It may seem ludicrous for this “progressive preacher” to find herself tempted to pray for a miracle. But the region in which I live has been under a strict stay-at-home order since Boxing Day. So, right about now I sure could use some sort of miracle to occur which would release us all from this COVID enforced lockdown. As we approach the one-year mark of worshipping online, I find myself dreaming about sharing in-person worship with 3-dimensional humans. My dreams of COVID-free life are magnified by today’s gospel story of Jesus’ healing of Peter’s mother-in-law.
I love the story of Peter’s mother-in-law, because I can easily relate to it. I remember back when I was about 17 years old and I was suffering from a terrible cold. I had a raging fever, and I was as sick as a dog. I also had tickets to an Elton John concert. Even though I could barely breathe, when the time came, I got myself up out of my bed, and it was as if I had been blessed with a miracle because the power of Elton John’s name cured me and I was able to follow that Yellow Brick road all the way to the Coliseum where, with my friends, I was hoppin an boppin to the Crocodile Rock . So, I have no difficulty believing that when Simon Peter finally brought Jesus around to visit his mother-in-law, the sheer power of all the rumors which she’d been hearing about this man Jesus, would have been enough motivation for this Jewish mother-in-law to rise up out of her sickbed to see who this fellow was who had enticed her son-in-law away from his nets. That Jesus could have harnessed the healing power which lies within our grasp as he traveled from town to town and cured the sick and drove out daemons, is not difficult for me to believe. Let’s face it, first century daemons sound a lot like mental or emotional issues, so Jesus’ ability to cure people who were disturbed by daemons really isn’t much of a stretch.
But after centuries of interpretation and proclamation, we tend to hear these stories in ways which portray Jesus as some sort of super-human, miracle-worker, or dare I say it as some sort of god. Because after all, our image of God depicts God as some sort of super-human miracle-worker. For generations we’ve been looking to Jesus in the same way as we looked to God to cure all that ails us. So, we are just as likely to appeal to Jesus in prayer, as we are to appeal to God to heal us.
But, as our notions about God change, our notions about Jesus change as well. When we begin to see the DIVINE MYSTERY which we call, “God,” not as some super-hero, some super-human who lives up in the sky, the way in which we see Jesus must change as well. As our view of the MYSTERY expands, our view of Jesus becomes more human. It is not an easy transition to live through, because most of us have grown to like having Jesus the super-human-miracle-worker available to us for those really tough situations when we need to call out a really big name to help us to convince the super-human God to heal someone, or something in our lives. We’ve become so accustomed to dropping Jesus’ name to curry favour with the “Big Guy Upstairs.” So, we scarcely know what else to do when we are faced with the power of illness to drive us to our knees. Far too many Christians, myself included, we have been trained to understand prayer as a transactional enterprise. Trained in the art of transactional prayer, we pray: “I believe, so do this, help me, save me, help them, save them.” But what if prayer is not transactional but transformative?
If prayer is transformative and not transactional, then we don’t need the super-hero god to reward our prayers by giving us whatever we ask for. Nor do we need a super-human-saviour Jesus to barter on our behalf. The power of the gospel stories is increased when we see Jesus as human; for only a human Jesus can lead humans as we navigate the realities of our so very human lives.
So, let us set aside the miracle-working Jesus for a moment and take a closer look at someone we humans can actually follow and perhaps we will be able to see beyond transactional prayer to reveal the power of prayer to transform us. The anonymous gospel-storyteller that we call Mark begins his story like this. “As soon as Jesus and the disciples left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told Jesus about her at once. Jesus came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them. That evening, at sundown, they brought to Jesus all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And Jesus cured many who were sick with various diseases and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.”
