You may have heard that there was a controversy about the choice of Time Magazine’s ‘Person / Persons of the Year’ 2020. Time Magazine chose to put then President elect Joe Biden and Vice-President elect Kamala Harris on the cover and declare them ‘Persons of the Year’. Which is not an unusual choice: Donald Trump for example was ‘Person of the Year’ 2016. For most of its history, Time Magazine designated influential politicians, economic and religious leaders as ‘People of the Year.’
But back to the controversy. There were many who thought that health care professionals should have been Time Magazine’s ‘Persons of the Year’ – those who’ve put their lives, their own health and their sanity on the line as they’ve battled the COVID-19 pandemic, desperately trying to save lives, selflessly serving others. To be fair, health care professionals receive an honorable mention and, together with Dr. Anthony Fauci, are acknowledged ‘Guardians of the Year’; but they don’t get top billing.
But maybe that’s not surprising. We live in a celebrity culture. There is general admiration for the wealthy, the beautiful, the powerful, social media celebrities and influencers. There even is a tendency to idolize – which literally means to make an idol, a false God – of certain people.
And while we sometimes show appreciation for the services that are rendered unto us – like we do for those in health care right now – we generally overlook those who make sure that life functions each and every day. We even like to criticize and attack them when things are not the way we want them to be. We often look down on those who serve us and society on the most basic levels, maybe also because the majority of them – those working in gastronomy, hospitality, in beauty related and janitorial services, in agriculture and food processing industries, and as caregivers – are recent immigrants. Nothing shows our underappreciation more than that we let such people fall through the cracks in a crisis as we experience right now as we are still trying to manage the COVID-19 pandemic.
In general, we don’t give those who render services the credit, respect, and pay they deserve. In general, service is underrated and underappreciated. Which, I think, is quite odd, since we supposedly live in a country based on Christian values.
And what is more Christian than to serve – to serve God and our neighbor?
Over that last weeks, our gospel lessons were taken from the first chapter of the gospel of Mark. Today, we are still in that first chapter. Everything happens rapidly: John appears, baptizes Jesus, who then is driven into the wilderness and tempted by Satan – but right after that, Jesus rolls up his sleeves and gets to work. He calls the first men to be his disciples, teaches in the synagogue in Capernaum near the Sea of Galilee, and performs an exorcism there – albeit on the Sabbath Day, which is quite problematic and will cause him some trouble down the road. But Jesus came to serve, under all circumstances, and isn’t deterred by laws or customs.
And this is where today’s gospel lesson sets in. Still on the Sabbath, Jesus and the handful of disciples he’s called so far enter the house of Simon Peter. Now hospitality was a big deal in Jesus’ days. The expectation would have been that Jesus and the other guests are being served so that they may relax – especially on the Sabbath Day.
But the story takes an unexpected turn. At once, we hear, at once Jesus is told about Peter’s mother-in-law, who is sick in bed with a fever. And I wonder why he is being told this. Are those people telling Jesus expecting him to heal this woman? They should know better than to bother Jesus on the Sabbath Day. But then, maybe they witnessed the exorcism in the synagogue and think, ‘Well, if Jesus healed that man on the Sabbath, maybe he will heal this women as well?’
Or were they apologizing that the matriarch of the house wasn’t able to greet Jesus and the other guests, as would have been her duty and honor?
We don’t know. What we know is that Jesus doesn’t hesitate, but heals her. And then she gets up and serves him and the other guests.
When I was younger, this story always irked me. That’s so typical, isn’t it? Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law so that she can get up and just resume her duties in the kitchen, serving the guys. How sexist!
But there is much more to the situation. The most senior woman in the house had a place and role of honor. It was her honor to serve any guest – especially an honorable guest like Jesus. This honor was taken away from her as she fell ill.
And note: Jesus ends up serving her. And, again, breaks all the rules and codes of proper conduct by doing so. Remember, it is the Sabbath Day, a day on which no unnecessary work was permitted – and the illness of Peter’s mother-in-law doesn’t sound like a life-threatening condition that requires immediate action. Another big no-no: he touches her. No male was supposed to touch a woman who wasn’t part of his family. Jesus most likely could have just healed the woman by saying, as he so often does, ‘Get up, your faith has made you well,’ or something along those lines. But, no: he reaches out to her. He connects with her. He shows special tenderness and care.
And what Jesus does is more than just restore the woman’s physical health: he also restores her status and honor as the matron of the house. He restores her dignity. He embraces her as part of his family, which transcends blood lines and association by marriage.
And then? Listen closely: ‘Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.’ She began to serve them. The Greek word used here denotes an action that is repeated or continued. This is about more than serving Jesus dinner once. And this also becomes clear in the word that is used here for serving: diekonei. The German speakers among you may detect a quite familiar word here: Diakonie. In the English, this Greek word can still be found in deacon, deaconess, or diaconal minister.
The origins of this Greek word are somewhat unclear, though the prevailing theory is that it comes from a word meaning ‘to run errands’ – to be more precise, ‘to run errands on someone else’s behalf’. A servant who runs errands for their master or mistress is someone who can be trusted, someone with integrity, someone who receives a mandate – and authority – from their master. People wouldn’t mess with such a servant who acted on their master’s behalf. Such a servant would be treated with respect that befits their master’s status.
And this kind of service is very clearly distinguished from another kind of service in the Greek language – the truly subservient and menial kind.
Peter’s mother-in-law is not just a handmaiden – our gospel indicates that, on that day, in her house, she also becomes a follower of Jesus – the first of many who remain anonymous – and continues to serve as his follower, with a mandate and authority. By the way, this woman is the first person mentioned in the synoptic gospels to serve Jesus in this capacity.
It is also of interest that in the gospels, Jesus repeatedly talks about himself as the one sent by the heavenly father to serve as a ‘diakonos’. Christ came to serve. This also becomes clear in today’s gospel. He serves Peter’s mother-in-law by healing her. And she, in response, starts to serve him – and others. In her case, it’s ‘take and give’. And this could be a motto for our Christian existence and life: take – and give.
Christ still serves us today, teaching us, touching us, healing us, forgiving us, redeeming us, enfolding us in God’s grace and mercy, making us part of the vast community of saints. We receive over-abundantly.
But the example of Peter’s mother-in-law teaches us that this is not where the buck stops. Like this woman, we have a call, a mandate, and, yes, authority from Christ to act, to serve others, on his behalf. We take – and then we pass on what we have so graciously received. We become the ones who teach, who touch, who heal, who forgive and embrace others in the name of God’s grace and mercy – those who serve God and neighbor.
To be a servant is honorable, right, and good. And nothing teaches us humility and love better than service to others.
In my opinion, service is the Christian value no. 1. Though service usually isn’t named when the rather vague and even hollow term ‘Christian values’ is used in this country – especially in politics.
It may be that we as society have to relearn this value. Appreciate it. Embody it, live it –because the tendency seems to be going in the direction of reckless self-fulfillment and self-righteousness. We are part of a society where many strive for fame and fortune, thinking it below them to serve others, forgetting and ignoring the needs of the vulnerable, disregarding or even disdaining those who serve us each and every day.
Christ looks to us to model service – and to model appreciation for any kind of service we are rendered. To honor those who serve. To let our light – which merely reflects God’s light – so shine that others may see it and find hope through it.
So thank you for your service to God and neighbor, in whichever capacity you’ve done it.
And thanks be to God for his service rendered to us and all.
This post is also available in: German