Curing Simon Peter’s mother-in-law.

by K.W. Leslie, 08 July

The first time Jesus cured someone on Sabbath.

Mark 1.29-31 • Matthew 8.14-15 • Luke 4.38-39

Jesus’s best student was probably Simon bar John Jn 1.42 (or Simon bar Jonah; Mt 16.17 Matthew and John don’t sync up) whom Jesus had nicknamed Kefá/“Cephas”/“Peter.” He was picked to be in the Twelve. Whenever the Twelve get listed, Simon came first; Mk 3.16 and when the Twelve first started leading the church after Jesus ascended, we typically read of Simon leading the group. Ac 1.15, 2.14, 5.29 Hence Christians tend to agree Simon was the church’s first leader; and Roman Catholics insist part of the reason the Bishop of Rome leads their church is because he’s Simon’s successor to that job.

But unlike leaders in the Catholic church today, Simon was married. 1Co 9.5 At this point in the gospels, he even had his wife’s mother living with him. For it was Simon’s house Jesus entered, and Simon’s sick mother-in-law whom they asked him to cure. The whole unmarried celibate leadership requirement, drawn from Paul’s comments in 1 Corinthians 7.32-35, didn’t become the standard for a few more centuries. Protestants still largely ignore it… even though, from what I’ve seen among certain Christian leaders who really don’t know how to juggle ministry and family, more of us Protestants oughta consider it. But I digress.

Anywho, let’s get to the story where Jesus cures Simon’s mother-in-law. In Mark and Luke it comes right after—possibly the morning after—Jesus taught in synagogue, and threw out an unclean spirit. Meaning this’d still be Sabbath. So here we have the first instance of Jesus curing disease on Sabbath, a practice of his which profoundly irritated Pharisees. But since it wasn’t in public, no Pharisees were around to know about it, much less bellyache about it.

In Matthew this story comes after the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus came down from the mountain, cured a leper, cured a centurion’s slave (a story which some folks like to mix up with curing the prince’s son, for no good reason), and then stopped by Simon’s and cured his mother-in-law.

I did mention Jesus’s students were teenagers. I also mentioned Jews could marry as soon as they reached adulthood, which’d be age 13 in their culture. Simon likely made good money in the fishing business, and could afford to support a wife, and marry young. Whether his wife came with him as he studied under Jesus, we have no idea. Certain verses imply not. Lk 18.29 But it’s not impossible.

To the story.

Mark 1.29-31 KWL
29 Next, coming out of synagogue, Jesus went to Simon and Andrew’s house with James and John.
30 Simon’s feverish mother-in-law was lying down, and next they spoke to Jesus about her.
31 Coming in, gripping her hand, Jesus raised her.
The fever released her—and she was ministering to them.
Matthew 8.14-15 KWL
14 Jesus came to Simon Peter’s house.
He saw Simon’s feverish mother-in-law had been knocked down,
15 and Jesus held on to her hand and the fever released her.
Getting up, she was ministering to him.
Luke 4.38-39 KWL
38 Rising from synagogue, Jesus entered Simon’s house.
Simon’s mother-in-law was wrapped in a great fever, and they asked Jesus about her.
39 Standing over her, Jesus rebuked the fever. It released her.
Getting up right away, she was ministering to them.

What did Simon know, and when did he know it?

Mark describes this as Simon and Andrew’s house. Not their father’s house, which implies either their father wasn’t living, so his house had passed on to them; or they’d moved out and owned a home jointly. Or Simon owned it, and Andrew stayed with him; “Simon and Andrew’s” doesn’t mean ownership but residency.

Anyway, coming home they found Simon’s mother-in-law with a fever. Literally pyréssusa(n)/“feverish,” a word which derives from pyr/“fire.” Synehoméni pyretó megálo/“wrapped in a great fever,” is how Luke put it. Since Matthew describes her as vevliménin/“knocked down” or “thrown down” with it, we can speculate she’d fallen, hurt herself or broke something, and this was an infection. But we don’t know for certain. Just that she was feverish.

The text makes it sound like they didn’t know about the fever till they got home. And once they knew, they quickly told Jesus, who did something about it.

I’ve heard it preached that Simon knew all about this illness before he’d gone to synagogue with Jesus. Yet he did nothing about it… till he saw Jesus perform that exorcism, and realized his Master could do miracles, and figured he’d try Jesus out on his mother-in-law. It’d make for a dramatic movie, but it’s inconsistent with the scriptures. Jesus had cured the prince’s boy; Simon already knew he could heal.

