Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Back to Being Us (Reflections on Epiphany 5, Year B)

 “Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her and she began to serve them.” (Mark 1:30-31)

 Don’t you feel sorry for Simon’s mother-in-law in our Gospel lesson for Epiphany 5 (Mark 1:29-39)? The poor old gal has just been healed of a fever, and BAM! They expect her to get up and start cooking dinner for her son-in-law, his brother, a couple of fishing buddies, and the weird new rabbi they’ve dragged home with them. Don’t you wonder why it’s always the women who get put upon? I mean, why couldn’t Simon or Andrew slap a few cold cuts on a plate for their guests?

 It’s always tempting to interpret a Biblical text in light of our own experience and values. It might be more helpful, however, to look at this text in light of the world and time in which it was written. You’ll note that Simon lives with his brother and his mother-in-law (The text says nothing about his wife. She could be deceased for all we know as life expectancy in the First Century was as pretty iffy proposition). It wasn’t uncommon back then for extended families—particularly peasant families—to live together in multi-generational and multi household compounds.  Every member of the clan counted, and everyone had their own job to do to keep the place running.[i] If someone fell ill, it was a disruption to the household. For the sick one, it wasn’t just the discomfort of illness but the loss of his or her place in the community. When Jesus restored Simon’s mother-in-law he not only restored her to health but to her purpose and identity within the family.

 One of the rottenest aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the plague of layoffs. Most folks, I feel certain, really like knowing they’ve been of value and have earned their bread. Sitting on the sofa watching Maury Povich—even if you’re getting an unemployment check—has to make you feel pretty lousy. We’ve all heard of guys who’ve worked all their lives, finally retired, and then dropped dead of boredom within six months. Having no purpose really stinks, and it’s pretty darn easy in such a state of limbo to get depressed and lose faith.

 The restoration of purpose and identity might be the link which hooks the Gospel lesson to the First Reading (Isaiah 40:21-31) for Epiphany 5. (I always wonder what the compilers of the Revised Common Lectionary were smoking when they put these readings together!) Isaiah 40 is part of the Exile story. For some reason, we never seem to dwell too much on this narrative even though it takes up a huge chunk of the Bible. All the same, I think this story can resonate with us in our current circumstances. Just to review: Judah got herself whooped by the Babylonians around 598 BC. The conquerors destroyed Jerusalem, tore down the Temple, and kidnapped the Brain Trust. The kings of Judah should’ve seen this coming. The prophets warned them, after all. Nevertheless, they arrogantly weakened their country by ignoring the poor folks while believing God would protect them from the consequences of their own stupidity. The Jews not only lost their country and their center of worship, but they were pretty sure their Most Favored Nation status with God was also in the dumper.

 50 years later, at the time in which Isaiah 40 was composed, things started to look up. The mighty Babylonians were getting their butts kicked by the Persian Empire, and it would only be a matter of time before there was a new sheriff in town who would let the exiles (by this time the kids of the original exiles) go back to Judah and rebuild their nation. The prophet writes this beautiful poem which essentially says, “Don’t you guys know we have a really, REALLY big God—a God so vast and wonderful and creative and powerful we can’t even wrap our brains around who this God is. But this awesome, mind-blowing I AM—this God of the enormity of the universe and the infinitesimal nature of matter, time, and space—knows who you are. This God sees you, and has never forgotten you. If you trust in this God, you will be restored.”

 When I read this lesson and Psalm 147 appointed for this Sabbath observance, I want to challenge everyone to contemplate their idea of God. I have to wonder if some of us still hang on to Sunday School notions of God—some old man up in the clouds who is separate from us. A cosmic Santa Claus dispensing pain or blessing. I’m much more compelled by Isaiah 40:28. God’s ”understanding”—that is, the knowledge we can have of God—is unsearchable. The I AMness of God remains a wonderful mystery, but a mystery worth contemplating. How is God both unimaginably vast and yet intimately close to us? In truth, we can never have a mature discussion of theology until we can come to an agreed-upon definition of the word “God.”

 The message in both of these lessons, I think, is that God is a healer and a restorer. It is God’s purpose to bring us back to ourselves—our best selves. It’s important that we know our exile or our fever are only temporary moments in God’s eternity. We are always seen, we are always known, we are always loved, and we are always called.

 Peace be with you, my friend.

[i] There’s a really good depiction of this first century Middle Eastern compound structure in Sue Monk Kidd’s wonderful novel, The Book of Longings. It’s a pretty good read if you’re interested in the time in which Jesus lived.

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