My family has been binge-watching the 1980s sitcom “Cheers” this month. It has been fun. The characters and story lines are very funny and appealing in their own way. Even so, there are times when a joke or a plot point will surprise or shock my 2021 sensibilities. Clearly, there have been some significant shifts in how our culture looks at issues including relationships, bullying, gender roles, LGBTQ inclusion, and sexual harassment. My daughter and I have had some excellent conversations about what was “acceptable” nearly 40 years ago, and what is healthy and just in our minds now. It is possible that this and other similar shows have helped shape and move our culture on those very issues.
Context is important to how we encounter the stories in scripture, too. Stories that originated in the ancient middle east certainly reflect their original context. It matters that we see how their understanding of gender roles, religious boundaries, cultural norms, and their pre-scientific world view all shape the story. Unpacking the differences between then and now can help us to see the meaning and impact more fully. This week’s story speaks to us differently when we remember that it began in a different time and place, with its own cultural practices and expectations. And that Jesus was constantly pushing the boundaries of those practices and expectations.
When we hear that Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law from a fever, it helps us understand the whole story when we remember that in a world before modern medicine, a fever was a life-threatening situation. When she is healed and then begins to serve her guests, we see that Jesus’ healing has released her to return life and all its activities, including hosting those who are guests in the family home. In that time and place, the fact that the fact that Jesus is paying attention to a sick older woman at all (in a time when women were primarily defined by their relationship to the men in their families) shows clearly that his message is not simply for the powerful and the influential. Rather, Jesus has come to bring release and renewal to even the powerless and the vulnerable, the stranger and the outcast; to the whole world.
As we make our way through Mark’s gospel this year, pay attention and see where Jesus is reaching beyond the expectations and usual practices of his time. Watch for the ways he pushes boundaries and where he comes into conflict with the powers that maintain structure and order. It will get him in trouble, but will ultimately change the entire world on both a day to day level and on an eternal level as well.