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Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B

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1 Corinthians 9:16-23 - link to NRSV text
Mark 1:29-39 - link to NRSV text

“Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.”

That's what Jesus says in this Sunday's gospel. And Mark makes very clear that when Jesus proclaims the message, it's not just sharing words; it's healing and freeing people so that they can form communities that heal and free people.

That's what Jesus does with Simon Peter's mother-in-law. If she had a husband of her own, she would have been living with him rather than with her daughter's husband; she must have been a widow. And when her husband died, she would have been living with her son if she'd had one, or with her extended family. But she's living with her daughter's husband, and thus probably has no living family of her own to care for her. Perhaps even her daughter, Peter's wife, has died.

This, by the way, underscores for me just how costly and complicated Jesus' call often is. When Peter leaves to follow Jesus, what will become of his mother-in-law, who has no other family besides her daughter? What will become of Peter's wife, if she is alive? Did Peter have children? If so, he left them.

Don't be shocked. Well ... do be shocked. It's pretty shocking, especially for those of us (the majority in America, I think) who have swallowed wholesale the idea that “Christianity” is practically synonymous with mainstream respectability. But reading this Sunday's gospel carefully brings a whole new layer to our reading of Mark 10: 28-31, in which Peter says to Jesus, “Look, we have left everything and followed you,” and Jesus says this:

Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age -- houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields -- with persecutions -- and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.

Peter wasn't exaggerating: he really had left everything, including the mother-in-law Jesus heals in this Sunday's gospel, and his children as well, if he had any -- and in a culture in which children, like women, often weren't seen as people worth mentioning, there's no reason to assume that there were none in the household just because this passage doesn't mention them.

Peter left his family to follow Jesus. Abandoned them.

I'm not going to try to make that sound easy on either side of that equation, because it isn't. Peter's a bumbling disciple, but he's not an unfeeling monster, and he walked away from this woman who depended upon him absolutely for protection, for her very life, and she had no one else. And there may well have been children too, who depended upon their father as much or more. Please don't gloss over this or move on before letting the full impact of that sink in. Discipleship -- real, cross-bearing discipleship -- means hard choices and real cost -- sometimes even for others who know us and will be puzzled or angry at choices made genuinely for the sake of Christ's gospel, choices which could cost them as well as us.

Ouch. I can't help but wonder whether the story in this Sunday's gospel in which Peter's mother-in-law is healed by Jesus is meant in part to assuage readers' profound discomfort with what they would have assumed in the first-century Mediterranean world, namely that Jesus' followers abandoned family who depended on them just as surely as Jesus abandoned his own mother (who may well have been a widow, given that Joseph appears nowhere as a living character in the gospels after Jesus' youth). At least when Peter leaves his family for Jesus' sake, there's one person who has experienced Jesus as a healer in her family rather than solely as the man who tore it apart. And at least she can do household work. That wouldn't mean that she could hang out a shingle as a cook -- her culture still would hold her as a “loose woman” if she didn't have a husband or brother or son with honor to which she was attached -- but maybe that was something.

In other words, this is not exactly a feel-good story, about which we just cry, “Hurrah! She's healed!” before starting to chuckle about how much it bites to be a woman who has to spring up from her very deathbed if necessary to get dinner on the table for men.

She was healed. But where's the hope for Peter's nameless and friendless mother-in-law when Peter leaves? And what kind of a jerk is Jesus to extend this woman's life only to ruin it by calling her sole source of support away? And it's not like Peter's life is going to be a picnic either. Everyone he meets will assume that he had a family and he abandoned them, so he's bound to be seen as a disreputable character everywhere he goes. In his new life he has no fields to farm, no boat to fish, no money to rent either, and no blood kin to care for him (you think they'd take him in again after how he treated them?). Tradition tells us that Peter died the same painful and shameful (in the world's reckoning) death that his Lord did in the end, but surely he wasn't hoping for death when he left to follow Jesus. He was seeking life, but what life would there be for him if he made it to old age?

In short, Peter's new path makes him almost as vulnerable as his mother-in-law, and his hope is the same as hers:

That Jesus' gospel takes root.

Jesus' Good News is very good news indeed for those without conventional honor, those without family, those without friends or means, because Jesus taught that anyone who hears the Word of God and does it is his brother and sister and mother -- his family, his kin. That means that we are kin with one another, bound to one another by our relationship with God in Jesus more surely than we could be bound to anyone by blood or marriage.

We are set free from every structure that bound us otherwise, but we are bound absolutely to care for one another.

This is pretty much the point of my Ph.D. dissertation, which is titled Freed To Serve, and examines Paul's language of “freedom” in his letters. Did you know that when Moses proclaims to Pharoah what God is saying, the full message isn't “let my people go,” but “send my people forth, that they may serve me”? That's what God does. God frees the Hebrews from Pharoah's power, not so they can do what they wish, but so they can do God's will, which is to become a people -- and a people who live a certain way. It wouldn't surprise me if some echo of Moses' message weren't intended in this Sunday's gospel, as Peter's mother-in-law is set free from the illness that bound her so that she can serve some tired travelers whose path will lead to the cross.

