It is very easy to simply note that Jesus cured Peter’s mother-in-law, be swept along in Mark’s breathless pace, and wonder if there is more to the story. Ched Myers (Binding the Strong Man: A Political reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus, 141) raises this question at the beginning of his comments on Mark 1:21-39:
These “miracle” stories raise important issues of interpretation. Is Jesus simply “curing” the physically sick and the mentally disturbed? If so, why would such a ministry of compassion raise the ire of the local authorities?
Modern readers. Certainly one can make a case that the ire of local authorities is raised because Jesus does all this on the Sabbath when they are not “emergencies.” The Pharisees and others were not heartless people, but they seem to insist that all this healing and such can wait one more day since it does not involve life threatening situations. They miss the point that these are signs of the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God. Or maybe they don’t miss the point and Jesus’ implied claims are the problem. In modernity, such a dynamic is more easily seen that other points of contention. Myers goes on to suggest: “There must be more to these stories than is immediately obvious to the modern reader.”
Ben Witherington III (The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 98) suggests some possibilities of why Jesus’ actions raised the ire of local authorities:
Though there are later stories of rabbis taking the hand of another man and healing him, there are no such stories of rabbis doing so for a woman, and especially not for a woman who was not a member of the healer’s family (b.Ber. 5b). In addition, there is the fact that Jesus performed this act on the Sabbath. Thus, while touching a nonrelated woman was in itself an offense, and touching one that was sick and therefore unclean was doubly so, performing this act on the Sabbath only compounds the social offense. But this is not all. The service of Peter’s mother-in-law to Jesus (and the others) itself could have constituted work on the Sabbath, depending on what was done (.e.g., preparing food). In any case, later Jewish traditions suggest that women should not serve meals to male strangers. The important point about Jesus, however, is that he does not see the touch of a woman, even a sick woman, as any more defiling than the touch of the man with the skin disease. Jesus’ attitudes about ritual purity differed from those of many of his fellow Jews.
The healing of Peter’s mother-in-law is a somewhat contained story and we, not burdened by 1st century ideas of religious purity and uncleanliness, do not find the situation one which would raise our ire. Or do we? But in our own lifetime we have considered some people “untouchables,” e.g., those with AIDS, with mental illnesses, etc. These are different forms of societal purity and uncleanliness. When we consider the underlying attitude (not the medical necessity) of quarantining people who may have been exposed to Ebola (2015), we can gain some insight into the 1st century viewpoint.
As Ben Witherington noted, it is unlikely that the people wanted Jesus executed just because he miraculously healed people. He threatened their way of thinking, their cultural stereotypes, their understanding of religious purity. He threatened the way they understood God.
Cheated? Pheme Perkins (Mark, 546) raises the following questions: “How can we read these stories about Jesus, the exorcist and healer, without feeling cheated? God or Jesus has only to will it, and a person is healed. Does God will that person’s suffering? If anything would make Jesus angry, it would surely be the charge that God wills the suffering and evil in our world”
While we acknowledge that there is no limit to Jesus’ power and authority; that it is for all people, in all places, and in all circumstances (natural and supernatural), we do pause and wonder if such power and authority is active in the world today. What are we to do with miracle stories of healing and exorcisms with people from first century Palestine? Do such stories shine light into our lives? One answer is presented by Richard Jensen (Preaching Mark’s Gospel, 52) who points out: “The fact is, … people do still get sick. The fact is that our lives are thwarted by powers and forces over which we seem to have no control.” Especially since 9/11 we are aware that terrorists can bring destruction at any time and any place. Even the most powerful country in the world cannot keep evil under its control. Here in 2015, we wonder how ISIS could have risen to power in eastern Syria and western Iraq, declaring itself a caliphate. We wonder if the assassinations of the satire writers in Paris is a portend of a new wave of terrorism.
As Brain Stoffregen notes: “We struggle with the fact that with a word or touch, Jesus can heal; yet, as much as we may pray and touch and anoint a loved one, they often do not become well and restored to society. They die. We may cry out, ‘Jesus, you healed with a touch, why can’t you do the same through me now?’ At the same time, we cannot blame God when our sufferings are not immediately removed after prayer. Even Jesus did not escape suffering and death.”