Friday, 9 March 2012

Strengthened to Serve: Simon Peter’s mother-in-law


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Here’s a trick quiz question for you.  What was the name of Simon Peter’s mother-in law?
If you don’t know, it’s because the gospel writers don’t name her. She’s known only by her relationship with someone else, as the mother of Simon Peter’s wife. You’d have thought she deserved to be named.  After all, in Mark’s gospel she’s the first woman to be healed by Jesus and the first person to serve him. Her story is told in only 40 words in Mark 1: 30-31:

“Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.”
The other 2 synoptic gospels tell more or less the same story, in Matthew 8: 14-15 and Luke 4: 38-39. They don’t name her either. But the gospel writers’ purpose wasn’t to tell about Simon’s wife’s mother. It was to tell the good news of Jesus. The good news for that ‘mother-in-law’ was that when Jesus came, he took her by the hand and lifted her up. Her fever went and she began to serve Jesus and his friends.
Do you feel indignant that this woman, who, a moment ago was confined to bed with a high fever, is the next apparently waiting on healthy men so they can enjoy their sabbath rest? Did her son-in-law and the other young men heave a sigh of relief that there would be dinner on the table? Did they enjoy stimulating conversation with Jesus while she bustled about with pots and pans?
But Jesus didn’t push her down to be a servile drudge. He lifted her up to minister.
The ministry of hospitality is not insignificant, especially when Jesus is the guest of honour. In her case the first thing she probably did was to get a meal for her son-in-law and his guests, or at least to help the other (unmentioned) women with this. Giving and sharing hospitality is one way to offer hope and healing to others. Jesus’ ministry often depended on the care of women like Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. The gospels hint at this, but don’t give us the details. How tantalising. Is it that the men who wrote the gospels took traditional women’s work for granted?
It’s interesting to see the difference in various Bible translations for what this woman did after Jesus healed her. We can only guess at exactly what that was. The King James Bible reads, “she ministered unto them”. The Greek word ‘diakoneo’ is the same word Mark uses for the angels who ministered to Jesus in his wilderness temptations. It’s also the word used for those who served God by leading the early church in prayer and action.
So are there deeper implications here for women’s ministry in the church and world?
I see, in this unnamed woman, a model of the servant ministry to which all Christians are called. What was her response to being touched and immediately healed by Jesus? She served him – and his friends.

For Reflection or discussion

  • Do you have a story to tell of Jesus healing someone and setting them free to serve?
  • Are you allowing Jesus to touch you at your point of need?
  • Are women’s roles in your church different from men’s? Why?

A Prayer for a Christian Community

Servant Lord, whose touch transforms:
reach out your hand to heal and make us whole;
reach out your hand to lift us up to serve you;
reach out your hand
that together our hands may bring your hope and healing in this broken world.


This post written by me was first published here at the Big Bible Project on 14 February 2012, as part of my series on 'Blogging Women of the Gospels.

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