I am a terrible nurse. Recently, my son smashed his finger moving stage props, and he has been sporting a black thumb. He tries to give me updates on the blood blister under his nail. If he were younger, I would force myself to listen to his updates, but now he is old enough to understand that it grosses me out. My children have always inherently understood to go to their father for nurture when they were hurt, not me.
“Mom, if I cut myself and was bleeding all over the place, what would you do?” my son asked when I closed my eyes at his insistence that I examine his black thumb. “You would have to look at me to help!”
Caring for sick children is not my best role. I am thankful for little medicinal devices that help me to offer comfort, such as band aids, cough drops, and pain relief melt-a-ways. They give me the appearance of caring for the sick.
2,000 years ago, the sick and injured were cared for by family. There were no hospitals. Your home would be the convalescence. If an illness was severe, a family became full time caretakers. If family could not provide care, the impaired and sick would end up on the streets, begging or dead. Those with contagious disease were banished to quarantine with others suffering from the same. In ancient Israel, the priests ruled the status of the sick, determining who was unclean and unfit to enter holy places like the temple or synagogue. If a person was declared unclean, they had to follow specific instructions like shouting, “Unclean!” around others, or bathing on certain days, or wearing certain garments. Today, it is no fun getting sick, but in the ancient world, there was a whole other level of suffering complicated by the lack of medical care.
Caring for the sick in the ancient home resulted in its own kind of suffering. Amy Simpson, in her book Troubled Minds, describes what families today deal with when they are caring for a loved one with mental illness. I can imagine it was the same in an ancient household caring for a sick family member. It drains resources: emotional, physical, and monetary. It brings guilt and shame for the family. The ancient mindset believed that the sick, or the parents of the sick, had done something to deserve their suffering. Because of this, the sick and impaired were often shunned and lived in isolation, depending entirely upon family for support. A physical crisis often sparked a spiritual crisis filled with doubt and questions that do not have answers this side of heaven.
In today’s story in Mark 1:29-34, Jesus proclaims good news to the sick and to their families by being good news himself. He taught and he proved that God was near. The sick had his favor. Jesus’ healing ministry validated that he was the promised Messiah from God, and it also altered societal views on the care of the sick.
A very long day in Capernaum
Jesus is in the middle of a very long day in the town of Capernaum. He was at the synagogue, teaching. His teaching was unlike any other, and it was causing astonished whispers. Jesus expelled a demon for all to see. And within hours, the word spread that something incredible was happening in Capernaum.
At once, having gone out of the synagogue, he went into Simon and Andrew’s house with James and John. And Peter’s mother-in-law was lying down sick with a fever.
Mark presents Peter’s mother-in-law as the first person Jesus heals, even though the other gospel writers put other healings before hers. My guess is that Mark puts her first because of her importance to Peter. Remember, Mark is writing Peter’s stories about his time with Jesus. Peter remembers this day because it was personal. It started with a demon in his hometown synagogue, then with his mother-in-law being healed, and ended with a marathon of miracles from his front door.
Peter’s mother-in-law most likely would have been in her thirties, maybe early forties. Life expectancy at that time was in the forties. In the ancient world, she was an older woman. Mark contrasts the previous story of a public exorcism on a man with this private story of a healing for a woman. In the ancient world with no pain relief, no antibiotics, nor hygienic practices for health, a fever often ended in death. Some historians speculate that she suffered from malaria because the area around the lake would have been a haven for mosquitos. It doesn’t really matter what caused her fever. She was so sick she could not get up.
Jesus’ healings proved he was the Christ.
The Jewish prophets had predicted that when the one who had been anointed by God arrived, he would bring healing to the people. Malachi 4:2 says that he will have healing in the tips of his fingers. Isaiah 35:5-6 says specifically that he will make the blind to see, the deaf to hear and the lame to walk. Isaiah 53:5 is more enigmatic. It says that he will heal through his own wounds. Perhaps this hope prompted Peter and the others to approach Jesus to let him know about his wife’s mother’s illness. They knew that Jesus had the power to command unclean spirits, maybe he can do something for unclean sickness.