I’ve also heard it preached the students wrongly assumed Jesus wouldn’t cure the sick on Sabbath… until the exorcism proved otherwise. Again, I don’t buy it. First of all, Sabbath begins at sundown on Friday, and synagogue services begin soon after. If Simon knew his mother-in-law was sick before the service, it means he’d have known before Sabbath, leaving him plenty of time to inform Jesus, and get her cured without breaking Sabbath custom. No Pharisee would’ve objected. (Well, unless Jesus touched her, and as we saw in the case of the prince’s boy, he didn’t need to. But being sick made you ritually unclean, and touching her would’ve made Jesus ritually unclean, so no synagogue for him.)

Now, here’s something which is possible: The students might’ve believed, same as the Pharisees, that it was wrong to cure the sick on Sabbath; that it counts as work. So Simon might’ve known she was a little unwell before synagogue, but figured it’d clear up on its own, or she’d be fine till morning. Only once they came back from synagogue, she was way worse, and something had to be done. In fact part of the reason they had a discussion with Jesus about her, may have been their worry he might break Sabbath.

But as Jesus taught elsewhere, of course you can cure the sick on Sabbath. It’s a good deed. “Don’t work on Sabbath,” Ex 20.10 but good deeds are a valid exception. Mt 12.12 You feed your animals on Sabbath, Lk 13.15 and if they fall down a well, you pull ’em out. Lk 14.5 So why not cure the sick?

There is never a wrong time to ask Jesus for help. We can go to him at any time. Doesn’t matter if we’re in the middle of something, or we think he’s in the middle of something. He’s not unsympathetic. He’ll help.

Most of us understand this, so we don’t figure it’s that profound a teaching. But we forget we’re to be like Jesus: There should never be a wrong time to ask us for help.

So if another Christian—or a pagan; let’s not discriminate—needs prayer or healing, let’s never be too busy to help. The things on our schedule, like getting to work or meetings or church or lunch on time, should never be so important that we can’t help. People can’t always schedule emergencies. When they need it, we need to provide it. Jesus would. We should aspire to do no less.

Ministering to Jesus.

Hearing she needed help, Jesus went to her. Unlike the movies, unlike the “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” myths, Jesus didn’t gently touch her hand and say, “Arise,” and she slowly realized she was healed and slowly sat up. Jesus reached down, grabbed her hand, and pulled her off her bed.

Probably needed to. Maybe she didn’t believe in getting cured on Sabbath. Maybe she lacked faith in her son-in-law’s new rabbi. Regardless, Jesus didn’t bother to do much more than pull her out of bed, and she was cured.

The last thing the gospels note is Simon’s mother-in-law diikónei/“was ministering” to them. (Or, in Matthew, just Jesus.) Commentators imagine she, in gratitude, decided to make them dinner or something. The NLT actually renders it, “She prepared a meal for them.” Mk 1.31 NLT

Massive problem with that idea: It was Sabbath, remember? You can’t work. Can’t light a fire, Ex 35.3 therefore can’t make ’em dinner. This whole no-work thing isn’t just a Pharisee custom we’re free to violate, like the whole stigma against healing the sick. It’s a command. Any food they ate on Sabbath had to have been prepared before sundown. If it wasn’t, they’d have to settle for whatever was in the pantry.

Now, if Simon’s mother-in-law was irreligious (and no Pharisee), she could break Sabbath like crazy, and bake them a fish. But after personally experiencing the grace of God like that—getting healed from a fever by one of the LORD’s rabbis—I can’t imagine her assuming she could willy-nilly break the LORD’s commands like that.

The word for “was ministering” is in an imperfect tense. In other words, it’s not a completed task: She didn’t minister, then stop. She was ministering. So the way I interpret this is from that point onward, she took care of Jesus and his students. She became one of their supporters.

Back then, rabbis got their financial support from their students and their families. In fact it was common practice for the students’ mothers to sorta adopt the rabbi, and take care of his needs as if he was a family member. Cook him meals, make him shirts, wash his laundry. And as a fringe benefit they got to listen to the rabbi teach. That is, if the rabbi permitted—and Jesus didn’t only permit this, but considered them his students too. Lk 10.39-42

So Simon’s mother-in-law may very well have become one of the first of the women to follow Jesus. And you thought when he was gathering students, he only got four.