29 On leaving the synagogue he entered the house of Simon and Andrew with James and John. 30 Simon’s mother-in-law lay sick with a fever. They immediately told him about her. 31 He approached, grasped her hand, and helped her up. Then the fever left her and she waited on them.
The connection with the preceding incident is explicit, indicating that the healing occurred upon the Sabbath. It is possible that the house shared by Simon and Andrew was not far from the synagogue at Capernaum. The healing of Peter’s mother-in-law is brief and to the point. The few details contained are told from Peter’s point of view, and not once is the name of Jesus introduced into the account. It is not possible to know what disease had caused the illness of Peter’s mother-in-law, for in the ancient world fever was regarded as an independent disease and not as a distress accompanying a variety of illnesses. In response to the disciples’ request (v.30), Jesus stood beside the bed, seized the woman’s hand and lifted her up. The fever was removed and there was no trace of the weakness which could be expected under normal circumstances. As so often in the gospel narrative, the touch of Jesus brought instant healing: and she waited on them.
Restoring Position. I think modern minds are a bit surprised that the woman seems to immediately rise and begin to serve the guests of her son-in-law. But we have a different sense of hospitality. In 1st century Palestine, serving/hosting such a notable person as Jesus would have been something the matron of the house would have insisted upon as a matter of rightful place and honor. Perkins (Mark, 546) writes:
Peter’s mother-in-law lies wracked with fever. She cannot fulfill the role of preparing and serving a meal to the guests, which would have fallen to her as the senior woman in the household. Jesus’ healing restores her to her social position within the household. Many women today react negatively to the picture of a woman getting up after a severe illness to serve male guests. That sentiment hardly seems appropriate to the complex gender and social roles involved in the household. Certainly, Peter’s wife or a female servant may have prepared food. The privilege of showing hospitality to important guests falls to Peter’s mother-in-law as a matter of honor, not servitude. We even exhibit similar behavior. When special guests are expected for dinner, no one gets near the kitchen without clearance from the person who has the privilege of preparing the food.
Malina & Rohrbaugh (Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, 210) present a similar discussion concerning healing and social position.
In the contemporary world we view disease as a malfunction of the organism which can be remedied, assuming cause and cure are known, by proper biomedical treatment. We focus on restoring a sick person’s ability to function, to do. Yet often overlooked is the fact that health and sickness are always culturally defined and that in the ancient Mediterranean, one’s state of being was more important than one’s ability to act or function. The healers in that ancient world thus focused on restoring a person to a valued state of being rather than an ability to function.
Anthropologists carefully distinguish between disease – a biomedical malfunction afflicting an organism – and illness – a disvalued state of being in which social networks have been disrupted and meaning lost. Illness is not so much a biomedical matter as it is a social one. It is attributed to social, not physical, causes. Thus sin and sickness go together. Illness is a matter of deviance from cultural norms and values.
To briefly apply this understanding to demon possession in the last week’s text – the demon-possessed were people whose behaviors were socially deviant. Malina & Rohrbaugh go on to say:
Such attribution was something the community would be concerned to clarify in order to identify and expel persons who represented a threat. Freeing a person from demons, therefore, implied not only exorcising the demon but restoring that person to a meaningful place in the community as well.
It is not that long ago in our history when we felt it necessary to expel the mentally ill from normal society. They would be locked up in asylums – not as places of healing, but as places to keep them away from “normal” people. We didn’t want “their” strange behaviors disrupting “us”.
Jesus restores Peter’s mother-in-law to her proper position in domestic society. Her healing and subsequent actions are not just physical, but also social (according to 1st century standards). If we approach Jesus’ actions as also including social healing – restoring people to the community – that presents a new way of thinking for parishes and parishioners.
“Come after me and I will make you fishers of men.” Lest we forget last week’s proposal from Jesus to the fishermen, the reference to Peter’s mother-in-law serves to clarify what it meant for Peter to be confronted by Jesus’ summons to follow him. He had a family and a home for which provision had to be made; the call to be a fisher of men demanded total commitment to Jesus. The healing accomplished within Peter’s home indicates that salvation had come to his house in response to the radical obedience he had manifested. The Kingdom of God has come to Peter’s house.
Mark 1:29 On leaving the synagogue: The Greek expression is kai euthus synagōgēs exelthontes and elsewhere would be translated “and immediately they left the synagogue.” For some reason the translators of the NAB reduce the whole phrase to “On leaving the synagogue” losing the Greek intensity of the phrase.
Mark 1:30 Simon’s mother-in-law: Clearly Peter is married; his wife may even have accompanied her husband on his missionary travels later, as she is mentioned specifically by Paul in 1 Corinthians 9:5
Mark 1:31 waited on them: the expression diakoneō primarily means table service. The word later comes to mean “ministry” or “office” (diakonia), however it would be premature to extend the later meaning to this scene.