When Jesus went into Peter’s house, He saw his mother-in-law lying in bed with a fever. So He touched her hand, and the fever left her. Then she got up and began to serve Him. (Matthew 8:14-15)
This third encounter with Jesus in Matthew 8, just after the ending of the Sermon on the Mount, is the shortest and least detailed. Yet it too is layered, and it provides special insight into the social dynamics surrounding Jesus.
It’s easy to forget that Jesus was a real man living within a real community. In this story we get a rare glimpse behind the scenes into the very real humanity that surrounded Jesus’ life and ministry.
At Home in Capernaum
Jesus grew up in Nazareth, but around age 30, he moved to Capernaum. It was in Capernaum, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, that he called most of his disciples, including Peter and his brother Andrew.
Although they were likely about Jesus’ age, Peter was further along in life by cultural standards. He had a wife and perhaps children. He and his brother were fishermen, in a business partnership with two other young men whom Jesus would later call to follow him-James and John, sons of Zebedee.
Peter seems to have been an oldest son and responsible not just for himself but for the whole household. In the story Matthew tells, Peter’s mother-in-law was in Peter’s home not because she was visiting but because she lived there.
On every level, Peter was living a tough but respectable life as a middle-class married man in a rural part of his country. Life was about earning a living, paying taxes to the Roman government, attending synagogue, and caring for his family.
Like most Jewish people of the time, he likely had some expectation and hope that God would move miraculously in his day by bringing his kingdom and his presence back to Israel.
Then Jesus came along-a young teacher from Nazareth who preached an unmistakably messianic message.
And he changed everything.
Back in Matthew 4, Jesus called Peter and Andrew right out of their boats and fishing nets. He summoned them to follow him and “become fishers of men.”
At that very moment, Matthew tells us, they cast aside their nets and followed Jesus.
The next three years were spent trekking around the Galilean countryside after Jesus-and, after a little training, working miracles, casting out demons, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom.
What did Peter’s family do during this time? This was their breadwinner out there, following Jesus and winning more and more disapproval from the local religious authorities. How were they keeping a roof over their heads? How were they making ends meet while Peter was out learning to be a child of God?
We’re not told.
Several stories sprinkled throughout the gospels indicate the disciples did make it back to their boats now and again, almost certainly out of economic necessity.
Maybe Peter’s wife-and even his mother-in-law-were among “the women” we are told often accompanied the disciples. Maybe some of the money donated to Jesus’ ministry by the same group of women (some of whom were wealthy and influential) went to help support his disciples’ families.
We don’t know, and ultimately, anything we write about it is just speculation. Later, during the era of early church expansion into the Gentile world, Paul would mention that Peter’s wife traveled with him (1 Corinthians 9:5). It’s really all we know about her.
Here in Matthew, though, we learn a tiny bit about her family.
A Healing at Home
Reading in the gospel of Luke, we’re told that it was the Sabbath day, and Jesus had just been preaching in the synagogue. When he and his disciples left the synagogue, they went to Peter’s home and found his mother-in-law lying in bed, sick with a fever.
More than likely, she was considered the woman of the house. It was her responsibility to be hostess, to get a meal on to feed her son-in-law and the crowd of men with him. It was a point of honor for her to greet them, welcome them into her home, and serve them a meal.
And if she was one of Jesus’ followers, one of those who believed this young man was the Messiah, she would have seen it as a special honor to serve him.
But she could not do it. She’d been laid low by illness, severe enough that she could not get out of bed, no matter how badly custom and duty and personal desire prodded her to.
When You Are Too Weak to Serve
The illness called “fever” in Matthew 8 could have been caused by any number of things. Apparently, it was severe.
Severe fever has many effects on a human body, but it’s mostly experienced as debilitating weakness. Crippled by fever, we can’t think. We can’t move. We lose all strength and all ability.
You can’t serve when you’re laid low by fever. You can’t minister.
You can’t even pray.
