By Robert MacSwain
Many people have recently reengaged with the adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson through the BBC series Sherlock, which sets Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic stories in a contemporary setting. This morning’s Gospel lesson reminds me of a famous Sherlock Holmes story that has not – or at least not yet – been adapted in the current series, namely “The Adventure of Silver Blaze.” In this story Holmes solves the mystery of a stolen racehorse and its murdered trainer not because of any positive evidence, but because of negative evidence. In other words, the mystery was solved not because of what was there, but what wasn’t there – namely the “dog that did not bark.”
This morning I likewise want to focus not on what is in the Gospel lesson, but what isn’t there, namely the name of Simon’s mother-in-law:
Now Simon’s mother-in-law lay sick with a fever, and immediately they told [Jesus] of her. And he came and took her by the hand and lifted her up, and the fever left her; and she served them.
Aside from the miraculous healing, what could be less mysterious than that? A woman lies sick in bed but then, when she feels better, she gets up and returns to her normal routine of feeding and taking care of others, particularly the men. That’s just what mothers-in-law do, isn’t it? Especially Jewish mothers-in-law. Nothing mysterious at all.
And, within the context of this gospel lesson as a whole, this event is hardly the most significant, for the main action of the passage is what happens next, when everyone else comes to Jesus for healing, and when Jesus goes out and prays by himself the following morning, and is found by the awestruck male disciples, and then says dramatically, ‘Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also; for that is why I came out.’ And so they head off into history.
But what is mysterious about this brief story involving Simon’s mother-in-law – a story which is also found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke – is what it tells us without telling us. I have already mentioned that we are not told the woman’s name – she’s just Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. But if Simon Peter had a mother-in-law, he must have had a wife. And, if he had a wife, then it is at least probable that he also had children. But, amazingly, like the mother-in-law, his wife’s name is not given here either – indeed, she’s not even mentioned directly herself, but only inferred from the mother-in-law. And no children are mentioned at all.
Aside from this brief, inferred non-mention in Mark and the parallels in Matthew and Luke, the existence of Simon Peter’s wife is only acknowledged one other time in the whole New Testament – and her name is not provided there either. If all we knew about here was from the Gospels, the natural assumption would be that she had died, and that Simon Peter was a widower, and his mother-in-law was still living with him. But then we also have the mysterious evidence in First Corinthians, Chapter 9.
In this chapter, just before the verses assigned as our epistle lesson this morning, Paul is defending his status as an apostle and the unusual way he exercises his apostolic ministry. Unlike most of the other apostles, Paul is single and supports himself by skilled labor rather than through donations from the Church. Because of this difference, apparently some of the Corinthians think that Paul is not a ‘real’ apostle. In his letter, he does not criticize the lifestyle of the other apostles, but – using the Aramaic form of Simon Peter’s name, ‘Cephas’ – he nevertheless compares himself to them and asks:
Do we not have the right to our food and drink? Do not we have the right to be accompanied by a wife, as the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas? Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living?
In other words, Paul wants the Corinthians to know that his singleness and external work have not been imposed on him from financial necessity, or by other authorities in the Church, but have been freely chosen for the sake of the gospel. Along the way, however, he reveals that some of the other apostles were married, perhaps even travelled with their wives, and were financially supported by the Church. And crucially, he names Simon Peter as one of those who currently has a wife – so she’s not dead after all. Paul says, in effect, ‘This is my right as well, but I choose not to receive it.’
Now, why is all this significant? Why comment on Simon Peter’s wife and mother-in-law when their presence in the New Testament is so negligible? Why not just focus on what the text itself actually focuses on, rather than what is mentioned only in passing? What’s the mystery here?
The hullabaloo has now faded somewhat, but I’m sure many of you remember the stir caused by Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code, and the inevitable Hollywood film based on it, which claimed that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, and that their marriage was covered up by the early Church in order to spread and maintain the false belief that Jesus was divine.