And that woman's hope is all our hope -- that Jesus' message takes root such that there are communities of people everywhere who will seek out widows like her, derelicts and demoniacs and orphans and foundlings and anyone else whom the world would exploit and ignore, and will care for them as Jesus cares for them, as the God whom Jesus calls “father” -- and the only father, the only authority, the only Lord -- cares for them.

So yes, Jesus does tear families apart, and this Sunday's gospel is a perfect opportunity to share that with people who think there's nothing in the bible that should make them uncomfortable or cause their neighbors to look askance at them. But Jesus sets us in a family that runs on a different set of rules -- one that privileges those who have nobody else rather than encourages us to serve only or primarily those of our own blood or surname.

We must read this Sunday's gospel remembering that Peter is about to leave his mother-in-law to follow Jesus. She, and her fellow widows and orphans, have one hope in this world:

That we follow Jesus too, caring for the outcast as for our own flesh, or better. I'm not going to harp in this entry on the Millennium Development Goals, but you know that I believe that they're where this Sunday's gospel is headed when applied to our world. Jesus wasn't going to stick around to enjoy the hospitality of one household when neighboring towns hadn't yet experienced the Good News, the new Beloved Community of sisters and brothers, God has to offer. And Jesus' Good News, Jesus' message, God's Beloved Community, wasn't meant for just our family, our town, or our country; it demands a new economy and a new way of reckoning family for the whole world. If you are a follower of Jesus, your mother and your sister and your brother is in sub-Sarahan Africa and Southeast Asia and in every place where war or disease or circumstance is out to make widows and orphans.

Did you pause long enough to feel the pain of Peter's mother-in-law, both before and after the fever left her? That's Jesus' call. Please follow.

Thanks be to God!

February 2, 2006 in 1 Corinthians, Call Narratives, Epiphany, Healing, Justice, Kinship/Family, Mark, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Year B | Permalink

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Thanks for your comments on this text. I've experienced some harsh situations since my conversion to the Episcopal church and its important for all those who have been hurt in following Christ to remember that the gospel is tragedy as well as fairy tale.

Posted by: Jared Cramer | Feb 2, 2006 9:36:34 PM

Greetings from Western Kansas. I very much enjoy your blog. Your perspective is always unique, refreshing and stimulating. I appreciate the all the effort you put in your ministry. In your blog for this week, you cite Mark 12:28 but the quote is actually Mark 10:28. I know this is merely a typo. I am mentioning it only so that others who read you as much as I do can find the referenced passage in case they want to read that too. Thanks to God for you and your sharing. God's peace to you. Mark+

Posted by: Mark Cowell | Feb 4, 2006 9:41:05 PM

Many thanks, Mark! I just fixed the typo.

Posted by: Sarah Dylan Breuer | Feb 4, 2006 9:44:53 PM

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Dylan's lectionary blog: Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B

« Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B | Main | Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, Year B »

Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B

Printer-friendly version

1 Corinthians 9:16-23 - link to NRSV text
Mark 1:29-39 - link to NRSV text

“Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.”

That's what Jesus says in this Sunday's gospel. And Mark makes very clear that when Jesus proclaims the message, it's not just sharing words; it's healing and freeing people so that they can form communities that heal and free people.

That's what Jesus does with Simon Peter's mother-in-law. If she had a husband of her own, she would have been living with him rather than with her daughter's husband; she must have been a widow. And when her husband died, she would have been living with her son if she'd had one, or with her extended family. But she's living with her daughter's husband, and thus probably has no living family of her own to care for her. Perhaps even her daughter, Peter's wife, has died.

This, by the way, underscores for me just how costly and complicated Jesus' call often is. When Peter leaves to follow Jesus, what will become of his mother-in-law, who has no other family besides her daughter? What will become of Peter's wife, if she is alive? Did Peter have children? If so, he left them.

Don't be shocked. Well ... do be shocked. It's pretty shocking, especially for those of us (the majority in America, I think) who have swallowed wholesale the idea that “Christianity” is practically synonymous with mainstream respectability. But reading this Sunday's gospel carefully brings a whole new layer to our reading of Mark 10: 28-31, in which Peter says to Jesus, “Look, we have left everything and followed you,” and Jesus says this:

Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age -- houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields -- with persecutions -- and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.

Peter wasn't exaggerating: he really had left everything, including the mother-in-law Jesus heals in this Sunday's gospel, and his children as well, if he had any -- and in a culture in which children, like women, often weren't seen as people worth mentioning, there's no reason to assume that there were none in the household just because this passage doesn't mention them.

Peter left his family to follow Jesus. Abandoned them.

I'm not going to try to make that sound easy on either side of that equation, because it isn't. Peter's a bumbling disciple, but he's not an unfeeling monster, and he walked away from this woman who depended upon him absolutely for protection, for her very life, and she had no one else. And there may well have been children too, who depended upon their father as much or more. Please don't gloss over this or move on before letting the full impact of that sink in. Discipleship -- real, cross-bearing discipleship -- means hard choices and real cost -- sometimes even for others who know us and will be puzzled or angry at choices made genuinely for the sake of Christ's gospel, choices which could cost them as well as us.

