“He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.” Two simple sentences. And like so much of Mark’s gospel, a surprising amount of action in surprisingly few words.
After preaching with authority in the synagogue at Capernaum, then casting out an unclean spirit from a man who interrupted him, Jesus is ready for a break. So he goes to the house of his new disciples, Peter and Andrew. It happens that Peter’s mother-in-law is sick. She’s in bed with a fever. They tell Jesus about her right away and Jesus goes to her.
And here is where the translation maybe is not our friend. “He took her by the hand” sounds much gentler than what it says in the original language. Kratésas it says in the Greek. Kratéo is the verb. It’s not a tender word. It means to grasp firmly or strongly.
And then it says he “lifted her up.” Which is fine. But again, something is lost in translation. The verb Mark used is egeiro. It’s the same word Jesus will use when he raises Jairus’ daughter from the dead and says, “Little girl, get up!” It’s the same word the angel will use to tell the women that Jesus is not in the empty tomb because he is raised up—egeiro.
So maybe this isn’t quite the gentle scene I had always imagined. Maybe this is a scene full of strength and energy and power. Jesus grasped her strongly, firmly by the hand and raised her.
Then the fever left her.
And she began to serve them.
It’s tempting to get a little upset about that last part—she began to serve them. After all, she’s just been sick with a fever. And now here are all these guys who come traipsing into the house and because of the expectations of the society they live in, she jumps out of her sickbed to rustle up some dinner for them. Oh, and by the way, does anybody care that it’s still the Sabbath?
Some commentators have pointed out that she would be happy to do this because in a culture where roles are clearly defined she could now resume her place as matriarch of the household along with all the social currency that comes with that.
But again, there’s something going on in the language that deserves a moment of attention. It’s a little thing. But, as I’ve been learning, Mark often uses these subtle little things to make big points. In this case, it has to do with the word “serve.” Here’s how Ched Myers explains it in his book, Say to This Mountain: Mark’s Story of Discipleship—
“Peter’s mother-in-law is the first woman to appear in Mark’s narrative. We are told that upon being touched by Jesus, “she served him(1:31). Most commentators, steeped in patriarchal theology, assume that this means she fixed Jesus dinner. However the Greek verb “to serve” (from which we get our word “deacon”_ appears only two other times in Mark. One is in 10:45—“The Human One came not to be served but to serve”—a context hardly suggesting meal preparation.
“Mark describes women ‘who, when Jesus was in Galilee, followed him, and served him, and…came up to Jerusalem with him’ (15:41). This is a summary statement of discipleship: from beginning (Galilee) to end (Jerusalem) these women were true followers who, unlike the men (see 10:32-45) practiced servanthood.”
So here is Peter’s mother-in-law—sadly we don’t have her name—but Mark identifies her service with a word that implies that there is a sacred aspect to her serving, a holiness that springs not from her sense of duty, but her faith. She is a deacon.
In Mark’s gospel, the men surrounding Jesus are often argumentative and a little dense. But the women, though not mentioned often, are astute and faithful.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot this week. This week we had a graveside service for Barbara, one of those astute and faithful women who have kept the ministry of Jesus alive and well in this world for more than 20 centuries. As I conducted her service I was wearing one of the stoles she wove for me on her loom, and it made me think of Tabitha who we read about in the book of Acts. She was much loved by her community in Joppa, and when they summoned Peter to pray for her, they showed him all the tunics and other clothing she had made for people.
I thought of the women mentioned in the Gospel of Luke who travelled with Jesus and supported Jesus and the disciples financially. Mary Magdalene, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, Luke says, who provided for them out of their resources.
These women came to be called the Myrrh Bearers because they were the ones who went to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body after the crucifixion, but found it empty.
Mary Magdalen was known to be particularly close to Jesus and was regarded as an Apostle by many in the early church until patriarchy asserted itself, suppressed her influence, and sullied her reputation by spreading the story that she had been a prostitute. But it was Mary Magdalen, according to the Gospel of John, who first encountered the risen Jesus. It was Mary Magdalen who first proclaimed his resurrection, making her the first evangelist.
