When Jesus came into Peter’s house, he saw Peter’s mother-in-law lying in bed with a fever. He touched her hand and the fever left her, and she got up and began to wait on him. Matt. 8:14-15 (NIV)
I’ve blown by these verses many times on my way to “the good stuff.” In the next paragraph, Jesus casts out the demons of “many” and heals “all” the sick–a really big night in Capernaum. But these two verses seem like a trivial introduction, maybe even a bit self-serving. The room service isn’t quite up to snuff, and an old lady has taken to her bed with a fever. So the young rabbi with the healing power comes in with the magic touch and the old lady gets back to work. Well, that’s the kind of thing you can do if you’re the master of the universe, and you’ve got important things to do.
That doesn’t sound much like Jesus.
But it does sound a lot like me.
A few years ago I was scheduled to take off for a medical mission in Central America, but took a chance and remained “on call” for emergencies. That night a young Hispanic day worker received his wages in cash, celebrated with plenty of cerveza, got in a fight, and ended up in my emergency room with a depressed skull fracture.
He didn’t speak English, had no health insurance, and wasn’t completely sober. In other words, the worst kind of patient. He would not be compliant with follow-up instructions and appointments, I would not get paid, and, if something went wrong, there was a major risk of a lawsuit.
The depressed skull fracture was not immediately life-threatening. Probably he would survive with a bandage on his head and a little good luck, so I had some temptation to treat him, as we say, “expectantly.” This means put a bandage on it and get serious about treatment only if some complication arose. Expectant treatment would, of course, leave a large dent in his head, and a seriously unprotected brain–especially in his current circumstances–for several weeks, in addition to a higher risk of bone infection in his skull and a seizure disorder, all of which could be prevented by early surgery.
Thus, I found myself in the operating room at midnight with a plane ticket to take me out of the country at 9 AM. I used some expensive hardware to re-construct his skull in a way that gave him immediate cosmetic results and brain protection without requiring a secondary operation in the future. It added time, though, and I found myself anxious and irritable as I worked.
Then I had a little “God Moment.”
God asked, Why are you so unhappy?
I told Him that obviously I would get little sleep and needed to be on a plane in the morning.
Where are you going?
I told Him that, in case He had forgotten, I was off to serve Him by giving medical care to poor people in Central America that didn’t even speak my language.
Uh-huh, He said, and what is it that you’re doing now?
Matthew, in the episode of Peter’s mother-in-law, tells us two important things about Jesus.
First, missions begin at home. His friend Peter’s mother-in-law was sick. A fever in the first century A.D.–before diagnostic tools, (even a thermometer), acetaminophen, antibiotics, or sterile surgical technique–was a life-threatening condition. This touch and relief from fever for the mother-in-law was Jesus’ first priority. Never mind that the courtyard was filling with the demon-possessed. Never mind that sick people filled the streets of that little town. Mom was sick.
That’s my first lesson. Whatever gifts I might have to heal, or spread light and salt in the world, do it at home first. Take care of whoever is in front of you first. Take care of the drunk, probably illegal immigrant with the skull fracture first. Take care of my mother, take care of my wife, take care of my children and grandchildren.
Second, Jesus heals one person at a time. Matthew tells us that “many” who were demon possessed came that evening, but we get the impression that Jesus met them one at a time, and gave each the word that set them free. We don’t get the impression that he waved his arm over the front yard and everyone went away happy.
Jesus didn’t seem to see crowds. He saw individuals and reacted to individual suffering. I find it easy to believe that God is so big that He can’t possibly be interested in me, one of eight billion humans on our little planet in a big universe, much less worry whether I have a fever or not. But Jesus shows us that He is not only a God of the very big, He is God of the very small. He notices and He cares about both my fevers and my demons.
When Matthew told us about the previous two healings, he didn’t tell us what either the leper or the centurion’s servant did next. In this one, he tells us that “she got up and began to wait on him.” Maybe she cooked dinner, maybe she did the dishes, maybe she mended his clothes or washed his feet. Or, maybe she organized all the demon-possessed in the front yard–that would have taken some strength and powers of persuasion.
And, she didn’t have to. As a senior member of a household in a society that revers the elderly, Peter’s mother-in-law did not have an obligation to serve anyone, whether she had a fever or not. After her fever abated, she could have come out for some polite conversation and a glass of wine, watched the sunset, and gone back to bed.
But she didn’t.
I’ve seen lots of different responses in people who have recovered from a life-threatening illness. Some lapse into a deep depression for a long time. Some become overly anxious about their health, controlling diet and exercise, adding supplemental nutrients or vitamins, avoiding suspected contaminants in food, air and water. Some become hyperactive, fulfilling a “bucket list” of experiences and pleasures.
Others make peace with those who are angry, apologize to those they have wronged, give generously to those in need, and encourage those who are struggling. These are the ones I want to be like. They are the ones who “got up and began to wait on Him.”