She appears in the story so briefly, you might miss her. There’s a lot going on in the first chapter of Mark and it goes by quickly. Mark likes the word ‘immediately;’ he uses it 41 times in his gospel. After Jesus is baptized, the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He says, ‘Follow me to Simon and Andrew’ and immediately they leave their nets and follow him. Then he sees James and John and immediately calls them. He touches a man with leprosy and immediately the disease leaves him. So we have to pay close attention so we don’t miss the two very important verses in this passage. Jesus gets baptized, goes out into the desert to be tempted, and then begins his ministry by calling the first four disciples. They go off to the synagogue in Capernaum where Jesus teaches. A man is there, described as one with an unclean spirit, and Jesus heals him. After that, they head over to Simon and Andrew’s house.
And there she was. Simon’s mother-in-law. Wait a minute; Simon Peter, the Rock on which Jesus would build his Church, the first pope, has a mother-in-law? But we don’t learn much about her, not even her name. She may be a widow, living there with her sons and evidently her daughter, Simon’s wife. We don’t know much about her, either, although she’s mentioned in 1 Corinthians as accompanying Peter on his missionary journeys and writings by Clement of Alexandria mentions that they had children.
Well, this was intriguing. I wanted to know more about what Simon’s mother-in-law was doing there in the very first chapter, on the very first day of Jesus’ ministry. I started to look at these two little verses with a ‘hermeneutic of suspicion,’ which is a fancy way of saying look a little more deeply into the cultural biases of both then and now, especially when it comes to some of the women in the Bible.
I’ll tell you how I learned about this way of reading scripture because it was an epiphany for me. Back in my first New Testament class in seminary, we were reading Paul’s letter to the Romans, where he commends to them, ‘Phoebe a deaconess of the church . . .’ This was 1982, so we were still using the Revised Standard Version, considered to be the best translation then. But, as our professor pointed out, the Greek word diakonos, translated as ‘deaconess’ for Phoebe was the same word elsewhere translated as ‘servant’ or ‘minister.’ Well, this was a revelation. Although the Lutheran Church had been ordaining women since 1970, there was still a lot of resistance to women ministers, much of it based on scriptural references. But here was an example of how cultural biases had seeped even into our Bible translations.
It was interesting to note that, when the New Revised Standard Version came out in 1989, Phoebe had gotten an upgrade. It now read: ‘I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church . . .’ Although, in the Anglicized edition, which uses wording more familiar to British readers, there is a footnote for deacon that reads ‘or minister.’ This revelation started me wondering: where else had women been or still are mistranslated or misrepresented in the Bible? It’s tricky because oftentimes, women aren’t even named, or their identities are tied to their father, husband, or sons. That was the way it was. Still, if we dig we can unearth some rich gems about some of these unnamed or underrated people.
And so it is with Simon’s mother-in-law. And to put a more vivid face on her, I’ve decided to call her Naomi. I actually stole the idea from Maren Tirabassi who has a really wonderful blog post called “How She Taught the Teacher Communion.” She says that Naomi is a good mother-in-law name. And I agree.
In the traditional reading of verses 30-31, Naomi is really just a secondary character to Jesus. Her only contribution to the action is to get up off her sickbed to wait on them.
(I don’t know about you, but that’s rather off-putting – healed just in time to make dinner).
But there’s something odd about this story. In the usual healing story, Jesus commends someone’s great faith, or declares someone’s sins forgiven. But there’s none of that here. This healing is ‘just because,’ so something else must be going on. Naomi’s condition is described as “lying down” or even “laid aside” because of a fever, which in those days could be deadly. She’s unable to perform her usual duties, which for all intents and purposes puts her aside in her community and her household.
When Jesus learns of her condition, he goes to her. And he doesn’t just heal her; he raises her up – it’s the same word used in descriptions of the resurrection. “Raising up” is not simply a description of a physical movement from prone to upright or even of healing. Her raising up is an invitation into something new. Her response is variously translated: “she waited on them,” “cooked for them,” “served them.” But here, at the very beginning of the first gospel, we should note that the Greek word used for her action is diakoneō, from the same root as the word describing Phoebe.
Naomi’s response is the first explicit example of discipleship in the Gospel of Mark. So what we might at first read as a matter-of-fact statement about a woman resuming her normal duties becomes powerful illustration of the meaning of discipleship. It’s about service. We don’t hear of her going off with Jesus and the other disciples (and evidently, for some of them, their families). She remains in place, at home, doing what she does best – but now in service to Jesus.
Maybe that’s an important lesson we’re learning in this pandemic. I mean, we hear a lot about service nowadays. It used to be that a service job was seen as somehow inferior. According to conventional wisdom, when we’ve become successful, others serve us. But these days essential services, essential workers are keeping us going – often at their own risk. But Jesus, who did not come to be served but to serve, reminds us that service for the sake of others is the higher calling; it’s the mark of true discipleship.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea of diakonia lately. For one thing, I’ve been learning more about what being a ‘deacon’ has meant here at Good Shepherd. I don’t know what happened this year. Somehow it’s gotten away from me; things I’d planned to accomplish got moved to a back burner – or completely off the stove. One of those things was to thoroughly read our constitution and by-laws and get a good understanding of how things work. So when I finally started reading about the required roles of deacons (as well as elders and trustees), I admit I was flummoxed. It was the first I’d heard about it. Now, the good thing about this is, as I’ve been sharing my surprise, I’ve been learning a lot of history, a lot of what deacons have done in the past.
