How Many People Witnessed the Healing of St. Peter’s Mother-in-Law?

SCRIPTURES & ART: Three artists — Rembrandt van Rijn, James Tissot and John Bridges — imagine the healing of St. Peter’s mother-in-law in different ways.

“The Healing of Peter’s Mother-in-Law” by Rembrandt (left), Tissot (upper right) and Bridges (lower right)
“The Healing of Peter’s Mother-in-Law” by Rembrandt (left), Tissot (upper right) and Bridges (lower right) (photo: Public Domain)

How many witnesses does it take to heal a mother-in-law? That’s one of the questions I want to pose in connection with this week’s Gospel (Mark 1:29-39), recounting Jesus’ visit to Peter’s house, during which he cures Peter’s mother-in-law of fever. The Lord’s work of healing and restoration continues into the evening, as the townspeople “brought to him all who were ill or possessed by demons.” Jesus then goes off to pray by himself, after which Peter and others track him down in the name of other townspeople still waiting for him. Jesus then expands his preaching and healing to neighboring villages.

As noted last week (in conjunction with Jesus’ exorcism of the possessed man in the synagogue of Capernaum), the Lord’s mission is one of healing and restoration. As a result of sin, the human person is broken and in need of redemption. When God commands Adam and Eve not to sin “lest you die,” this is no arbitrary act of will — it’s not as if God had a variety of “punishments” available and chose to join sin to death. Sin separates man from God. If man separates himself from the source of life, there is only death. A light cut off from its power source inevitably goes out. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Memory” captured that idea precisely: “A street lamp dies ….

Suffering and death (as least as we know it) are fruits of sin. Perhaps the Bible sometimes drew too facile a parallel between this sin and that punishment (as Jesus’ disciples ask whose sin was responsible for the man born blind — John 9:2). Even Job (today’s first reading) contested a simple, one-on-one correspondence between sin and suffering.

That said, we should not go to the other extreme, minimizing or even denying any correlation between sin, suffering and death or pretending there is no such thing as divine chastisement. That is not the perspective of Mark’s Gospel. It sees Jesus’ mission as one of healing the whole person, body and soul, while recognizing that the spiritual is the fundamental locus in need of healing. That’s why Mark’s first miracle, reported in last week’s Gospel, is an exorcism.

But because the person is an integrated whole, Jesus’ healing mission extends to the physical as well. Jesus in today’s Gospel both heals a lot of people physically and spiritually (exorcism). The highlight is Peter’s mother-in-law.

The Gospels from two and three weeks ago focused on the call of the first Apostles, with special attention (twice) to Peter. Three weeks ago, Peter’s brother Andrew asked Jesus, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” (John 1:38b). Today, it’s apparently at Peter’s place.

Jesus comes to the house, accompanied by the four most prominent Apostles (Peter, Andrew, James and John) and “they” (the Petrine household?) tell Jesus about the feverish mother-in-law. Jesus “grasped her hand and helped her up,” curing her, and she reciprocates by extending traditional Jewish hospitality to the guests.

I’ve chosen three works to capture that moment.

The first is by the Dutch master, Rembrandt. His sketch dates from 1660, nine years before he died and the year his fortunes began to take a turn for the worse. He had to sell his house to cover the debts from his living beyond his means. The next decade would be a progressive slide into poverty.

Rembrandt’s sketch reduces the scene to the barest minimum: Jesus and Peter’s mother-in-law. It literally recreates Mark’s Gospel: Jesus takes her by the hand and raises her up. There’s a good theological point here: Jesus always engages with us personally and raises us up. 

Rembrandt’s minimalism also reflects the “Jesus and me, my Personal Savior” focus of Protestantism. I don’t know whether this sketch would have been further embellished but, as it is, it does capture the essentials of this encounter.

That said, apart from our own day when people wither in long-term care or die alone of COVID-19 in hospitals, most of human history was not made up of isolated individuals alone on their sickbeds. The 19th-century French painter Jacques Tissot expands the scene of today’s Gospel to three persons: the two essential ones (Jesus and the mother-in-law) and one witness, presumably Peter. 

Tissot experienced a religious conversion in the last two decades of his life, resulting in his prolific focus on biblical themes. He made several trips to the Middle East to study the environment, which he reflects in his paintings. His presentation of today’s Gospel expands the scene to three persons: the two essential (Jesus and the mother-in-law) and one witness, presumably Peter. After all, when “two or three are gathered” the Lord is there (Matthew 18:20). Every case should also stand on the testimony of two or three witnesses (presumably not counting the beneficiary: Matthew 18:16), perhaps making Tissot’s witness pool insufficient but meeting that quota in the next painting. 

The only face we see in Tissot’s painting is the most essential one: Jesus. The other two are turned from us. Like Rembrandt, Jesus takes her by the hand and raises her up. In this gouache painting (a watercolor designed to be opaque), the stone setting of a Jewish house is added, testimony to Tissot’s local studies.

Our last work comes from John Bridges, an English painter from the first half of the 19th century. I’ll admit what I could find out about him was limited: he lived from 1818-1854, and this painting dates from 1839. 

Bridges expands the bedside party to nine people, with four more in the background (12 in all, if one does not count Jesus, perhaps an indirect allusion to the Apostles). One commentary attributes the influence of the Nazarenes (a religious artistic group that also was prone to Renaissance and classical styles) on Bridges in this painting. Rembrandt’s and Tissot’s mother-in-law lies on the floor; Bridges’ is on a bed. The core focus is the impending touch — she with hopeful eyes, he with authority. Indeed, Bridges’ Jesus looks more like a classically-posed Roman orator who (knowing this is from another biblical healing account) needs to “say but the word and my servant will be healed” (Matthew 8:8). In keeping with his centrality, the figure of Jesus is also somewhat anatomically disproportionate to the others: He’s bigger.

The house’s architecture and background landscape is classical, not necessarily Israel’s (like in Tissot). I assume the youth with the halo over the bed is St. John and the bearded figure with a halo in the shadows (a Baroque element?) next to Jesus is St. Peter. The eyes of both saints are clearly also focused on the imminent and healing touch.

I began with the question of how many witnesses it takes to heal a mother-in-law because, as I mentioned last week, the “Messianic Secret” is a key Markan motif. Although Jesus says nothing to Peter’s mother-in-law, today’s Gospel also mentions him barring the demons he exorcised from speaking about him. Later in Mark’s Gospel, when Jesus raises the daughter of Jairus (5:22-43) in a house seemingly beset with people, he explicitly allows only five witnesses: Peter, James, John, and the girl’s father and mother (v. 40). He likewise takes the girl by the hand (v. 41). But here, however, Jesus also enjoins silence about the event (v. 43). 

The disciple is called to be a witness of Jesus’ mission, a mission that involves human healing and restoration. Today’s disciple, aware of Jesus’ Messianic identity in the light of his Passion, Death and Resurrection, is prepared to bear witness to him. So, aware both of the motto of most of human history — “no sick person left alone” — as well as of the Markan Jesus’ preference for secrecy prior to the Resurrection, just how many witnesses were at Peter’s mother-in-law’s bedside?