While a student at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, I had the privilege of having Dr. Scott Hahn as one of my Scripture professors. One thing he taught us is to look out “rumble strips” in the Bible. Imagine yourself cruising along, when suddenly you feel seismic vibrations in your car and hear that annoying muffled sound—you’re fast approaching a toll booth and the rumble strips are telling you to slow down and pay attention. So it is with passages in scripture which seem to disrupt the otherwise smooth narrative of salvation history. They seem to be randomly inserted in the text and can be downright perplexing in terms of their purpose and point, yet if we stick to our belief that Scripture is inspired, then we cannot neglect even those passages that seem to be, well, rather uninspiring. Like the rumble strips, these passages beg to be noticed and insist that we slow-down our reading pace and take a careful look at where we are in the story and what lies ahead of us.
One such passage is the episode of Peter’s mother-in-law, found in the three Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Peter’s mother-in-law appears suddenly and, having been healed and cooked up a meal, vanishes from our view. At first blush, it may seem that the episode simply recounts a typical stop on Jesus’ healing campaign. But I find myself asking: What is the significance of Peter’s mother-in-law? Why do the Evangelists pull her from anonymity when countless others are healed by Jesus yet go unmentioned? Why do the Evangelists neglect to give us her name and only describe her in terms of her relation to Peter? Could the episode of Peter’s mother-in-law facilitate some further understanding of the development of Peter’s relationship with Jesus?
I feel it is significant that, at the beginning of the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus is associated with possessions of Peter and only later in these Gospels is he portrayed in a fuller relationship with Peter himself. We need not begin our story about the primacy of Peter in typical fashion with those familiar verses of Matthew 16 and John 1:42 instead, we may be able to begin the story of Peter’s primacy with Jesus’ use of Peter’s property.
All three of the Synoptic Gospels include the account of Peter’s mother-in-law. The healing occurs toward the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, right around the time he calls his first disciples. In Mark (Mk 1:29-31), the healing occurs after Jesus exorcises the unclean spirit, who is the first to declare of Jesus, “I know who you are, The Holy One of God” (Mk 1:24). According to Mark, immediately after Jesus’ identity as the Messiah is proclaimed by the spirit, he moves into Peter’s house where he performs his first recorded healing. After healing Peter’s mother-in-law, Jesus begins his main healing ministry in Galilee and begins teaching in the synagogues.
In Matthew (Mt 8:14-15), the healing occurs AFTER Jesus begins his healing ministry and after the Sermon on the Mount. In Mark, Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law BEFORE beginning his healing ministry.
In Matthew’s account, only Peter is mentioned as the owner of the house, whereas in Mark the house is said to belong to both Peter and Andrew. Also different in Matthew’s account is that, among the apostles, only by Peter is Jesus’ Messianic identity proclaimed: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Mt 16:16). Earlier in Matthew, some had called Jesus the “Son of David” (Mt 9:27), and two demons asked what the “Son of God” (Mt 8:29) wanted from them. However, according to Matthew, the first explicitly clear declaration of Jesus’ Messianic identity comes from Peter, and we can infer from Jesus’ subsequent reaction to Peter that this declaration was of an altogether different sort than the previous two.
In Luke (Lk 4:38-39), the healing occurs right after the proclamation of the Kingdom and the exorcising of the unclean spirit, who declares (just as it did in Mark), “I know who you are, the Holy One of God” (Lk 4:34). Curiously, the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law occurs BEFORE the calling of the first disciples, whereas it occurs AFTER the calling in Mark and Matthew. And finally, just as Mark does, Luke has Jesus proceed to teach in the synagogues.
Okay, so what? I want to suggest that Mark and Luke are interpretive keys to one another. In both Mark and Luke, we find Jesus associating with possessions of Peter: his house and, in Luke 5:3, his boat. In Mark, Christ’s healing ministry begins in Peter’s house and only afterwards does the healing ministry extend to the greater public. In Luke, Christ enters Peter’s house prior to calling the first disciples, which signals an association with Peter before an association with the others. In both accounts, immediately before and after associating with Peter’s home and performing a healing inside of it, Jesus is teaching in the synagogues.
So, in Mark and Luke we find Jesus moving quickly to the synagogues after having healed Peter’s mother-in-law. In Luke there is a sudden transition from the synagogues to the lake of Gennesaret (Lk 5:1-11). Here, having called the disciples, Jesus proceeds to teach…but from where? Given the choice of two empty boats, Jesus opts for Peter’s (Lk 5:3). So in the Lucan narrative we have the following parallel movements in Jesus’ ministry: (1) from the synagogue (4:31-37) to Peter’s house (4:38); (2) teaching in the synagogues (4:44) to teaching in Peter’s boat (5:1-4). I interpret this transition as indicating an authoritative move from traditional places of teaching (synagogues) to a new forum of teaching (spaces owned by Peter). Moreover the dynamic I see in Mark and Luke consists of Peter’s spaces becoming forums of healing (Mark) and teaching (Luke.
In Matthew, there is no affirmative declaration of Jesus’ identity as the Christ, but only adumbrations (Mt 4:3-6; 8:29; 9:27; 12:23; 14:33) until the dramatic moment when, from Peter alone, we have the full confession of Jesus as “The Christ”
If, as many scholars think, Matthew and Luke are based largely on Mark’s narrative, we find that the simple story in Mark about Peter’s house as the origin of Jesus’ healing ministry is developed by both Matthew and Luke into foreshadowing of Peter’s primacy among the apostles. In Luke, it points toward Jesus’ didactic mission, where Peter’s house, boat, and eventually Peter himself host the proclamation of the Kingdom (4:14-21). Matthew wants us to know that the house in which the healing of the mother-in-law occurred is specifically Peter’s. This draws attention to the early relationship between Jesus and Peter, which is further developed in Matthew 16-17 where the declaration of Jesus’ identity comes from Peter’s own mouth.
Bringing it all together, the Synoptic Gospels present Jesus moving his healing and teaching from the synagogues to Peter’s spaces (house and boat), and from Peter’s spaces to the people, before finally transferring these powers to all the apostles and chiefly to Peter whose faith and ministry is to be the foundation of the Church. I suspect that the account of Peter’s mother-in-law is like a rumble strip, strategically placed in our path in order to grab our attention and prompt us to pay attention to what lies ahead. The healing of Peter’s mother-in-law as narrated in the Synoptics may give us stronger scriptural ties between the primacy of Peter and the Church’s missions of healing and teaching.