We’re going to be looking at those by-laws in the coming year, and whether or not we keep the same names or duties or terms, etc., the one thing we will keep is the concept of diakonia, with the understanding that each of us is a diakonos – a deacon, a minister, one who serves. From the one who is ordained, to the one preparing for ordination in seminary, to the lay leaders on church council, to the ones who go about serving in some way or ways in their everyday lives, whether in or out of lockdown. Naomi, who got up and made a meal for Jesus and his friends, was no less a disciple than her son Simon would be.
This should be really good news for us. Service can be done in big and small ways. Serving Jesus can be done at the altar or in the pew, on the church council or in some other way. It might not even be in church. I have no doubt that health care workers are serving Jesus, whether or not they’re even Christian. Wherever healing is done, compassionate care is given, mourners are comforted – there is diakonia.
Martin Luther was big on this idea of our callings or vocations. He didn’t mean only the ordained ministry. All of us, beloved and forgiven children of God, are mediators of God’s love in the world. This is not an abstract notion. We do it concretely in the various places of responsibility we find ourselves: family life, job, citizenship, church. Ordinary work is turned into diakoneo, faith active in love. What better example could there be of this holy work than Naomi? We might wonder how her service continued. Maybe it didn’t change at all; she’d always been a giving person. But since her encounter with Jesus, maybe she came to see her work in a new way – not simply because it was her assigned role in her culture, not simply because it was what was expected of her, but because it served the mission of Jesus.
Or – maybe she realized that she was being called to serve in a new way. Maybe she didn’t enjoy cooking for her family, what she really wanted to do now was minister to others who were suffering from fevers and other illnesses and needed a hand to raise them up. We don’t know.
But the fact that her discipleship comes about as a result of healing should resonate with us today. We’re in the midst of a health crisis the likes of which we’ve never seen. Our sense of community has been shattered by social distancing. In the gospels, whenever Jesus heals someone, the healing is not just physical; the person is restored to their community. And don’t we long for that? Don’t we as a church long to be restored to the community, to figure out how we are invited – called – to get up serve?
The part that is often a little daunting is figuring out what we are being called to do. The work of discerning our calling can be challenging. And it can come about in strange ways. I was reminded of my early days in seminary, when a friend who was quite theologically conservative and did not approve of women in ministry, invited me to lead a Bible study for his church’s women’s group (it’s OK as long as you’re not teaching men). At the end of the session, my friend had tears in his eyes as he said to me, “You have a calling.” I don’t think I ever received a more powerful affirmation.
But it’s not always so clear. One way that I’ve used before is the spiritual gifts inventory that’s on the ELCA website. There are 20 categories, everything from administration (where I score well) to skilled artisanship (where I have no score at all). One of the categories is ‘hospitality,’ where I believe Naomi would have done pretty well.
Sometimes one’s results need to be mulled over a bit – kind of like our star words. A former parishioner scored very high on the gift of leadership. “I’m not a leader,” she protested. “This test doesn’t work.” I reminded her of ways that she had taken on leadership in various ways, and eventually she admitted, “Hmm, maybe I am a leader.” That was proven out even more when, after the tragic death of her 5-year-old son in 1995, she began a foundation to assist abused/abandoned children and their families, locally and globally.
Not everyone has a dramatic story, but everyone does have a gift and a calling. I recommend going to http://elca.organd typing ‘spiritual gifts assessment tool’ in the search bar. Let me know how you do. You can question your result, argue about it, ponder it, maybe get some direction in the midst of this challenging time in our church and our world. I know, we could call it the Naomi project: being raised up by Jesus in order to serve. As Maren wrote:
Jesus lifted her up,
forehead burning virus and all,
and fever was broken,
and, in gratitude for what he did for her,
she broke bread for them
poured wine into their cups.
and served them all …
As evening fell, others came ¬–
with illnesses of mind and body,
gaping holes of loss,
and he healed them through the night
as they clamored at the door,
but he had time to watch,
as she baked bread after bread, fried fish,
opened jugs of olive oil,
lifted a cup always running over.
And Jesus thought,
as dawn came up in prayer –
when I go,
perhaps this serving,
and these old hands of love
is what I shall leave behind
in remembrance of me.
Upon leaving the synagogue, Jesus entered Simon’s and Andrew’s house with James and John. Simon’s mother-in-law lay ill with a fever, and immediately they told Jesus about her. Jesus went over to her, took her by the hand and helped her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
After sunset, as evening drew on, they brought to Jesus all who were ill and possessed by demons. Everyone in the town crowded around the door. Jesus healed many who were sick with different diseases, and cast out many demons. But Jesus would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew who he was. Rising early the next morning, Jesus went off to a lonely place in the desert and prayed there. Simon and some companions managed to find Jesus and said to him, “Everybody is looking for you!”
Jesus said to them, “Let us move on to the neighboring villages so that I may proclaim the Good News there also. That is what I have come to do.” So Jesus went into their synagogues proclaiming the Good news and expelling demons throughout the whole of Galilee.