A gospel reading with the words 'Simon's Mother-in-Law' is just too good to resist, isn't it? Many of you know my mother-in-law, Jan...and a sweeter person you couldn't wish to meet. But I just can't help laughing when I hear some of those old mother-in-law jokes. You know the ones...
"I haven't spoken to my mother in law for 18 months. I don't like to interrupt her" (Ken Dodd)
"We all know when my mother in law is coming up the path. The mice start throwing themselves at the traps." (Les Dawson)
"I just got back from a pleasure trip...I took my mother in law to the airport" (Henry Youngman)
and my all time favourite...
"My mother in law threatened me one day...she said 'I'm going to dance on your grave'. I said, 'I hope so...I'm going to be buried at sea' "(Les Dawson)
These ten verses of Mark's Gospel, however, have a very different attitude to mother in laws! Did you notice, during the reading, that after Jesus healed her, Simon's mother-in-law set about serving her guests? Reading that with modern eyes, we might wonder what's going on. It's almost as though Jesus healed the woman so that she would go and get him a cup of tea! But of course, nothing could be further from the truth. In 1st Century Palestine, the privilege of serving an honoured guest was one which was given to the senior woman of the house. It was counted a right, an honour and a privilege. Simon's wife might have served the guests... especially after her mother had been so ill. But clearly, serving guests was what her mother wanted to do, as soon as she was well. It was a matter of honour, not servitude.
Have you noticed how often Jesus' healing miracles are about more than just restoring someone to health? As soon as she is healed, Simon's mother in law is immediately restored to her position of honour in the house. When Jesus heals someone, the healing doesn't just deal with physical symptoms. It also, invariably, has the effect of bringing people from one state of being to another. Jesus seeks to restore not just health, but, as we thought about a couple of weeks ago, life in all its fullness (John 10.10).
In 1st Century Palestine, sick people were often treated as though their illness was their fault. Based on some ideas that were expressed in the Old Testament, people believed that illness was the result of some sin or other - either something done by the sick person, or perhaps by their parents. Sickness was seen as a punishment for sin...and sinners needed to be shunned and excluded from society. Kept on the margins...reduced to begging.
Jesus, however, sought to break down that idea. He understood the causes of sickness to be far more complex. In the story of the paralysed man, let down through the roof to be healed, (Luke 5) Jesus plays with these ideas in public. First he says to the paralysed man "Your sins are forgiven" - demonstrating that he had the divine power to forgive sins. But the man still lies on his stretcher, while Jesus disputes with the religious leaders whether or not it makes any difference to forgive sins, or to give healing. Then, Jesus turns to the man "I tell you...get up, pick up your stretcher, and go home". It was Jesus' words of healing which restored the man to health - not the forgiveness of sins (although that was freely offered too).
Sickness did not, in Jesus clear view, arise out of sin. Sickness is not a punishment for sin...although it can certainly arise out of human sin in general...human greed, human refusal to pursue wisdom, science and medicine. After being healed by Jesus, all people are able to be restored to human society. Simon's mother-in-law is restored to her position as the senior woman of her household, and given the high privilege of serving her important guest. Lepers are restored to their friends and family. The blind are no longer reduced to begging at the side of the road. This, for Jesus, is one of the signs of the Kingdom. It's an echo of the words of his Mother in the Magnificat..."he has filled the hungry with good things...he has exalted the humble and meek".
Interestingly, in these days when we are far more aware of some of the causes of disease, we are in danger of giving in to the same blame-culture to that which Jesus tried to combat. Now that medical science has given us reason to believe that low weight, moderate exercise, and the eating of 'five a day' are the cure for all ailments, we tend to blame people for their illness.
How often do we hear - or even, how often have you and I said, "It must be her fault. She hasn't looked after herself”. “I told her she should have stopped drinking, or smoking, or eating, or going out without a coat on...(or whatever!)." We quickly blame people for their illness - attributing it to a sin on their part. When we do that, we fail to understand, unlike Jesus, that the causes of sickness are far more complex.
Our society is driven by massive marketing, consumerism, and the easy availability of sugar, alcohol and fat. We live highly pressurised, stressed-out lives as we desperately to keep up with everyone around us. How easy it is for us to point to someone else's illness and say "It's their fault...they didn't exercise enough - or they over-did their exercise. They ate too much...or they didn't eat enough." We seem to take a perverse delight in blaming people for their sickness...rather than understanding that people live they way they do because human life is messy, and living that way helps them to cope.
Jesus' response to the messiness of human suffering was profound. First, he turned over the idea that sickness was linked to personal sin. But secondly, he also embraced human suffering itself. By taking all that the society of his day could throw at him, even to the point of death on a Roman instrument of torture, Jesus entered fully into the messiness of human life. This is, I think, part of what it means to say that Jesus took the sins of the world onto himself. He took the messiness of human suffering onto the Cross. He allowed human messiness it to overwhelm him to the point of dying because of it. Human messiness, human weirdness, human suffering, human pride, human greed...all of it was nailed onto the Cross with Jesus.
And then Jesus transcended it. The story of the Resurrection is the story of how God has the power to transcend and overcome all human messiness. Through the Resurrection, God offers us a powerful symbol of the way life can be. New life - life lived to the full - puts suffering and messiness in the past. Notice how, in the days after the resurrection, Jesus offers forgiveness even to Peter who denied him three times. There is no room for blame and finger pointing in the Resurrection Kingdom. Instead, blame and finger pointing give way to forgiveness and understanding. Peter who denied Jesus (and therefore contributed to his suffering) was offered forgiveness, and a job to do ("Feed my sheep"). Like his own mother-in-law, Peter finds himself restored through healing and forgiveness to his proper role in society.
By the way, "My mother in law fell down a wishing well last week. I was amazed. I never knew they worked" (Les Dawson)
Sorry...couldn't resist that one.
So what might we take from this story, and from Jesus' attitudes towards sickness, and from his attitude towards the messiness of human lives?
Of all people, Christians should understand that sin - human messiness - is endemic.
And of all people...Christians, like Christ, should be willing to offer forgiveness and healing, whenever sin is encountered. We are people who should understand that everyone messes up - because we ourselves mess up, all the time.
My friends, I have to tell you something. I love this church, and I love its people. I love the commitment you have to supporting each other when you are sick, or to fundraising, or to working in the Cafe, or singing in the choir. I love the way that many of you reach out to those who struggle to make sense of their lives in our community. I want us to be the kind of community which accepts, unreservedly, without any surprise whatsoever, that all human beings are messy. Like Jesus, I want us to be those who simply understand that none of us is perfect. Every single one of us is striving to be better, but we will often fall, often stumble, often mess up. When we watch someone else stumble, I want us to be the kind of community which says to itself "before I criticise that person, I need to walk mile in their shoes".
I want us to be the kind of community which continually, constantly, offers forgiveness, healing and understand to each other...and indeed to ourselves. Let's be the kind of community which offers understanding to those whose choices in life - fed by all sorts of unimaginable stresses - lead them to make, what seem to us to be strange decisions. Let's be those who, when we find someone falling over, reach down and pick them up. Let's be those who get on with being the kind of loving, understanding community that Christ calls us to be.
There is no room in Jesus' Kingdom for blame. Jesus didn't blame Simon's mother-in-law for her illness, nor did he blame all the sick and the lame who came to him for help. He reached out, and touched them with love. He offered her healing, and restoration to the role she was called to play in life.
And he calls us to do the same.