Mother-in-laws in first century in Palestine were considered even more of a curse than today’s caricatures of mother-in-laws could ever match. Back then, women were identified in relationship to the men in their lives. So, we can safely assume that this unnamed woman was a widow, because she was identified by her relationship to her son-in-law. Widows lived at the mercy of those who took them in. So, Peter would have been on the hook for his mother-in-law’s survival. Illness in the first century was directly attributable to ones’ sinfulness. That Peter’s mother-in-law was described as ill with a fever would have meant that she would have been socially unacceptable. Fever’s meant demons were inhabiting the flesh. People who suffered with fevers were considered unclean, and definitely untouchable. Peter’s mother-in-law would have been hidden away because her demons would have brought shame upon the entire household. Jesus’ response to hearing that Peter’s mother-in-law is “feverish,” code-word for possessed, is to rush to her, take her by the hand, and raise her up, and immediately the fever, code-word demon left her.
Now, we might be tempted to read this story as that of a healing miracle. But the words of the gospel-storyteller are very clear; clear that is for a first century listener, we 21st century listeners need a bit of help with the translations. Let’s begin with “A feverish woman” A first century listener would hear: a woman…..hello women are untouchable to begin with….keep them in the background if you please, men cannot be expected to associate with women. As for the word “feverish” — well, obviously she is possessed by demons….she is clearly evil…she brought this upon herself. As for hearing that Jesus “touched her”….what is Jesus thinking? He’s risking his very life here folks. Touching evil like that. As for the phrase, “raised her up.” The gospel-storyteller uses the same word in Greek which will be translated later in this gospel as “ to resurrect.” Jesus resurrects this evil woman. The fever leaves her. Then she went about her work. The word in Greek is “diacone” which when men are involved our translators always translate as ministry, but when women are involved our male translators render simply this as “service” or “work.” Peter’s mother-in-law is cured of her evil and goes about her ministry.
Peter’s mother-in-law is described by the anonymous gospel-storyteller as the first deacon. Not only is the first deacon a woman, but the first deacon is introduced as an evil demon possessed woman, who is transformed by touch, into a minister. What is happening here? According to the anonymous gospel-storyteller, Jesus is embodying a new way of dealing with illness. People are so astounded by what is happening that they bring to Jesus all the sick and possessed people to Peter’s doorstep to be healed; transformed by Jesus. How does he do it? Presence. Touch. Speech. Illness is healed, evil is driven out by the power of presence, touch, speech. No extra-terrestrial miracle is necessary. No need to strike a deal with a super-human to complete a transaction with a far-away-sky-god. The transformative power of human presence, human touch, human speech is modeled by a fully human Jesus and the Way toward healing is revealed.
Is it any wonder then, that after almost a year of being deprived of so much human presence, so much human touch, and so much human speech that we find ourselves longing for miracles to heal our ailing world? We may not be able to literally follow Jesus and visit the sick, but we can through prayer open ourselves to the power of the LOVE we call, “God” to inspire us to raise up those who have become feverish. Unlike our first century ancestors, we are blessed with all sorts of means of reaching out and raising up those in need of our presence, our touch, our words, our basic humanity. Right now, I know, it is tempting for us to hunker down, turn inward, care for our own, and set aside the needs of others. But now is not the time for us to close ourselves down and shut out the world. Now more than ever, the world needs to hear from us. We have been blessed with the means to reach out beyond our fear, to raise others up.
We can begin with prayer which is transformational. Prayer which opens us up, moves us, connects us, empowers us, transforming us into miracle-workers, the kind of miracles which will heal our ailing world. Forget the quid pro quo prayers which begin and end with us. Transformative prayer opens us to the miraculous power of living in LOVing relationship with the SOURCE of our being, so that we can live in LOVing relationship with Creation, LOVing relationship with all our sisters and brothers and LOVing relationship with our very selves. It is the power of this LOVE which will enable our prayers to help us to see clearly, to pay attention, to connect, to find ways to care for our neighbours, to welcome the stranger, to seek justice, to be merciful, and to LOVE extravagantly.
As our lockdown continues, I pray that each of us may be blessed with the WISDOM to pray without ceasing, so that we can be restored to our “diacone” our ministry of being LOVE in the world. Amen.
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