At once, they speak to him about her. And having gone to her, he was raising her up by the hand, and the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
Jesus heals her with a silent touch. He touched a woman who was sick. He was not afraid that her sickness, her uncleanness, would spread to him. He knew it would work the other way. His pure and holy power was the force at work, and he heals her completely. She does not need to recuperate. She is ready to stand, to get to work. Not only did Jesus heal the woman, but he also freed her family from the labor of caring for an ailing relative. He lifted the home burdens for Peter so he could continue to follow. His care for this older woman is also important for those of us who are aging women. Culture might tell us that our time is past, but Jesus raises us up to new life. For the older woman reading this, Jesus cares about your health. You still have a life to live. Jesus wants you to be as active as you can.
The word diakoneó is translated as “serve” or “minister.” We saw this word a few verses back. Angels served Jesus in the desert. It usually refers to providing food, like a modern-day server at a restaurant. It is the same word that the word “deacon” derives from since serving tables was the appointed task of the first deacons. It is not coincidence that Mark describes only angels, women and Jesus as “serving.” In Mark 10:45, Jesus said that he did not come to be served, but to serve. Here, this older woman serves Jesus, her family and her friends. She is angelic and Christlike in her service. And I’m sure, her service spread to include the whole city who appeared at their front door that evening.
But later in the evening, when the sun went down, they kept on bringing all those having illnesses and those who were demon possessed to him. And the whole city was gathered in front of the door. And Jesus healed many sick people who had various diseases. And he cast out many demons, but he did not let the demons speak because they knew him.
By the time Sabbath curfew lifted at sunset, the whole city had heard that Jesus was healing the sick. Families brought out loved ones they had been caring for. Friends reached out to those they knew were in hopeless situations and offered to help get them to Peter’s. As the sun dipped below the skyline, Peter’s front courtyard was invaded with the sick and suffering of Capernaum. But by twilight, it must have been a party. Jesus brought God’s kingdom to Peter’s house that night.
When I read of Jesus’ healings, it always sparks questions. The obvious one being, did Jesus really heal? It is an interesting fact that the healings of Jesus are never questioned by anyone in Scripture. No one in the historical accounts doubted that he healed. There were too many witnesses. It was apparent that the people who claimed to be healed had the proof to back it up. They could see. They could hear. They could walk. Even the enemies of Jesus were not skeptical of his healings, rather they doubted that God was the source of his power behind the healings. However, for those of us reading the stories millennia later, we have no proof that Jesus really healed other than the written accounts of people who claimed that he did. The answer to the question “Did Jesus heal?” will always be answered through the lens of faith. This was the case even for our author Mark. He assumes that healings are miraculous, unable to be explained. Instead of explaining how Jesus healed, Mark begins to emphasize the spiritual significance of his healings. Jesus’ power, his ability to heal, backs up his authority as the Christ. If you doubt Jesus healed, most likely you have trouble believing who he was, as well.
Jesus’ healings are the root of modern-day healthcare.*
Jesus came to announce that God’s kingdom was near and to spark the flame that would ignite a world filled with people who became good news to the sick and dying. Jesus taught that he could be found in the hungry, the sick and the imprisoned. When his followers cared for the suffering, they cared for him. He came to serve by healing, by providing food, by bringing joy through visits and by sharing in the suffering of others. Christians in the first century began to emulate Jesus by visiting the sick, helping the poor, and by organizing ministries of mercy to care for the overlooked, the shunned and the marginalized.
As epidemics plagued the ancient world, Christians refused to treat the sick like the rest of society. Instead of abandoning the ill, they provided care for both pagan and Christian. They shared food, water and shelter. Rather than leaving infected corpses to rot, they buried the infected dead. They organized the basic care for the sick, risking their lives against contagion to bring others to health. Christians did not have the healing power that Christ possessed, but they could bring something more mundane and permanent, simple care and compassion for the sick and dying.
Even for those like me who do not have the natural temperament toward nurture and compassionate care, Jesus’ long hours serving the sick provides a reorganization of my priorities. It is not the healthy who need attention and favor, but those who are suffering and sick. Let us take the example of Peter’s mother-in-law to heart and get to work serving the sick.
- Further Reading: Gary B. Ferngren. “A New Era in Roman Healthcare.” Christian History Issue #101 in 2011. https://christianhistoryinstitute.org/magazine/article/new-era-in-roman-healthcare