Do you remember the Seinfeld episode "The Burning," in which, after a brilliant performance, Kramer was repeatedly type-cast as a patient with gonorrhea by the medical school that was paying him to pretend to have an illness so that its patients could diagnose him? It's never been a threat to me, but I can imagine not wanting to be type cast. I remember in the early 2000s when Robin Williams played a series of non-comedic roles in some twisted films like One Hour Photo and Insomnia, and it seemed strange to see how Patch Adams had become the villain. In Sunday's gospel lesson, we get a full dose of type-casting, but, if we get stuck on that, we may miss the significance of it.
Jesus goes with some of his disciples into Simon Peter's house, where Simon's mother-in-law is in bed with a fever. As soon as they walk through the door, the disciples tell Jesus about the ill woman so that he can heal her. He does so. He takes her by the hand and lifts her up--a little like Jairus' daughter in Mark 5 from yesterday's sermon--and at once she is healed. Then, knowing his first-century Palestinian audience, Mark finishes the scene by telling us that the mother-in-law began to serve them.
Today's headline would read: "Pastor heals sick woman so she can make sandwiches for church luncheon." It feels a little creepy that the woman who was in bed is healed so that she can serve these men who have walked into her house. Instead of them cleaning up and making a small meal and bringing her a bowl of soup while she recovers, these inept men, not knowing where to start, do the only thing they know how to do: heal a woman so that she can take care of them. How thoroughly unmodern!
But that's not Mark's point. Sure, there's some latent patriarchy here. Yes, the nameless mother-in-law is portrayed as little more than a helpless recipient of Jesus' healing touch who then springs into action to serve the one who healed her. And maybe there's no way to hear this story without those tinges of fixed gender roles, but that's not Mark's point. Mark isn't trying to show us a Jesus whose goal is to reinforce the "family values" of the 1950s (and those who long for "better times"). Mark is portraying a Jesus who can restore an individual to her complete identity and enable her to be the person whom everyone understand that God has created her to be.
Yes, I know that makes it sound even worse--that God only made this mother-in-law to serve the men, but that's not what I mean. I mean that, in the eyes of those who read this gospel account, this woman went from incomplete to fulfilled, from disabled to fully functioning, from broken to whole in the instant when Jesus laid hands on her. I don't know when you last had the flu, but I'd guess that you wouldn't have wanted to host a dinner party the moment your fever broke. Natural healing takes time. Recovery by any other means takes time. But, with Jesus, it happens right away.
This may be a story about enabling servitude, but it's also a story about restoring a woman to her full self. Perhaps we can liberate this text from its patriarchal past and retell this story as Jesus healing Simon's mother-in-law so that she can get on a flight to Athens for the important fishing convention at which she was giving the keynote address, but, for now, let's not lose sight of Jesus' miracle by getting stuck on the framework in which it occurs. Let's celebrate the full restoration that Jesus offers her and us.