Today’s gospel is one that always needs 1st century context. Jesus has just been at synagogue where he cast out an unclean spirit from a man. Then we read, “Simon’s mother-in-law lay sick with a fever. They immediately told him about her. He [Jesus] approached, grasped her hand, and helped her up. Then the fever left her and she waited on them.” (Mark 1:30-31)
Over the years, in more than one Bible Study, a participant has commented, “Really, healing the woman so that she can get up and serve a bunch of men.” Pheme Perkins (Mark, New Interpreters Bible) 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. (p. 546)
Think about how often the healings of Jesus return people to society from their place “outside the camp.” It is clear and obvious in the healing of lepers, the man born blind, and so many other stories. They are returned to “inside the camp” where there are places of honor, duty and commitment. Mark is also writing about a larger “inside the camp.” In the healing that is described just before our gospel, consider the contrast:
- man – woman
- synagogue (holy place) – house (common place)
- (supernatural) unclean spirit – (natural) fever
Jesus works to bring all creation “inside the camp” – and asks us to do the same – to reach out and heal a relation, to restore honor and place, to extend hospitality.