How the Story of Peter’s Mother-in-Law is Actually About Us

The original Greek indicates that this is more than just a miraculous healing.

On leaving the synagogue Jesus entered the house of Simon and Andrew with James and John. Simon’s mother-in-law lay sick with a fever. They immediately told him about her. He approached, grasped her hand, and helped her up. Then the fever left her and she waited on them —Mark 1:29-31

One of the hardest parts of being sick—especially if it’s a serious or protracted illness—is the sense of loneliness and isolation that we can feel. Despite the best efforts of family, friends, and caregivers, our world can become very small, limited to our room, our bed, or even our own bodies. One of the hardest, most isolating realities of illness is that, at the end of the day, no one can really understand what we are feeling. It’s easy to understand why those who are facing serious or chronic illness can sometimes lose hope. It’s hard to imagine that things can be different for us, when we are suffering so much right now … and it seems that “right now” is all that there is.

We get this sense of despair and frustration in this Sunday’s First Reading from the Book of Job. As we know, through no fault of his own, Job loses everything that is precious to him. Not only are his health and fortune taken away, but he also loses his children and, it would seem, his sense of who he is. Three friends come to comfort him, offering advice on how he can and should navigate these terrible losses. Job, for his part, wants none of their advice, but he does cry out to God. His all-too-human feelings of frustration and fatigue come through in this reading: “I have been assigned months of misery, / and troubled nights have been allotted to me. / If in bed I say, “When shall I arise?” / then the night drags on; / I am filled with restlessness until the dawn. / My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle; / they come to an end without hope.” 

While the Book of Job has a happy resolution, that sense of joy is completely absent from the small section we will hear this Sunday. We do, however, find a hint of hope in the Responsorial Psalm: “[God] heals the brokenhearted / and binds up their wounds. / He tells the number of the stars; / he calls each by name” (147: 3-4). This promise of renewal and healing remind us that there is a future beyond those challenges in life that can wear us down or break our hearts. This promise—and its fulfillment—is at the heart of our Gospel this Sunday. 

The passage we hear presents the second of three miracles performed by Jesus in the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel. Jesus enters the home of Peter and Andrew and is told that Peter’s mother-in-law is ill. While the Lectionary text tells us she has a “fever,” the original Greek text implies that she is gravely ill, to the point of death. Those present immediately tell Jesus about her condition and he responds: “He approached, grasped her hand, and helped her up.” It all seems very straightforward, but here again our Lectionary translation loses a sense of the power of the moment. 

In the original Greek of Mark’s Gospel, the word that is translated here as “helped her up,” is the same word that is used in Mark’s account of the Resurrection (see Mark 16:6). Mark is actually telling us that Jesus “raised” the woman up. This isn’t just a story about a miraculous healing. Instead, Mark is making a direct association with the Resurrection of Jesus. The woman has been saved from the death and despair (think of Job), and brought into a new form of life that is defined by her service to Jesus and the others. Even here, the word that Mark uses is that same word that is used when Jesus tells us, “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve” (10:45). Mark is already beginning to hint at the power of the Resurrection and the renewal of all creation that Jesus will offer us in his passion and death. 

Ultimately, the invitation for us this Sunday is to reflect on those times when we have experienced profound suffering and sorrow like Job—illness, depression, addiction, loneliness—and to recognize the Lord’s power to lift us out of that darkness. The challenge for us is to show our gratitude for the gifts we have received in our love and service of those around us.  
When have you experienced darkness like Job’s in your own life? What helped you find hope? How have you felt the Lord’s healing presence and power in your life?  How does the example of Peter’s mother-in-law invite you to reflect on service and gratitude?

Words of Wisdom: “Even in the face of death, faith can make possible what is humanly impossible. But faith in what? In the love of God. This is the real answer which radically defeats Evil. Just as Jesus confronted the Evil One with the power of the love that came to him from the Father, so we too can confront and live through the trial of illness, keeping our heart immersed in God’s love.”—Pope Benedict XVI

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