The Real Story

The Lord heals Simon's mother-in-law, and then....

Mark 1:29-39
retold by Deborah

After leaving the synagogue, Jesus went straight to Simon and Andrew’s house, along with James and John.

Simon's mother-in-law was in bed, stricken with a fever, and they immediately told him about her.

He went to her and, taking hold of her hand, raised her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

That evening, after the Sabbath ended, they brought him all who were sick as well as the ones possessed by demons. It seemed as if the whole city was crowded around the door.

And he cured many who were sick, and cast out many demons — but he wouldn’t let the demons speak, because they knew him.

In the morning, while it was still very dark, he arose and went off alone to a quiet place and prayed.

But Simon and his companions tracked him down. When they found him, they said, “Everyone is searching for you.”

He replied, “Let’s go to the neighboring towns, so I can proclaim the message there, too; because that’s what I came to do."

And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues — and casting out demons.

Photo of a flower

Reflection by Deborah Beach Giordano
February 5, 2018

Only Part of the Story

Mark 1:29-39

After leaving the synagogue, Jesus went straight to Simon and Andrew’s house, along with James and John.

Simon's mother-in-law was in bed, stricken with a fever, and they immediately told him about her.

He went to her and, taking hold of her hand, raised her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

We Interrupt this Scripture…

There is a great deal more to this story. Jesus goes on to heal a bunch of other folks from the town, exorcises demons, prays by himself, and sets off to evangelize the rest of Galilee.

But we don’t hear any of that. At least a lot of us don’t. We’re still stuck back in the kitchen with Simon’s mother-in-law.


We want to know what really happened. She got well, of course, but precisely what did she do next? The writer tells us that “she began to serve them.”

It’s as if your coat has caught on a rusty nail, or your sweater is entangled in blackberry vines. You’re pulled up short, stopped in your tracks — and you try to figure out what has ensnared you. At least that’s how it is if you’re a woman.

A Woman’s Work

It was assumed for centuries, millennia, in fact, that Simon’s mother-in-law arose from her sick bed and went directly to the kitchen and started fixing dinner. It seemed perfectly obvious — and perfectly normal, and to be expected. That’s just how it goes: the woman of the house may be sick as a dog, but she will get up from her deathbed in order to care for everyone else.

And, of course, cooking and cleaning are “women’s work.” What else could she possibly have done?

You may well ask.

The Chosen Meaning

Depending upon the translation, Simon’s mother-in-law is variously described as “waiting on,” “serving,” and …. wait for it .… “ministering to” Jesus and the others who were there. Each term is a valid interpretation of διακονέω, but the understandings they give rise to are very different.

Read the sentence over, each time using a different term and — since the lady is never named in the text — substitute your own name in place of hers. Imagine enacting the sentence; stand up and demonstrate how the words feel.

[ _______] waited on Jesus and the rest of them.

[ _______] served Jesus and the rest of them.

[ _______] ministered to Jesus and the rest of them.

In each case the word means roughly the same thing. But our response to the image it evokes is very different. For myself, my body posture was different in each case, as was the way I held my hands.

That’s the power of translation.

And the power of interpretation.

Even if we read or hear a sentence spoken in our native language, we are interpreting its meaning. We “translate” words into concepts drawn from familiar ideas and experiences. That’s how human beings make sense of the world.

Expectations and Assumptions

Jesus and the womanIf we are told that a woman was healed and then “began serving” others, we may take it for granted that it means that she prepared and served a meal. We may not even notice that we’re jumping to a conclusion, forming an assumption based on no evidence at all. Our idea (say, of women, or mothers — or mothers-in-law) could be so integrated into our worldview that we don’t realize there might be any other possibility.

That’s how theology has traditionally been done. Much of what is taken “as Gospel” was based on assumptions about “how things are now — which is how they’ve always been.” But things have not always been the same, and there have always been exceptions to every concept and notion. Jesus, for example, was a very big exception to “how things have always been.”

Again, this is no cause for condemnation; human beings struggle to make sense of the world around us, and it is, of course, a very major struggle to try to make sense of an event like Jesus the Christ. It simply means that we need to pay attention to the assumptions we make when we read and reflect on the Holy Scriptures. And other times, as well!

It may be true that Simon’s mother-in-law did arise from her sickbed and go and prepare and serve a meal to Jesus and the others. But she might have done something else.

To Wait Upon the Lord

The word that is used to describe what Simon’s mother-in-law did is the same word Jesus uses when he tells his followers that “the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve” (Mark 10:45). So we can infer that what she did was important, useful, meaningful — even holy.

That puts a different light on the idea of “waiting on” someone, doesn’t it? Or serving them. Such work is, we might infer, a form of ministry. An “imitation of Christ,” as the saying goes. Our word “deacon” comes directly from this word.

And so we know that such work is of value; it is admirable and honorable. That’s worth thinking about, because work in “the service industry” is not generally esteemed in our culture. It’s considered to be the job you get when you can’t get any other; those so employed are thought of as possessing the poorest skill set, the fewest “smarts,” the least ambition… and the lowest value. And those workers are often treated with the least respect.

It’s not a new phenomenon. The Christian tradition celebrates the disciples and names churches and cathedrals and Gospels in their honor. But the name of the woman who is first to serve the Lord remains unknown.

Maybe no one thought it was important.

Christ in prayerMaybe no one understood, as Jesus did, the value of those who serve. Maybe no one realized, as she did, that those who give need to receive.

Weak and weary from a night spent healing the sick and dispatching demons, the Lord took refuge in a quiet place where he could pray in peace — but Simon and the others tracked him down and cried out, “Everyone is looking for you!”

Everyone needed something, everyone wanted something, everyone demanded something — even after having been blessed and healed and taught by the Lord. Only our unnamed lady gave something to him; only she served the One who came to serve.

What Really Happened

Let’s return to our investigation of what it was, exactly, that Simon’s mother-in-law did when she “began to serve the Lord.”

In recent times there has been an effort to establish that this lady was engaged in “actual ministry.” With the best and sincerest intentions, writers have sought to prove that she was doing something important, not “merely” fixing a meal or washing the Lord’s feet, or bringing him a cup of cold water. That’s what happens when we accept, without thinking, what our culture tells us to be true.

Mary punching a demon

What can we be thinking to imagine that traditional “women’s work” cannot constitute valuable ministry? How can we presume that meal preparation has less worth than, say, preaching? When it’s time for breakfast, a superbly eloquent preacher is but a noisy gong or clanging symbol compared to a pot of tea and an omelette.

The fact is that no aspect of ministry needs — or ought — to take precedence over any others. All work is valuable; all that is done in blessing and serving the Lord is worthwhile. We don’t know how Simon’s mother-in-law served the Lord, what matters is that she did.

May we always do likewise.

Oh, and remember, Simon’s mother-in-law was just beginning to serve the Lord that day.

Virtual hugs and real-time blessings,


Suggested Spiritual Exercise

What assumptions do you make in regards to serving the Lord?