In our Christian lives, this kind of illness can be one of the hardest things to deal with. I think of people I know who have been sidelined for years by Lyme’s disease. By adrenal fatigue. By degenerative diseases or cancers.
In my own life, the last few years have been a struggle with illness. I’ve felt better or worse at different times, but I’ve been almost constantly dogged by fatigue and by brain fog. And yes, sometimes by fevers.
Illness, or any kind of weakness really, is frustrating and difficult for so many reasons, but one is this: We want to serve. We want to greet our guests, make meals, serve Jesus. We want to do our jobs. We don’t want to sit on the sidelines.
And yet it seems there’s nothing we can do about it.
I don’t believe that God afflicts people with disease (we can have that theological boxing match later if you like), but I do know that few things are more humbling than being sick. At least to me. Weakness, sickness, fever-they make me acutely aware that I am flesh and bone, just dust with spirit blown into me.
I am a created being dependent on external conditions to keep me alive every moment.
It’s hard, but there’s something healthy about facing that truth.
He Touched Her Hand
In any case, Jesus walked into the house, learned that this woman was sick, and went straight to her bed. He touched her hand, Matthew says.
This was a culture when men, generally, didn’t touch women. Generally.
It was also a culture where healthy people, generally, didn’t touch sick people. Generally.
Jesus doesn’t treat Peter’s mother like an ordinary rabbi might treat a woman or a sick person; he treats her like a mother. He goes to her, touches her, brings comfort.
He also brings healing. With his touch, she’s instantly well.
Let me say right up front that healing is a mystery. I believe in it. If you are sick, I absolutely believe you should go to the elders in your church and ask them to pray that you will be healed. You should pray for your own healing. You should know that God is able and willing to make you well. There is healing in the cross of Jesus for everyone.
But it would be disingenuous of me to give you some kind of guarantee that if you do this you will be instantly, miraculously healed.
What I can guarantee is that if you come to Jesus with your weakness and your illness, he will treat you like family.
Touch your hand.
Refuse to treat you like some contagious stranger he’s better off staying away from.
No matter the short-term outcome, I would always rather have Jesus with me in my suffering, my difficulty, my lack, my hardship than try to go through it alone.
He’ll come. All I need to do is let him know I want him here.
She Got Up to Serve Him
Matthew says this woman immediately got up and began to serve Jesus. Her healing was so complete that she didn’t show any lingering weakness, as people with fever typically do. And she knew exactly what she wanted to do with her restored strength.
The moment she got back on her feet, she served the Lord.
I asked my friend Carolyn if she had any insight into this story and she said, “That woman didn’t let her past dictate the present. She got up right away and moved forward.”
It’s a good insight. Given healing, Peter’s mother-in-law didn’t continue to act sick. She took full advantage of the gift.
Sometimes, when I’m sick or struggling, I lose sight of any greater purpose. I forget who I am. If you handed me healing, or a ticket out of the struggle, I might not know what to do with it.
I might even find it more comfortable to stay sick.
Not so Peter’s mother-in-law. She had vision and desire and she got right back to doing what she wanted to do in the first place. Taking care of Jesus.
Treating him like family.
You know, I think it meant a lot to him. We’re told in other places that Jesus was somewhat estranged from his natural family for a while. They thought he was crazy, or at least embarrassing. It took a long time before they came around.
To be welcomed into Peter’s household, fed and served and treated like a son-I think it would have touched his heart.
You Can Do the Same
It’s been speculative, this post. An attempt to read between some lines. But this much is not speculation:
In your weakness, Jesus is there to touch your hand. To give you strength and healing, in whatever form.
And in return, you can touch his heart. You can take whatever he gives you and pour it back out in hospitality toward him.
Peter and his whole family sacrificed a lot to follow Jesus. But Jesus, in return, took care of them.
They welcomed the Son of God into their family.
And the Son of God welcomed them into his.
I would love to hear from you. Scroll down to leave a comment below!
This is Part 105 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.