As I read my go-to resources in sermon preparation this week, I’m noticing an undercurrent of discomfort with the story of Jesus healing Simon Peter’s Mother-in-Law. It seems to stem from a common misreading of the text, which has led it to be a straw-man argument for those would say that the role of women in the church (and, by extension, in the world) is in the kitchen, preparing meals, organizing receptions, and holding teas. I’m not suggesting that this reading of the text shouldn’t make us uncomfortable. It most certainly should. Rather, I’d like to suggest that we shouldn’t allow bad exegesis the power it holds over this text. Instead of throwing this story away as an example of 1st century subjugation of women, perpetuated, and later enshrined in the Church, I want us to read this story with the wider Gospel narrative in mind. I’d like us to dig beyond our discomfort with the modern English translations, and do the hard work of understanding what lies beneath.
Taken as a part of the larger story, the story of Peter’s mother-in-law being healed and then “serving” Jesus and his disciples is really a story about the impact that women had on the Jesus Movement from its very inception. Throughout the Gospels and even into Acts, we are told of the role that women played in not just preparing meals and tending to the needs of Jesus and the disciples, but also how they gave of their sometimes significant financial resources to make sure the ministry tour could continue. The Marys, Joanna, Susanna, Salome, Lydia, and the daughters of Deacon Philip all play integral roles in the spread of the Gospel during Jesus’ life and well into the first generation of the Church.
In Mark’s Gospel, this pattern begins with the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law, and it begins in a very specific way. While the NRSV translates what she did as “serving,” the Greek word diakonai is where we get Deacon. It could be said that Peter’s mother-in-law was the first Deacon in the Christian Way. Well before Philip, Stephen, and the rest, she was set apart in a ministry of table service and support. Rather than a text that can be used to subjugate the call of women into ministry, this story actually seems to be an invitation to see women as fully part of the Gospel work.
It is, of course, only a beginning. Much in the same way this text is used to keep women in the Church kitchen, it could also be used to keep them set apart only as Deaconesses. This could be the great unintended consequence of my reading of this text. In my own tradition, I can see how a text like this one continues to have a profound impact on how ordained women are called to leadership positions like Cardinal Rectors, Cathedral Deans, and the Episcopate. Because of where this text falls in the Gospel narrative, and because, later, Mary Magdalene will be called to Apostleship by the Risen Christ, I see this text as a way to re-frame the conversation, to think in bigger ways about how God’s call is open to all people, and to name and repent of the ways in which the Church has used bad readings of texts like this one in abusive ways. We can’t let our discomfort with a bad reading of this text keep us from living into how this text actually begins to show us the dream that God has for the Church.