Last week I read a newspaper interview with an economics professor who claims that an increase in charitable tax subsidies might have a positive economic impact on health care costs for individuals. His suggestion is based on recently published psychological research.
His research indicated a correlation between charitable giving and one’s physical and psychological health. According to the research, people who engage regularly in charitable giving report higher degrees of physical health, and greater personal happiness, than the general population. As the researcher is an economics professor, he gave some thought to the possibility that increased tax deductions for charitable giving might have economic benefits (i.e., decreased health care costs), beyond the direct impact of the charitable donations.
The evidence for a correlation between charitable giving and decreased health care costs is open to debate, but one conclusion of the research has empirical validity. People who are generous, and who show compassion to those around them, are much more likely to have happy and fulfilling lives than people who don’t act charitably. I mention this interview to you because it sheds light on today’s Gospel reading.
This passage of Mark’s Gospel relates events that occurred at the close of the first day of Jesus’ ministry. After teaching in the Synagogue in Capernaum he went to Simon Peter’s house. (Mark 1:29) Simon Peter’s mother-in-law was seriously ill, and Jesus healed her. (Mark 1:31).
The Gospel says that, “the fever left her, and she waited on them.” (Mark 1:31) The statement means that Simon Peter’s mother-in-law got up from her bed, after having been quite ill, and served a meal to Jesus and his companions. I’m sure that mothers-in-law everywhere complain loudly when they hear these words. We might be tempted to think that Jesus was being inconsiderate or selfish by letting the old woman serve him a meal, but this would be to misunderstand the message of the Gospel.
This is an example of the limitation of translating from one language to another. The Lectionary uses an accurate translation of the Scriptural text; it says, “she waited on them.” The text says, literally, that she served them a meal. However, an accurate translation doesn’t communicate fully the meaning of the statement. The element of meaning that gets omitted in an accurate translation is the meaning of the verb in the phrase. In Koine Greek the verb meant to “wait on a table,” that is, to be a table server (as in a restaurant). In the vocabulary of Christianity, however, the verb has a very different meaning; it is the root of the word “Deacon.”
Deacons were ministers chosen by the Church in Jerusalem to look after the material needs of the disadvantaged widows in the community. (Acts 6:1-6) “To serve at table,” in Christian communities, came to refer to a ministry of charity toward community members. If we were to try to communicate more fully the meaning of Mark 1:31 we might paraphrase the text, and say, “she ministered to them.”
The Gospels were written in order to communicate instructions about discipleship. The fact that Simon Peter’s mother-in-law served a meal to Jesus and his companions is not a statement about social norms or gender roles; it is a statement about discipleship. Jesus raised up (hinting at Resurrection), Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. Her response to Jesus’ healing gift was to minister to those in need. The message is a familiar one: those who have been raised up in Baptism give evidence of their faith by (among other things), ministering to one another.
The economist’s interview that I mentioned above offers a parallel to the message of the Gospel. The economist’s research found that generous behavior enhances one’s quality of life. The Gospel makes a similar statement, but comes more directly to the point. When Jesus raised up Simon Peter’s mother-in-law from her illness he restored her to her rightful place in the family household (in Jesus’ culture, women had authority over household affairs). Her response to being raised up was to serve.
In fact, the three healing miracles that are contained in this section of Mark’s Gospel are all examples of restoration to normal relationships. The man who had an unclean spirit was restored to ritual purity. (Mark 1:21-28) Simon Peter’s mother-in-law was restored to her rightful place in the family. (Mark 1:29-31) The leper who was cleansed on the following day was restored to his previous status in society. (Mark 1:40-45)
The first healing miracle was a demonstration of the power of Jesus’ words. The third was an example of someone who spread the word about Jesus. The second healing miracle (of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law), explains the other two; she was the first to imitate Jesus who “did not come to be served but to serve.” (Mark 10:45)
Simon Peter’s mother-in-law gives us an example of the life of a disciple. As a consequence of being restored to her previous good health, she ministered to Jesus and his companions. To be a disciple is to imitate Jesus by ministering to those around us. Faithful discipleship, and a well-lived life, are made manifest in generous and charitable service to those in need.
At Mass this weekend you will be asked to make a pledge to the Annual Pastoral Appeal (APA). The Annual Pastoral Appeal supports Diocesan ministries to children, the poor, prisoners, young singles, married couples and many more. For more information, please watch the APA video. Thanks to your generosity All Saints met its goal for last year’s appeal. Our goal for 2015 is $95,506. You can make a pledge at the Diocese’s Online Giving site. Please direct your donation to the 2015 Annual Pastoral Appeal for All Saints Parish. Thank you.