Just as the first recognized minister in Mark’s gospel is an unnamed woman in a private home, most ministry today continues to be spontaneous, informal, domestic. (Listen.)
I wonder what Simon’s mother-in-law prepared for Jesus and his disciples. Pita bread and hummus? Rice wrapped in vine leaves? Dried figs, almonds, and a soft mound of goats’ cheese? Because when Jesus visits Simon’s house, Simon’s mother-in-law is sick. But although it’s the Sabbath, and although she’s a woman, and although she’s sick, Jesus touches her. She is resurrected; she gets out of bed; and, most Bible translations say, she begins to serve them: and in the Middle East, that always means food.
When I was younger, this story made me mad. I figured that if she was so sick, then Jesus and the disciples should wait upon her! At the very least, they should make their own cup of tea. Then I learned New Testament Greek, and I saw that English Bibles usually translate the Greek verb ‘diakoneo’ as ‘serve’ or ‘provide for’ when it refers to women, but as ‘minister’ when it refers to men; and the same sort of thing happens with the noun, ‘diakonos’. 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 leads her to ministry. But what sort of ministry is this?
Well, the gospel writer doesn’t make it explicit, so we need to look further afield. What we discover is that, in the New Testament, the diakonos is the person who connects need with resource. When widows are hungry, the diakonos finds food and ensures it is served out equally. When people walk dusty roads to get to the dinner table, the diakonos ensures someone kneels down and washes their grimy feet.
This sort of work continues today. For example, when O badly injured his hand, A sat down with him. She asked him what was needed, and set up Gather My Crew so that his family would be cared for while he was recovering. She connected need with resource: she ministered to him.
A diakonos might also notice other needs. For example, when you are telling me your story, I listen for the source of your pain. Then I pray with you and offer words of Scripture which, I hope, speak to your pain and offer hope and healing. I try to connect your need with the resource of the gospel and with the presence of Jesus Christ, who promises to be with us when we are gathered in his name: so this is one way that I minister, or serve, among you.
Going back to the story, we aren’t told how Simon’s mother-in-law connected need with resource for Jesus and the disciples. Perhaps they were hungry, and she indeed served them a meal. But perhaps she did something more interesting.
For the story tells us that she began to minister to them, and then, “that evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons.”
But how did people know that a healer was in town? How did they know to come to Simon’s house? Could it be that his mother-in-law had spent the day going from house to house, visiting the sick and the demon possessed? Could it be that she was identifying their need, connecting it with the resource of Jesus the healer, and inviting them over? Perhaps Simon’s mother-in-law was much more dynamic than we usually think.
This story raises questions about power and gender, and it shines a light on how culture shapes us. The translators who use ‘minister’ to describe men’s actions, and ‘serve’ to describe women’s, are probably unaware that they’re doing this. Instead, their internalized assumptions about gender roles affect how they translate, and we then read and understand, the Bible.
For if we read that only men minister, and women only serve, the way we think about and do ministry can be limited. For example, when Jesus’ disciples are squabbling over who is the greatest, Jesus tells them that they are not to lord it over people, but to serve the last and least (Mark 9:35; 10:43-45). Yet we don’t always connect this teaching with church leadership. Instead, all too often male ministers and diaconates dominate, and the work of women and children who are indeed serving the last and least is rarely honoured as ministry; instead, it is often patronized, overlooked or dismissed.
But if we read that Simon’s mother-in-law is ministering; if we read that the women who travelled with Jesus ministered to his needs and enabled his ministry (Mark 15:41; Luke 8:3); and if we realize that ministry and service are one and the same thing, then our understanding of ministers and ministry is vastly expanded and enriched.
Sure, ministry can be a formal public role, exercised by particular people at scheduled times in certain buildings. But tonight’s story shows that it is so much more.
It shows that significant ministry, ministry which leads the whole city to Jesus, can be spontaneous, unacknowledged, behind-the-scenes, invisible.
It shows that significant ministry can be exercised not just in churches or through special programs, but in people’s homes when those homes are open to the hospitality of Jesus.
And it shows that significant ministry can be performed not just by ordained people, but by people considered so insignificant that we don’t even know their names. Because the first human diakonos in the gospel of Mark is an unnamed woman. Not Simon Peter. Not another of the twelve. Not a priest, a teacher or a scribe; not anyone ordained or chosen by the elite; not an educated person nor a powerful person: but a woman identified only by her relationship to a man.
So if you want to understand what Jesus-centred ministry looks like, look among carers, cleaners and casual workers. Look among unemployed people, retired people, people who are chronically ill. Look for those who connect a family with a casserole; a person with a job; a friend with a listening ear or good news. Look for those who operate informally, domestically, behind the scenes, whose work is rarely acknowledged, but who are connecting need with resource so that others can thrive: for these people are ministers who, like Simon’s mother-in-law, recognize what is happening in Jesus, take the initiative, and act: and in so doing, they are ushering in God’s kingdom here and now.
And look around, also, at this community. What needs do you see? What resources do we have? And how will you, or we, connect them? Ω
For a good example of Jesus-centred ministry, read this story about a cleaner who brought comfort to a dying man. A reflection on Mark 1:29-39 by Alison Sampson for Sanctuary, 7 February 2021 (Year B Proper 15) © Sanctuary 2021. Image credit: Mehdi Sepehri on Unsplash. Thanks to Richard Swanson for the intriguing suggestion that Simon’s mother-in-law may have been going house to house (here).
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