|“Because all of you are one in the Messiah Jesus, a person is no longer a Jew or a Greek, a slave or a free person, a male or a female.”|
Guatemala, February 8, 2015
HOMILY FOR THE FIFTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY
Isaiah 40:21-31; Psalm 147:1-12,21c; I Corinthians 9: 16-23; Mark 1:29-39
Last Sunday’s Gospel Proclamation introduced us to Jesus the healer and exorcist. This Sunday’s reading continues what we heard last Sunday. It is the Sabbath, and Jesus has been teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum. Jesus and his four disciples leave to go to the house of Simon and Andrew. There they find Simon’s mother-in-law in bed with a fever. Jesus takes her hand, lifts her up. “Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them”.
This passage is not a favorite with feminists. The accusation is that Jesus heals the woman so someone will cook supper for him and his disciples. What a chauvinist he must be. The question arises, where is Simon’s wife? The text does not give us any guidance on this, but we know that he had one, and travelled with her. The simplest explanation might be that she was having her period and was therefore in seclusion because of her ritual uncleanness. Remember that to this day an orthodox Jewish woman of child-bearing age is unclean for the four days of her menstruation, and for eight days after. Anything she touches becomes unclean. Her uncleanness is contagious. If a person sits where she sat, that person becomes unclean.
I think we must remember the cultural context of Jesus’ time. Men worked outside the house, and women stayed home. Women prepared the food, raised the small animals, took care of the children, wove cloth, sewed and cleaned. There were no appliances to make labor easier, so the division of labor was probably a fair one, assuming that the husband did manual labor, farmed or fished. Both were exhausting. An unmarried female relative or a mother-in-law was very handy to have around, since they could help with the household tasks. We have to assume then that, if Peter’s wife and mother-in-law were both unable to prepare food, that the sudden arrival of the brothers Simon and Andrew plus three other men was cause for alarm.
“Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever and they told him about her at once”. In truth, we don´t know if there was any other woman in the household who could have prepared a meal. I assume that someone could have done it, a female relative, or perhaps a neighbor. What I think we can say is that Jesus’ reaction to the illness is characteristic. When the suffering of someone is pointed out to him, or when he encounters illness, chronic illness or deformity, he heals the sufferer. The woman’s fever has been brought to his attention, and his reaction is one of compassion. He goes in to her room, takes her hand and sits her up. She is healed.
Is Peter’s mother-in-law healed so that she can serve Jesus and the disciples? Is this what motivates Jesus? Is there any other miracle or healing where the accusation of being self-serving can be levelled at him? On the contrary, compassion, empathy if you will, is what drives his healings, and I see no reason to suppose that anything other than empathy was at work here. In any case, the woman is healed, her fever is gone, and she begins to behave in a culturally appropriate way-i.e. to take care of her son-in-law’s guests. She is not healed so that she can wait on the men; rather it is her response to her healing that she begins to serve them.
Popular fiction has had a field day speculating about the nature of the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. When he is resurrected, why does Jesus show himself first to Mary Magdalene? Why is she accorded the privilege of this tremendous revelation? What else could there have been between them? Popular fiction aside, the relationship of Jesus with Mary Magdalene is characteristic of his easy and non-patriarchal approach to women in general. Women figure prominently in the miracles he performs. Think of the woman with the discharge that would not cease who is healed by touching the hem of his robe. Think of the woman taken in adultery whom he saves from death by stoning by challenging anyone in the mob who is without sin to throw the first stone.
In his parables Jesus likens God to the woman who had ten coins and lost one-she searches diligently for it until she finds it. In his role as teacher, Mary of Bethany sits at his feet while he instructs her-he tells her sister Martha to stop griping that Mary is not sharing in the food preparation chores, because instruction is more important than kitchen chores. We know that there were numerous women among his followers, who travelled with him. Nowhere do we find any evidence of patriarchal behavior on Jesus’ part. On the contrary, he treats women as equals, and not as cooks and cleaning ladies. This in itself was revolutionary for his time.
In the last century there has been a great realignment in gender roles especially in America and Europe. The process is ongoing. That process is also underway in many other parts of the world as well. Certainly the Islamic areas of the world are the great laggards in this regard, but the case can be made that women have moved significantly closer to equality with men in countries like Tunisia. Our religious texts and those of Judaism and Islam are grounded in realities of times long gone. Some of us persist in defending the relevance of their entire contents. For others, intelligent cultural relativism permits us to escape that narrow literalism and to look at the basic revelation of Jesus in a way untrammeled by the cultural contexts of two thousand years go.
What would Jesus say if he came today? I think he would be glad, supportive of the enhanced liberty enjoyed by women. After all, the fact that they are no longer tied to a long list of household chores or bound by the restrictions of Mosaic purity codes frees them to seek together with men the kingdom of God which Jesus announces. In that task there can be no hierarchy based on gender- rather competence, energy and dedication to the task should be the defining criteria.. We are all met in Christ Jesus. In him there is neither East nor West. Or as Saint Paul puts it in Galatians 3:28: “Because all of you are one in the Messiah Jesus, a person is no longer a Jew or a Greek, a slave or a free person, a male or a female.”
PLANNING TRAVEL TO GUATEMALA?
PLANNING TRAVEL TO GUATEMALA?