Just for the record, no, I don’t think that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, or to anyone else, for that matter. However, a secondary point made by Dan Brown, which I do find more plausible, is that in general the New Testament has indeed, for some reason, downplayed the actual role of women in the life of Christ and the early Church – including the wives of the Apostles such as Peter and James the brother of the Lord. And this is something you can learn from reputable scholars, without the dubious baggage of Dan Brown.
Thus, as the immediate heirs of a faith that gave us the names of Sarah, Hagar, Rebekah, Rachel, Leah, Miriam, Zipporah, Rahab, Deborah, Ruth, Hannah, Bathsheba, Esther, and many other Old Testament women, how odd and remarkable is it that the writers of the New Testament would fail to give us even the name of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, let alone his wife? It is indeed extraordinary: as extraordinary as the guard dog not barking in that Sherlock Holmes story.
For – although I don’t think Jesus was married – Simon Peter was, and yet if it were not for these two brief allusions, mentioned only in passing, we would not know Simon Peter was married, despite all the many other stories about and descriptions of him in the New Testament. For, aside from these two mentions, the existence of these particular New Testament women is never even acknowledged.
But this silence – the non-barking dog, if you will – if we don’t notice it, can give us an inaccurate picture of what it actually meant for the disciples to follow Jesus. When Jesus called Simon Peter from his nets and said, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people,’ Jesus didn’t just call him from his work and house – he also called him from his wife, and perhaps from his children as well. And Simon Peter went.
So, nine chapters later, when Simon Peter says to Jesus in Mark 10.28, ‘we have left everything and followed you,’ that indicates a far more radical and disruptive commitment than we normally recognize. And not just for Simon Peter, but also for his wife—for what was she doing while he was wandering around Galilee with Jesus for three years?
Particularly if she had children to raise as well? What did they do? How did they eat? Where did they live? We don’t know – the texts don’t tell us – they are not interested in that aspect of the story – their focus is elsewhere. But we can be certain that Simon Peter’s commitment to Christ was shared by his wife, if only vicariously, and perhaps even grudgingly, by the very fact that they were separated for the extent of Christ’s earthly ministry.
Now let me be clear. Unlike Dan Brown, I am not here criticizing the New Testament authors for their lack of interest in these specific women – although I do find it surprising and worth further reflection. I’m not claiming a conspiracy. I’m simply pointing out that if Simon Peter and at least some of the other disciples were married, it brings out a whole new dimension of what it actually meant for them to follow Christ – what it meant for them, and what it meant for their barely mentioned families. The arrival of Christ created massive confusion. It disrupted work and marriages and households, it caused chaos and consternation, it turned their whole world upside-down. The normal order of things was suspended, for the Kingdom of God was at hand.
We may now think, all that is over. And it was a long time ago. Things have returned to normal, and we can carry on as before. Thank goodness. But if we believe that, then we have not understood our Gospel lesson, and the silent but faithful witness of Simon Peter’s nameless mother-in-law. Moreover, and more to the point, if we believe that things have gone back to normal then we don’t understand why monastic orders of women and men exist. Orders of women like the Community of St. Mary and orders of men like the Order of the Holy Cross, exist precisely because of the radical disruption Jesus brought to the natural order of things.
But there’s another mystery here as well. New Testament scholars will tell you that Mark is very hard on the male disciples. He presents them in a negative light; they are thick and slow to understand. Despite all Jesus’ teaching and time with them, they just don’t ‘get it’. And this is partly because Jesus wants who he is to be kept secret. But unlike the men, Simon Peter’s mother-in-law does get it—she solves the mystery: ‘For when [Jesus] came and took her by the hand and lifted her up…the fever left her; and she served them.’
Even though we don’t know her name, Simon’s mother-in-law exemplifies what it means to follow Christ, for after she is healed, she then serves. May we, who have been delivered from the fever of this world, also be given the grace to serve others in Christ’s name. Amen.
The Rev. Robert MacSwain is assistant professor of theology and Christian ethics at the School of Theology at the University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee.