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Enabling And Receiving Hospitality

Your Faith Has Made You Well
Preaching The Miracles
The Text
As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 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.

Jesus has already had a busy day. Vanquishing an unclean spirit right after preaching his first sermon should be enough for one sabbath. The need of the world, however, is too great for Jesus to rest. No sooner does he get back to the house where he is staying than he confronts more suffering. Simon's mother-in-law has a fever. This passage is quite brief, and written rather cryptically, but it teaches us some important things about Jesus and his ministry, and has generated much needed discussion about the role of women in Mark and the New Testament.

The term "fever" is not mentioned much in the Old Testament. Two parallel texts describe fever as one of the punishments of the people of Israel if they do not obey the Lord's commandments and ordinances once they reach the promised land (Leviticus 26:16; Deuteronomy 28:22). Mark does not give the slightest hint that Simon's mother-in-law is being punished for disobedience. The emphasis in the passage is likely on the fever as a typical illness that strikes people randomly. Such illnesses are part of general human suffering.

The New Testament contains a few other stories about the healing of fevers. Matthew and Luke have parallel accounts of this passage (Matthew 8:14-17 and Luke 4:38-41). John records an account of Jesus healing the son of a royal official, a Gentile. The boy is on the point of death, and one of his symptoms is a fever. Jesus heals the boy remotely, without having to touch him (John 4:46-54). In Acts, Paul heals the father of Publius, a citizen of Malta. Paul heals the man by prayer and laying on of hands (Acts 28:7-10).

In all likelihood, the fever the woman had resulted from malaria. Malaria was widespread in the Mediterranean in the first century. Malaria is caused by parasites carried by mosquitoes. Its symptoms include fever, chills, and weakness. It can be fatal.

Literary Analysis
This little incident is extraordinarily brief, even for Mark, and sparse in the details. No character speaks in the story; we learn all we know from the narrator. The story does not contain significant conflict. We do not know how long Simon's mother-in-law had been ill with the fever, or if the very reason why they go to Simon and Andrew's house is so that Jesus can heal her. It is possible the fever started that day and that Simon and Andrew did not know she was sick before they got to the house. We don't know how serious the fever was or whether she was close to death.

The characters in the story are Simon, Andrew, James, and John (the four disciples at this point), Jesus, and Simon's mother-in-law (who is unnamed). The narrator does not tell us exactly who informed Jesus that the woman is ill, only that "they" did. The narrator does not tell us the level of anxiety or urgency about the illness.

The lack of dialogue and details puts the focus on Jesus' actions to heal the woman. He "took her by the hand and lifted her up" (v. 31). The Greek text actually puts "he lifted her up" first, emphasizing Jesus' power. In Mark, Jesus' actions and words reinforce each other. Here the emphasis is on Jesus' actions. Jesus communicates the wholeness of the kingdom by his healing.

Even though this story is brief and lean, it adds much to our understanding of Jesus' ministry in Mark. To this point, Jesus has not yet healed anyone; he has only cast out an unclean spirit. Nevertheless, the four disciples (assuming that's who "they" are) tell Jesus about the woman's fever. They assume he can heal her. The disciples are the first to make the link between Jesus' exorcisms and his healing. The disciples are beginning to trust Jesus and respect his power. The story also shows Jesus' compassion in the tender way he treats the woman. By telling the reader that Jesus "lifted" the woman up, the narrator foreshadows Jesus' power over life and death, as well as Jesus' own resurrection. The crowds who come to be healed after sundown demonstrate the extent of the need in the town (and really in the world itself), and anticipate the crowds who follow Jesus during the early part of his ministry, when he acts as the healer.

Theological Reflection
Preachers ought not to misinterpret this illness. Even though the Old Testament background considers fever as one possible punishment for disobedience, the woman's fever is not treated in this passage as any kind of punishment, or as a result of her sinfulness. Jesus does not mention forgiveness. Even though this healing is sandwiched in between exorcisms, Mark does not portray fever as a result of demonic possession (but see the parallel text in Luke, where Jesus "rebukes" the fever, Luke 4:38-41). Mark does say that the fever "left" her, but this is slim evidence that the fever was caused by a demon.

This passage reflects the theological assumption that God's will for creation, including people, is health and wholeness. Illnesses, including fever, are part of the corruption of God's good creation. Human sinfulness did not cause the corruption of the creation, but human sinfulness magnifies it. As stated above, the Bible does not really give a full description of how and why God's good creation has been corrupted. The Bible simply affirms that the illness, grief, and suffering we experience in the world are not God's ultimate intention for creation. For the present, as Paul expresses it, the creation has been subjected to futility (Romans 8:20). As a manifestation of the dominion of God coming near, Jesus restores the woman to soundness of body.

Pastoral Reading
By telling Jesus about the woman's fever, the disciples remind us of how anxious we are, and how helpless we feel when a loved one is sick. Most churches keep a prayer list of people in the congregation and the wider community who are ill, facing surgery, or have some health problem. Watching a loved one who truly is in pain and suffering can be agony.

The scene in verses 32-34, where the whole town brings people who are ill or who have a demon speaks to the sheer magnitude of the world's need. Mark seems to exaggerate when he declares, "the whole city was gathered around the door" (v. 33). Churches constantly receive appeals for money and volunteers to meet some need. Just as Jesus healed "many" on that sabbath night, so the church must combat "compassion fatigue" in helping to alleviate suffering. No one congregation can meet every need, but the church as a whole is called to stretch its resources, and respond, even when we are tired and it looks as if the checkbook is drained.

Malaria is a severe problem in many parts of the world. In climates hospitable for the proliferation of mosquitoes, such as that of sub-Sahara Africa, malaria is endemic. The disease is becoming resistant to the drugs that have been used to fight it. Part of the ministry of the church is to provide medical missionaries who treat and prevent illnesses such as malaria and palliative care for those who cannot be cured.

A significant aspect of interpreting this passage is to determine what the text will allow us to say about the role of women in ministry. Verse 31 tells us that after the woman was cured of her fever, "she began to serve them." As others have noted, at least part of the reason Mark tells us this detail is to confirm the completeness of the cure. She did not lie in bed weak from the aftereffects of the fever, but was well enough to get up and perform her household duties.

On the one hand, the reference to her service seems to reinforce stereotypical roles for women. As some women have quipped, Jesus healed her just in time for supper! Everyone is familiar with the image of the harried wife and mother who has to keep going even when she is sick. Is Mark buying in to that image? Certainly, Mark does not challenge the traditional assumption that Simon's mother-in-law was responsible for hospitality in the home. We assume that her "service" was overseeing a meal. Servants or younger women may have done the actual preparation of the food. Nevertheless, the service was likely the rather unglamorous domestic work often done by women.

Mark cannot easily be dismissed, however, as one who denigrates the role of women. In verses 32-34, Jesus himself serves those who have come to the house, even though we would expect him to be tired. The Greek word used for the woman's service is the same word used of the angels who "waited on" Jesus during his wilderness temptation (1:13). One of the defining statements in the Gospel of Mark for Jesus' purpose is found in 10:45 -- "For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many." In the two preceding verses, Jesus declares that those who are great or first among us are the ones who act as servant (same Greek root as the woman's service) and slave. Although it is true that neither Jesus nor Mark challenged the traditional roles of women, as moderns would have appreciated, Jesus calls all disciples to service and models that service. Service is the path to greatness for all disciples.

Preaching Strategies
A sermon from this text might revolve around the theological dynamic in the passage between trust in Jesus and service. The disciples display trust in Jesus by telling him about Simon's mother-in-law. They assume both that Jesus can heal her and that he will. Their instinct is to turn to Jesus in a time of need. The townspeople also trust Jesus by coming at sundown (when sabbath is over) to be healed and purged of demons.

In contemporary situations, this sense of trust is not automatic. We have trouble trusting in God and the risen Christ in times of trouble, illness, or tragedy. All pastors are asked to pray for people in need. Many times when people have asked me to pray for them, they either have said explicitly, or I have inferred from their tone of voice, that they thought my prayer would "get through," because I am an ordained minister. They did not assume that God would hear their prayers. Many experiences can undermine our trust in God. If we do not see concrete "cures" of illnesses, we often wonder if God hears our prayers. This passage gives the preacher an opportunity to address the issue of trust in God.

This passage affirms a strong call to service. Simon's mother-in-law serves those in her house after she is cured. Her service is a spontaneous response to the grace Jesus has shown her in her healing. The preacher ought to adopt some rhetorical strategy to reinforce the idea that men and women can serve equally well in all areas of the church's ministry. Jesus serves those who come in droves to the house after sunset. The church, which is called to carry on the ministry of Jesus, models that commitment to service.

The preacher could point to specific ministries in the community where the church could carry out this call to service. The preacher can acknowledge the magnitude of the need and proclaim that God strengthens us for the service to which we are called.
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Epiphany 5 (OT 5)
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