There are only two mother-in-law stories in the Bible, as far as I know. One is the snippet in this week’s gospel, where Peter brings Jesus to his mother-in-law’s house because she is ill, and Jesus cures her. The other is the Book of Ruth, in which a widow and her widowed daughter-in-law become each other’s salvation.
These stories of devotion bely the stereotypical disdain that marks mother-in-law relations. In the snippet about Peter, we learn the first of the Popes of Rome was married and when he heard his mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, loved her enough to ask Jesus for a detour in their journey and a healing for this woman.
Mark goes on to tell us the neighbors began bringing sick people to Jesus and . . . .he healed many and cast out many demons. And he would not let the demons speak . . .
The demons, we have already learned, are not just the wildly demented, the convulsive, the psychotic, but also a legion of average-Joe complainers, the What have you got to do with me crowd, who are characterized by a rudeness of spirit and an inhospitality to new thoughts, new meanings, new rules, new vision.
He would not let them speak because they knew him . . . . Mark writes. As do we know him, for who is Jesus, if not a man who challenges us to new ways of seeing everything, new understandings of old ideas and new vision of what God is about? Who is Jesus? a Sabbath violator, a friend of unsavory characters, prostitutes, tax cheaters and the like.
The fever in Peter’s sick mother-in-law, of no importance to anyone really, is a Jesus project. But so are the sick spirits that run through the rest of us like the flu – What do you want from me?, So why should I care?, So what?, Don’t try to tell me what to do, Get outta here! The crowd to which some of us belong all time and all of us belong some of the time.
There isn’t a hospital in which Jesus’ role as a healer of fevers and bodily ailments has been forgotten. But almost forgotten is the way in which Jesus took on the legion of lesser demons who turn our hearts away from strangers, immigrants, anyone who needs a helping hand, and anyone with a generous social agenda.
What if the civic prayers to which we cling at the opening of Town Meetings, Parish Councils, Politicians’ Breakfasts, sessions of the Senate, invoked the Holy Spirit to deliver us from pigheadedness, rigid thinking, our own anger?
What if the reverend clergy prayed for the cleansing of us from reenacting Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector at prayer?
This is a harsh winter in New England. Snowed in, I’ve been watching birds of late: the smaller the bird, the more it is given to sharing. Goldfinches, chicadees, titmice, juncos, are willing to eat at the feeder with one another. There is a bit of clucking about timing and turns, but generally, everyone eats at the table.
The bluejays, however, too large for the hanging feeder, dominate the plate of seeds on the bench, allowing no one to eat anywhere while they are feeding. Only the chickadee is swift enough to dart in for a seed while the jay is below. Everyone else becomes quiet, but the jay shrieks his orders to them all. The woodpeckers, of varying sizes, allow other birds to use vacant perches while they feed, which they do quietly for the most part, but the males eat first, then the females.
Jesus worked on all of these behaviors in his ministry, including the ranking of importance by gender. It is not a small thing that Peter’s feverish mother-in-law receives one of his earliest healings. It is not a small thing that Jesus and Peter share her food, and I presume, urged her to eat with them.
In the very small town (less than 1000) where I now preach on Sundays, the power of the public feeder – the budget – brings out angry behavior in some. A recent summary dismissal of a town employee has created a stir and is going to court for settlement. The lawyers, who know how demonic bickering voices can be, have ordered all the affected parties to be silent till the trial. It’s the same just silence Jesus meted out to the demons he drove from those he healed.
Yet there is a worse demon among us who will also confront Jesus, later in his life: the demon who does not bicker, the demon who wields death as his weapon without remorse. In the film, American Sniper, Bradley Cooper’s character, Chris Kyle, a gentle-voiced sniper who can target and kill a man a mile away, is serene in the wake of his own carnage because he holds in his heart an interpretation of the parable of the Good Shepherd, in which he is a sheepdog, not a wolf. He and the wolf are both killers, but he is righteous, he believes, because he kills to protect sheep from wolves.
His righteousness rests on destroying the enemy on behalf of the sheep. Jesus, though, uses no sheep dog in his parable. He saves his lost sheep without slaying anyone. Jesus confronts the very word enemy, by telling us to love our enemies, to do good to them. Jesus silences without killing. And in his death, he restores the health of words. This is what I came to do, he said. Among the words he restores is ‘mother-in-law’. The fever that has infected it abates, and within it lives a health that comes from love.
1. Healing, Henn, Ulrich, 2008, St. James Cathedral, Seattle, WA. Vanderbilt Divinity School Library, Art in the Christian Tradition.
2. Icon of Jesus Healing Peter’s Mother-in-law. Google Images.
3. Little Devil Inside You. Google Images.
4. Little Demon. Google Images.
5. Winter Goldfinches. Google Images.
6. Winter Bluejay. Google Images.
7. Red bellied Woodpecker, winter. Google Images.
8. Winter jays and cardinals. Google Images.