Another Mary who was part of this group of women disciples, was Mary, the wife of Cleopas. If tradition is correct, her husband was the brother of Joseph, Jesus’ foster father, so she was the sister-in-law of Jesus’ mother, Mary. She, too, was a Myrrh Bearer and is probably the unidentified person traveling with Cleopas on the road to Emmaus in chapter 24 of Luke’s gospel, making her one of the first witnesses to the resurrection.
Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward, Chuza is someone we know a little more about. We see her later identified in the letters of the Apostle Paul where he uses her Roman name, Junia. Paul says she is prominent among the Apostles and that she knew Christ before he did (Romans 16:7). In Junia we see someone remarkable, a woman disciple of Jesus who travelled with him in his ministry, and continued in ministry as an Apostle, travelling as far as Rome for the cause of the gospel.
Priscilla and her husband Aquila are mentioned six times in the New Testament. Priscilla is mentioned first four of those times, and it’s clear that she is a full partner in their work together for the sake of the gospel. Tradition includes them among the 70 that Jesus sent out on a mission in the Gospel of Luke. Priscilla, also called Prisca, her more formal name, has always been considered one of the first women preachers in the church. We read in Acts 18:24-28 that she, along with Aquila, instructed Apollos in the faith. There is even a theory that she is the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews.
Phoebe was an overseer and deacon in the Church at Cenchreae. St. Paul referred to her in Romans 16 as a deacon and a patron of many. This is the only place in the New Testament where a woman was referred to with both those titles. Diakonos kai prostateis. A chief, a leader, a guardian, a protector. St. Paul had such trust in her that he provided her with credentials so that she could serve as his emissary to Rome, and deliver his letter to them—that letter we know as the Epistle to the Romans.
Lydia of Thyatira, was a wealthy merchant of purple cloth, who welcomed St. Paul and his companions into her home at Phillipi and became a convert. In doing so, she helped to establish the church at Phillipi, the first church in continental Europe.
In that church at Philippi were two women, Euodia and Syntyche who were serving in positions of pastoral leadership. At some point they got into a disagreement. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul urges them to “be of the same mind in the Lord” so that their disagreement doesn’t split the church. In calling them to unity, he notes that they have “struggled beside me in the work of the gospel.”
Jesus took Peter’s mother-in-law in his firm grip and raised her up. And she began to serve. She became a deacon. She began making sure things got done. Making sure ministry happened. And it’s the women who have been making sure things get done and ministry happens ever since.
Fifty years ago, our denomination began to ordain women to the ministry of Word and Sacrament. To be pastors. On the one hand, it seemed then—and to some people it still seems—like a bold and progressive thing to do. But when you look at the witness of the New Testament itself and what we have learned about the roles that women played in the earliest years of the church…well let’s just say that it was shamefully long overdue.
I think of the women I’m indebted to in my ministry. I think of all the women teachers I’ve had, like Dr. Martha Ellen “Marty” Stortz, professor of Church history who opened my eyes to the rich goldmine of our heritage. I think of the women scholars and writers I turn to for thought-provoking insights in theology and biblical studies. Women like Debi Thomas, Barbara Brown Taylor, Rachel Held Evans, Roberta Bondi, Nadia Bolz-Weber, and Amy-Jill Levine. I think of my women clergy colleagues who are so amazing and indispensable as we puzzle our way through the week’s texts and the week’s issues, and life in the church.
I think of the women in our congregation who make things happen. Without whom things would not happen. The Tabithas, the Junias, the Priscillas, the Marys, the Pheobes. The Myrrh Bearers. The Apostles in our midst.
I think of them all. And I am so grateful.
Jesus has grasped them by the hand and raised them up. And they have served. Showing the presence of Christ and proclaiming the kin-dom of God. And we are all richer for it.