Did the gospel seriously just say that we should be happy Jesus healed Simon’s mother-in-law because now she can resume serving the men? Like, Simon and Andrew invite Jesus, James, and John over for dinner, but Mom is sick so instead of getting takeout Jesus heals Mom so she can cook? No. Actually, if Simon’s Mother-in-Law had been healthy, she wouldn’t have dared serve Jesus, Simon, or any man. In First Century Palestine, observant Jews didn’t let women serve men. Doing so would’ve been an affront to the men. It risked polluting them. Jesus heals her and raises her to something she could not previously do.
That something, service, is a Greek word known to many of us here at Trinity: diakonia, from which we get deacon or deaconess. Here, it is a verb. Simon’s mother “deaconesses” them. If you don’t think that makes sense, trust this son of an ELCA Deaconess: you can “get deaconessed.” But I digress. Mark uses the Greek word “deacon” seven times, and they’re all important. At the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus has the disciples serve. At the heart of the story, Jesus will say, “I came not to be served but to serve,” and, “You are to be servant of all; whoever wants to be great must serve.” At the burial of Jesus, we learn that key women served him, or “were deaconesses.” But all that is in the future.
When Jesus walks into the house that Saturday afternoon, serving others is not a possibility for Simon’s mother-in-law. Her world is constructed such that this could not happen. Jesus sets about destroying the constructs that cage her. He takes her by the hand, we’re told. I cannot emphasize enough how alarming this would’ve been. Women were considered property either of their father or their husband. We today may worry if Jesus had her permission—and it seems she at least was not upset by this—but Jesus is, bluntly, touching another guy’s stuff. Jesus has disregarded a basic social understanding. He’s also healing on the Sabbath. That’s even worse. He’ll endanger his life doing this. Jesus doesn’t go looking for trouble. If human interpretations of God’s Law are preventing this woman from living in God’s love, Jesus will trample those interpretations underfoot. He sees a woman who is ill and he raises her to something whole, healthy, and new.
Simon’s mother-in-law is not just biologically sick; she is socially sick. Fever for us is a symptom that may help a medical professional diagnose a disease. There is a social understanding that goes with it. When I was a kid I had allergies and constant colds and sinus infections. That was a medical diagnosis. The social understanding was, “Tim’s that gross boy with the snotty nose.” Fever prevents Simon’s mother-in-law from functioning, socially. When Jesus comes to her, his actions say, there’s more socially wrong here than fever. Society has determined a subhuman role for her. Jesus walks over that, and in its place gives her a divine role: diakonia.
Mark’s first readers knew this was a divine thing. I mentioned scenes where Mark will use diakonia; there is one where he already did. In Mark, after Jesus is baptized he goes into the wilderness for forty days. During that time, Satan tempts him. (Mark does not list temptations and implies that they kept happening.) And the angels served or “deaconed” him. These heavenly creatures serve Jesus, attending to his needs the whole time Satan is tempting him. This is what Mark’s readers know about diakonia. In today’s gospel, Jesus breaks the role society constructed for Simon’s mother-in-law, and he raises her to a new life as one who does the work of angels. Jesus raises her to serve people under constant harassment from sin, death, and the devil. It’s a resurrection. Same word as at the empty tomb. On Jesus’ first Sabbath as a rabbi, there is a resurrection.
Resurrection breaks constructs. The resurrection of the dead breaks the social construct of death. Death is a medical diagnosis. Death also has socially constructed meaning: touching a dead person may curse you; dead people may be ghosts wandering the Earth; bad dead people go to hell; good or Christian dead people go to heaven. These are meanings we’ve constructed. Death, which will happen to each of us, forces our constructed meanings into view, because death—medically speaking—is so final that we really don’t have a good handle on what happens next. When the women who served Jesus during his life come to the tomb on Easter, they come to perform a meaningful ritual their society has built around death. The resurrection breaks the construct: Dead people stay dead, maybe haunt their old houses or curse people who mess with their graves. Not so. Not Jesus. He’s out doin’ stuff. Our constructed meaning of death cannot contain him.
The meaning or role society constructed for Simon’s mother-in-law cannot contain her now that Jesus raises her. She can do diakonia. The guy disciples can’t do it, yet. She can do the holy work of serving others who’ve had their roles constructed for them. And Mark is so skillful: he puts this resurrection late on the Sabbath, and then after sundown the rest of Capernaum is at Simon’s door. The Jewish day starts at sundown. Simon’s mother-in-law is raised just in time for a new week, and when the town comes to be raised, it is Sunday, the same day of the week Jesus rises. Simon’s mother-in-law starts working alongside Jesus, raising the socially dead with him, on the day of resurrection. That’s what Jesus does for her. That’s what Jesus does for us. He breaks the role to society makes for us and raises us to serve. Note: to serve. We are not called to construct new roles we get to impose on others. This is resurrection; we don’t control it.
Our culture today does not think of the resurrection as happening now, if it thinks of resurrection at all. The whole thing is a little frightening. We’re happy with the good Christian dead going to heaven, bad dead going to hell, maybe some light hauntings and a few cursed graveyards. And we’re happy with people doing what society says they’re supposed to do. Ironically, for centuries the Church played along. We had the incentive for conformity; we dangled heaven in front of people and told them, if you behave this will be yours. That is not the place the Church is supposed to be. When Jesus raises up Simon’s mother-in-law, Jesus calls the Church to raise the socially dead with him.
We’ve got plenty of socially dead people, today. I don’t have to tell you that. We’ve got a culture where black people can’t vote, can’t walk down the street without violating some ordinance, and can’t complain about it. We’ve got a culture where we relentlessly market highly addictive painkillers to people, then when the people are addicted we incarcerate them for profit before cutting them loose and expecting their families to pick up the pieces for us. We’ve crazily enough got a culture where someone can deny you access to medication because you don’t fit the role society constructed for you. Heck, we’ve got a world where even if your problems pale in comparison to these, there’s still the social pressure to have the lifestyle, raise the perfect family, and find happiness in the perpetual purchasing of unnecessary goods and services.
With Jesus and Simon’s mother-in-law the Church says we don’t expect all that from you, here. You can be you, here. You can figure out who you are, and be that person, here. This is a place where Jesus raises us from the dead. This is a place where Jesus tramples society’s expectations for us, and instead sends us out to serve other people whom society has caged. It’s a little frightening. It was for Jesus’ contemporaries. But Jesus assures us that this is what we are here to do. Today’s gospel is part of a section in Mark that revolves around a moment when the religious authorities converge on Jesus and try to stop him. The resurrections are getting on the authorities’ nerves. They accuse Jesus of being in league with Satan. Jesus swiftly blows up that argument: “If I am in league with Satan, why am I casting out his demons?” Then, Jesus utters one of the most important lines in Mark: “But no one is able to enter the house of a strong man and plunder his vessels…unless he first ties up the strong man, and then he can plunder his vessels.” The “strong man” here is a thinly veiled reference to those authorities trying to enforce society’s roles. In other words, Jesus tells the religious authorities, “You’re here because you’re afraid all these resurrections will mess up your little arrangement. Yeah, they will; and I’m just getting started. We haven’t even gotten to my resurrection.”