A few weeks ago, one of the widows of our congregation, left Florida to live in an assisted living facility near her family. Each year, widows and widowers who live here in the south move back north to be with their families because they can no longer live independently. Most try not to be a burden on their families, and at the same time try to stay out of nursing homes as long as they can.
I imagine that widows of Jesus’ time would have been no different than widows of our time—except that there weren’t any nursing homes in Jesus’ time. They are grateful to have a place to be if they cannot be independent.
In our Gospel story, Simon’s mother-in-law is not named. For simplicity in telling her story, let’s call her Esther. She is living with her daughter and son-in-law. We can make the assumption that she is a widow, but we don’t know that for sure. Neither do we know anything about her daughter, Simon’s wife. What we do know is that Esther fulfills the role of taking care of Simon and his brother Andrew and presumably their children.
We also know that in that first century culture, it was expected that women took care of the household, cooking, cleaning, laundry, serving, child-raising. Women who could not do these tasks became dependent upon their family, or homeless if the family was unwilling to support them.
We don’t know much about Esther’s illness, except that she had a fever. It was serious enough an illness to send her to bed. When I get so sick that I can’t go about my normal activities, and have to call in sick and go to bed, I feel ashamed. I hate to not be the dependable, strong person I usually am, and it makes me cry because I can’t do everything I expect of myself.
I imagine Esther felt the same. Probably even worse when Simon and Andrew walked in and told her they brought a guest home. If you were home sick, how would you feel if your family brought home a guest?! “Hey, Mom, guess who’s coming to dinner?” ...
So, when Jesus healed Esther, she felt wonderful. The text doesn’t say, but if she were near death, then the healing was even more miraculous. As a result, Esther felt reborn. She hopped out of bed and got back to work serving her family and their guest.
The Greek word for serving here is “diakoneo;” it’s where we get the word deacon. It has the sense of a calling to serve. Esther’s calling was to take the best possible care of her family and any others. As a result of this healing, the entire city of Capernaum and surrounding areas learned of Jesus’ ability to heal, and he was swamped with people wanting to be healed.
...There are times when we need to give care to others. For many of us, this is most of the time. We enjoy offering food and in-kind items and cash to help people in need. It feels good to be the care-giver, most of the time. Boy Scouts learn that they should always be prepared, and many of their badges are earned by offering assistance to others. Last night at the spaghetti supper, two or three scouts took such good care of us, they watched our every forkful, ready to refill our glasses, clear away our salad dishes, bring us a plate of spaghetti, and then dessert. The boys took very good care of us.
We enjoy being the care givers. We are often not so crazy about being the care receiver, because it implies that we are not 100% self-sufficient, and our culture has taught us that we should at almost all costs be self-sufficient. Like my response to getting sick, we are ashamed and reluctant to ask for help. For example:
When our eyes begin to fail, we become homebound because we can’t drive; or we do what my in-laws used to do. Dad had macular degeneration and could not see what was right ahead of him. Mom had fibromyalgia, and couldn’t drive because driving hurt her body too much. So Dad would drive, and Mom would watch out for things Dad might not see on the road. In that way, they could get to doctors and grocery stores without always calling on their son Don who lived about 20 minutes away.
Football is often a seen as a game of stars, of key individual players who make the headlines. But football is a team sport, involving both giving and receiving. It doesn’t matter how well Eli Manning throws the ball if Victor Cruz is surrounded by Patriots. It takes teamwork to make the way clear for the offense to score. And it takes teamwork to make the way clear for Vince Wilfork and Andre Carter to prevent the Giants from scoring. If team members don’t give and receive help, a football game becomes a free-for-all, and neither team wins.
Our lives as Christians should be like teamwork, with a combination of giving and receiving. As humans, but especially as Christians, we want to give, we want to serve and help others. Our role model is Jesus, who entered our world not as the divine, almighty one, but as the humble man willing to be crucified on our behalf. He began his ministry by healing sick people and doing spiritual battle with the demons of the evil one.
Most of us are not called to heal the sick or cast out demons. Our care-giving is usually much simpler. We are called to offer rides to those who can’t drive; take meals to those who can’t cook; feed those who are hungry; visit those who are sick. We are also called to accept rides from those who can drive; accept meals from those who can cook; receive food when we are hungry; and welcome visitors when we are sick.
We are called to be teammates with Jesus, giving and receiving care in the name of Jesus, honoring him with our service and with our acceptance of the service of others, just as Esther, Peter’s mother-in-law did. This week, I invite you to consider how you care for others, and how you receive the care others offer to you. What feelings do you have when you care for others? What feelings do you have when others care for you?
Please pray with me. Jesus, you healed so many in your time on earth, but you did not heal everyone. You left us to do the caring in your name. Help us to see joy in serving in your name. Help us also to be willing to receive the care that is offered to us, by you, and in your name. Amen