From the Gospel according to Mark:
As soon as they 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. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Mark 1:29-31 (NRSV) – January 16, 2013.)
Does it bother anyone else that as soon as Mrs. Simon’s mother is healed by Jesus she gets up from her sick bed and “begins to serve them”? That has always bothered me. I don’t know why it should. After all, if she’s healed (and one assumes that when Jesus healed someone they were really healed), then there’s no reason for her not to do what she would have done if she’d not been sick in the first place. But . . . it has bothered me. Why, I have thought, should this poor woman who’s been sick have to get out of bed and serve these men?
In The Book of Common Prayer 1979 there is a prayer for use when visiting a sick person, particularly one who is about to undergo surgery:
Strengthen your servant N., O God, to do what s/he has to do and bear what s/he has to bear; that, accepting your healing gifts through the skill of surgeons and nurses, s/he may be restored to usefulness in your world with a thankful heart; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
I suppose that the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law is a story of one being “restored to usefulness in [God’s] world with a thankful heart,” although we hear no more about her, nor do we know anything of her attitude about her healing or her service.
As I pondered this story, this prayer, and my own experience, I realized a couple of things. First of all, I hate being sick, and when I’m sick, I hate being visited. I’m an introvert, which means that although I enjoy being with people, I find the experience of social interaction very draining; when I’m sick and already feeling low on energy, a visit is the last thing I want or need. But, second, when I am better, I am bursting with energy.
I know that I am fully recovered from an illness when, for no good reason other than I feel better, I get out of bed and start doing housework! When I recover from an illness, that is precisely what I do – I do the laundry; I wash the dishes; I even (as God is my witness) vacuum the house! I get up from my illness and start serving those with whom I live (these days, that is only my wife, a dog, and three cats). I am, as the prayer says, “restored to usefulness” and I actually enjoy doing the housework I have been unable to do while ill.
So I realize now that I have been viewing Simon’s mother-in-law’s healing and subsequent service to her guests from the wrong point of view, from the perspective of an observer or possibly the one receiving her hospitality. But I should be looking at the story from her viewpoint! When I’ve been ill and have recovered, getting out of bed and cleaning the house is exactly what I want to do, so isn’t it just as likely that upon being restored to wholeness she might want to do the same, to be of usefulness, as well?
Considering the story further, I begin to wonder about its value as a metaphor for forgiveness of sin, another sort of healing. Just as one rises full of energy and readiness to be of service following the end of physical illness, should we not also feel that way when we are healed of our sinfulness? Each Sunday when we confess our sins in the liturgy of the Eucharist, we are assured that God forgives our sins, strengthens us in goodness, and powerfully keeps us in eternal life. At the conclusion of the liturgy, we are sent forth in the Name of Christ, to love and to serve, to rejoice in power. Like Simon’s mother-in-law, we rise from the sickness of sin restored to usefulness in God’s world, and like her we are ready to begin to serve.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.