Ouch. I can't help but wonder whether the story in this Sunday's gospel in which Peter's mother-in-law is healed by Jesus is meant in part to assuage readers' profound discomfort with what they would have assumed in the first-century Mediterranean world, namely that Jesus' followers abandoned family who depended on them just as surely as Jesus abandoned his own mother (who may well have been a widow, given that Joseph appears nowhere as a living character in the gospels after Jesus' youth). At least when Peter leaves his family for Jesus' sake, there's one person who has experienced Jesus as a healer in her family rather than solely as the man who tore it apart. And at least she can do household work. That wouldn't mean that she could hang out a shingle as a cook -- her culture still would hold her as a “loose woman” if she didn't have a husband or brother or son with honor to which she was attached -- but maybe that was something.

In other words, this is not exactly a feel-good story, about which we just cry, “Hurrah! She's healed!” before starting to chuckle about how much it bites to be a woman who has to spring up from her very deathbed if necessary to get dinner on the table for men.

She was healed. But where's the hope for Peter's nameless and friendless mother-in-law when Peter leaves? And what kind of a jerk is Jesus to extend this woman's life only to ruin it by calling her sole source of support away? And it's not like Peter's life is going to be a picnic either. Everyone he meets will assume that he had a family and he abandoned them, so he's bound to be seen as a disreputable character everywhere he goes. In his new life he has no fields to farm, no boat to fish, no money to rent either, and no blood kin to care for him (you think they'd take him in again after how he treated them?). Tradition tells us that Peter died the same painful and shameful (in the world's reckoning) death that his Lord did in the end, but surely he wasn't hoping for death when he left to follow Jesus. He was seeking life, but what life would there be for him if he made it to old age?

In short, Peter's new path makes him almost as vulnerable as his mother-in-law, and his hope is the same as hers:

That Jesus' gospel takes root.

Jesus' Good News is very good news indeed for those without conventional honor, those without family, those without friends or means, because Jesus taught that anyone who hears the Word of God and does it is his brother and sister and mother -- his family, his kin. That means that we are kin with one another, bound to one another by our relationship with God in Jesus more surely than we could be bound to anyone by blood or marriage.

We are set free from every structure that bound us otherwise, but we are bound absolutely to care for one another.

This is pretty much the point of my Ph.D. dissertation, which is titled Freed To Serve, and examines Paul's language of “freedom” in his letters. Did you know that when Moses proclaims to Pharoah what God is saying, the full message isn't “let my people go,” but “send my people forth, that they may serve me”? That's what God does. God frees the Hebrews from Pharoah's power, not so they can do what they wish, but so they can do God's will, which is to become a people -- and a people who live a certain way. It wouldn't surprise me if some echo of Moses' message weren't intended in this Sunday's gospel, as Peter's mother-in-law is set free from the illness that bound her so that she can serve some tired travelers whose path will lead to the cross.

And that woman's hope is all our hope -- that Jesus' message takes root such that there are communities of people everywhere who will seek out widows like her, derelicts and demoniacs and orphans and foundlings and anyone else whom the world would exploit and ignore, and will care for them as Jesus cares for them, as the God whom Jesus calls “father” -- and the only father, the only authority, the only Lord -- cares for them.

So yes, Jesus does tear families apart, and this Sunday's gospel is a perfect opportunity to share that with people who think there's nothing in the bible that should make them uncomfortable or cause their neighbors to look askance at them. But Jesus sets us in a family that runs on a different set of rules -- one that privileges those who have nobody else rather than encourages us to serve only or primarily those of our own blood or surname.

We must read this Sunday's gospel remembering that Peter is about to leave his mother-in-law to follow Jesus. She, and her fellow widows and orphans, have one hope in this world:

That we follow Jesus too, caring for the outcast as for our own flesh, or better. I'm not going to harp in this entry on the Millennium Development Goals, but you know that I believe that they're where this Sunday's gospel is headed when applied to our world. Jesus wasn't going to stick around to enjoy the hospitality of one household when neighboring towns hadn't yet experienced the Good News, the new Beloved Community of sisters and brothers, God has to offer. And Jesus' Good News, Jesus' message, God's Beloved Community, wasn't meant for just our family, our town, or our country; it demands a new economy and a new way of reckoning family for the whole world. If you are a follower of Jesus, your mother and your sister and your brother is in sub-Sarahan Africa and Southeast Asia and in every place where war or disease or circumstance is out to make widows and orphans.

Did you pause long enough to feel the pain of Peter's mother-in-law, both before and after the fever left her? That's Jesus' call. Please follow.

Thanks be to God!

February 2, 2006 in 1 Corinthians, Call Narratives, Epiphany, Healing, Justice, Kinship/Family, Mark, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Year B | Permalink

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