Sometimes we have to read the Bible or have it read to us or, better still, have it explained to us again and again before we can actually see all the nuances in a particular text. Your first attempt at reading a text isn’t enough for you to exhaust everything about that text, nor does it offer the best plausible way of understanding it. There’s always a possibility of coming across a refreshingly new idea or thought in a text. And for me, that is the beauty of reading the Bible over and over again. There’s always something new to discover, and every time attempt brings new life and meaning to the text and enriches our understanding.
There’s no way that I can count the number of times that I have read the gospel story we read last Sunday, Mark 1:29-39, and have preached on that same text. I cannot also count the number of times that I have heard the text read to me or listened to someone preaching on that same text. But what happened this past Sunday was different. It was also my epiphany moment - where a new extrapolation of a text reveals a key important part that I have never, ever contemplated.
Mike, our preacher for last Sunday, referred to the Nameless In-Law in the gospel story. This Nameless In-Law was Simon’s mother-in-law. She was healed by Jesus, but right after the healing grace that she received, she got up to serve. Strange, isn’t it? Why would someone who had just been healed commit herself to serving others?
For those who live in patriarchal societies, this would appear to be perfectly normal because there’s this inherent belief in those societies that it is the woman’s responsibility to serve, and nothing changes that, not even sickness. I watched my mother and sisters in similar situations do the exact same thing. I saw other mothers, women, and girls in similar situations do the same thing, as well. For many in these societies, it is the accepted norm.
The woman only gets some relief when she is incapacitated or sick.
The tragedy in the story is not only about chauvinism and misogyny but about the fact that the woman who did the important work of serving others remained Nameless. Her identity was tied to that of Simon. She was Simon’s In-Law, and not somebody with a name like Sarah, Hannah, Mary, Elizabeth, or any other name. To the writer of the text, she remained Nameless; after all, her identity was tied to that of a male, her personhood was determined by a man, and her dignity was affirmed by her association with a man to whom she was related through marriage.
As I reflected on Mike’s sermon, I was moved to ask myself - especially during this season of Black History Month - how many Slaves remained Nameless? How many people of Color remain Nameless? How many immigrants remain Nameless? How many refugees remain nameless? How many trafficked women remain Nameless? How many abused women remain Nameless? How many of our homeless neighbors remain Nameless? How many of the incarcerated remain Nameless? Do you know any Nameless person? Who are the Nameless people we expect to serve us?
Being Nameless may not necessarily mean that you don’t have a name. It may mean that your name isn’t worth mentioning. It may mean that your dignity is so corrupted that you are not worthy of being called a name. It may mean that you are not counted, you are not recognized, and you have no value. Being nameless may mean that you hold no significance.
It is important to note that many enslaved people didn’t have legal names until their owners decided which names to call them. Many enslaved people had to deal with the burden of carrying multiple names because of having multiple owners who decided which name to call them. Many enslaved people only had first names. Many enslaved people used their African names - at least, the first generation had. Many enslaved people used their master’s name. Many enslaved people had names, but they remained nameless because they had no value. They may have had economic value, but they also had no dignity.
In truth, like Simon’s in-law, many enslaved people and many who live on the margins of our society remain nameless, and their value has always been determined by the service they render.
As we begin our Lenten journey, I’d like to invite us all to reflect a little deeper on how we can change our narrative, and how we can transition from a society of the nameless to naming people, proffering value to others, and affirming their dignity. I’d like us to think about how we can become a society that simply celebrates people in all circumstances.
The beauty of Lent is one of rediscovering the true meaning of our existence and reminding ourselves that both the named and the nameless share one thing in common - dust.
We are dust, and to dust we shall all return - that is our sobering reality. Yet still, our hope is in the God who chooses each of us as God's own and empowers all to serve, not some, but all people.