolled back stone at the tomb, according to Matthew. “He has been raised,” say the men dressed in white. “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon,” Jesus’ followers marveled as reports of the resurrection came in. “Just as the father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whomever he wishes,” Jesus promised.
Being raised is about much more than simply throwing off the blankets and jumping out of bed. It’s about being born into a new life. Paul says it this way in his letter to the Ephesians: “You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived…But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ…and raised us up with him.
We believe that we will have a bodily resurrection when Christ comes again. But, when we surrender our lives to Jesus, he takes our hands and raises us up in this world and in this time. He raises us into a life freed from the power of sin. That’s what baptism signifies—dying and rising with Christ, dying to our old natures and putting on Christ.
The fevers we suffer may not be a physical. We can suffer from the heat of anger. It may be the burning sensation of jealousy, or we feel like a stew of frustration that’s about to boil over. Or, we may have a low-grade fever—a constant companion of dissatisfaction or anxiety or helplessness or sadness or doubt. Whatever fever we suffer from, Jesus knows about it and is ready to take us by the hand and lift us up—to raise us into a new life of joy and peace.
Healed from her fever, Peter’s mother-in-law immediately began to serve. Like the Greek word for “raise,” the Greek word that’s translated as “serve” has multiple meanings. It can refer to simply waiting on tables—offering your guests a bite to eat and a refreshing beverage. But it also suggests a kind of service that is rooted in something deeper than the day’s list of chores. Both within the New Testament and in other ancient literature of the time, it is connected more often with serving as someone’s representative—as an envoy, perhaps to a king. A diakonos is a go-between, someone who’s been given an assignment. They are expected to function in the interest of a larger public or to give specific aid or support, but their responsibility and their motivation are all rooted in their faithfulness to the one who has commissioned them for this service.
In the Church, we typically think of service as what we offer to other people. Our service is the way we live out the commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves. Its motivation is the need of other people. But, service like that of Peter’s mother-in-law—of a diakonos—stems first from the desire to be God’s faithful representatives in the world. This service is motivated by love, but it’s not the sentimental love we feel for other people. Its motivation is first and foremost the love of God, who has made us envoys—the our King’s agents in the world. This is the kind of service that Jesus spoke of when he told his disciples that he came not to be served, but to serve.
This doesn’t mean that we abandon our care for other people. Love of neighbor, even when our neighbor is our enemy, is a cornerstone of the Christian faith. But it does cause us to reflect on why we serve. Our service to others should be seen, not as our own works, rooted in society’s need, but the work of God, which God has entrusted to us to carry out. It is work that we’re empowered to do when Jesus raises us from the sickbeds that sin confines us to.
When we become diakonoi—servants like Peter’s mother-in-law, servants like Jesus—the way we see our work changes. Tasks that may seem small in the grand scheme of things take on new importance. Carrying bags and sorting cans, plowing snow and planting flowers, cleaning the building and cooking a meal, filling boxes, knitting squares, loading cars—these all take on a new dignity when we do them first as tasks that God has entrusted to us.
Understanding that God is the One whom we serve first because of our love for God enables us to better love the ones we serve in God’s name. We are better equipped to refrain from judging those we serve—whether they’re deserving or not—because we know that we are simply stand-ins for the God who loves them without reservation. Envoys simply carry out their assigned tasks, without making judgment calls about the ones they are sent to. Freed from the need to judge, we are freed to love more generously.
This is the kind of service that Jesus gives us new life for—service to God who, by grace alone, saved us from the power of sin under which we once lived, made us alive together with Christ, and then sent us into the world to serve in his name. Jesus raises and empowers us to serve God first and then to love and serve our neighbors as well. Jesus raises and empowers us to serve as he and Peter’s mother-in-law did. And, that’s no joke. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young