Women’s Work: Ministry or Service?

Listen here.

I wonder what Simon’s mother-in-law prepared for Jesus and his disciples. Pita bread and hommous? Rice wrapped in vine leaves? Dried figs, almonds, and a soft mound of goats’ cheese? When Jesus visits Simon’s house, Simon’s mother-in-law is sick in bed. But although it’s the Sabbath, and although she’s a woman, and although she’s sick, Jesus touches her. She is healed; she gets out of bed; and she begins to serve them: and in the Middle East, that always means food. 

When I was younger, this story made me furious. I figured that, if she was sick, then Jesus and the disciples should wait upon her! At the very least, they could have made their own cup of tea. Then I learned New Testament Greek, and I saw that English Bibles usually translate ‘diakoneo’ and its other word forms as ‘serve’ when it refers to women, and ‘minister’ when it refers to men. But minister, deacon, servant, waiter: they’re all the same word in Greek—and so I realised that the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law led her to ministry. But what sort of ministry was it?

‘Diakoneo’ is used only four times in the Gospel of Mark: once, to refer to the angels who minister to Jesus in the wilderness; once, to refer to Simon’s mother-in-law; once, to the women at the cross; and once, to Jesus himself. In other words, Simon’s mother-in-law is in good company: for, in Mark’s Gospel it is only women, angels, and Jesus who know how to minister.

Why is this? Well, now that I am older and run my own household, I have learned that it’s a privilege to be able to offer hospitality, and to serve others. Simon’s mother-in-law was not turned into a waitress or a fawning servant. Instead, she was restored to her proper position, the host to her guests: a role of great dignity and meaning; yet a role which requires willing self-giving service. For that is what ministry is: willing self-giving service—and it’s something that women are often trained to do.

So the challenge for those of us who want to be like Jesus, particularly for men and other privileged people, is this: to give up power and status, get down on our knees, and wash someone else’s feet; to use our gifts and opportunities not for our own advancement, but to care for others. For that is the ministry to which we are all called: free and wholehearted service, so that God can work through us in God’s mission of healing and reconciliation.

Our kids are growing up in a world which tells them to reach for the stars, but this is not necessarily God’s call. God’s call is to serve the world in the way God needs. This means that some may be called to academic and professional excellence, but others may be called to downward mobility and voluntary poverty; some may be called to powerful public roles, while others may be called to go deep in family and neighbourhood; while still others may become wandering poets, travelling minstrels, or holy women or men. And while we don’t yet know what each child’s ministry will be, we do know that each of them needs to find it: the calling which was etched onto their heart before they were born, and which they will fulfil through faithful service. And if tonight’s story is any guide, this ministry, this service, will emerge from an encounter with Jesus: for it was through such an encounter that Simon’s mother-in-law was healed, and got out of bed, and began to minister.

So our job is this: to provide an environment which maximises the chances of an encounter with Jesus through Word, Table, and other people; to love these kids, pray for them, and watch out for them; and to be available when they need to wrestle with who they are, who they are becoming, who God is calling them to be—and whether or not they want to accept the invitation.

This is the beginning of a new school year. Let us hope that school and church and home together can help all our kids grow in wisdom and stature and in favour with God and people; and let us hope that each child will gradually discover their calling and the fullness of life which this brings. To assist them on their journey, and to remind the grownups of their role, we will shortly bless our children for the school year. But first, we will stand and sing; and then I will invite all children and young people to go and stand with someone special—mum, dad, or someone else—so that they can help bless you. Ω

A reflection on Mark 1:29-39 by Alison Sampson given to Sanctuary, 4 February 2018 (B15). Image shows Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn 1606-1669. Christ Healing Peter’s Mother-in-Law. Found here.

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