Although I am well into my retirement years, I am still known among the family as “Johnny Boy.” My grandfather was “John;” my uncle was “Jack;” so my parents settled on “Johnny Boy” as the appropriate nickname for their new family member. Now a third generation is still labeling me “Johnny Boy.” A young cousin from Virginia sent me a text message reading, “Dear Johnny Boy, I have made the Junior Varsity Basketball team at my high school. We are having a fund raiser. Could you pledge to make a donation for every free throw basket I sink out of 100 tosses? Thank you for helping our team. Samantha.” You can be sure cousins all over the country were receiving this plea. Samantha’s uncle Joshua in Brooklyn had enough sense to ask her if she were any good at free throws. He would measure his generosity accordingly. I still think of my younger cousins as being about six years old. I forget they can be sophomores in high school and fairly tall and agile. I texted Samantha back (yes, I can text) and pledged a dollar for each successful throw. I figured she might be able to sink two or three out of the hundred attempts from center court. Sure enough, a couple of days later I received the happy announcement that Samantha had sunk FIFTY-THREE out of her hundred attempts. A check for $53 was dutifully but incredulously sent off to Haymarket, Virginia. I hope Samantha Kamm remembers her cousin Johnny Boy when she is making big bucks for the Women’s National Basketball Association.
Jesus probably never pledged to back a free throw event but he certainly did people a lot of favors in his lifetime. Obviously most of these favors went far beyond courtesies and were actually miracles. The raising of Jairus’ daughter, the cure of the centurion’s servant, the healing of the man born blind, and indeed the resurrection of Lazarus went far beyond mere acts of kindness and earned for Jesus such a reputation that he was afraid to enter towns openly. Yet some of Jesus’ benevolences are more touching than breathtaking. The raising of Simon’s mother-in-law from her sickbed is an intimate glimpse into the personal even private life of Jesus Christ.
Jesus had friends. Not only were Peter and Andrew, James and John, disciples, that is, students, of Jesus Christ the teacher. They were also companions to Jesus in the original sense of that word. They broke bread together. On occasion he even got exasperated with them as when he cautioned St. John about being too harsh against a rival exorcist or when he labelled St. Peter a man “of little faith” when Peter thought their boat was going to sink. So Christ enjoyed their company and on occasion even visited their family homes, taking a meal with St. Matthew and his co-workers and calling at St. Peter’s home after a synagogue service.
This coming Sunday’s Gospel gives believers a rare glimpse into the private lives of the apostles and into Jesus’ life apart from the crowds. St. Peter is the only apostle that believers know for sure was married and lived with family members. The other apostles probably had families as well. The unmarried man was rare in ancient Jewish society. The apostles also had businesses at which they worked and which some of them owned. Ss. John and James along with their father had a prosperous fishing enterprise because the Gospels relate that the two left their father behind with the “hired men,” when they left to follow Christ. They owned more than a row boat. This Sunday’s Gospel however relates a touching story of St. Peter’s apprehension about his mother-in-law and of Christ’s compassionate response to St. Peter’s concern. The nameless mother-in-law does not seem to have been seriously ill. Only a fever is mentioned. When told of her indisposition, Jesus “…approached, grasped her hand, and helped her up. Then the fever left her…” There was no fanfare, no awestruck crowds, no buzz among rival religious leaders. One friend was responding to the needs of another friend. Jesus’ gesture was simple kindness and it led to humble gratitude.
Jesus’ reaching out and taking the older woman’ hand was happily met by the healed woman lending a hand herself in making her guests feel at home: “… and she began to wait on them.” Kindness evokes kindness; mercy arouses mercy. Rewarding successful free throws on a basketball court hardly ranks with curing a woman of a fever. But there are many small gestures of care and concern that during the day present themselves to all believers. St. Paul noted: “Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” Never turn away from an out-stretched hand, even if it’s expressed in a text message.