Gospel Reflections by Father Gerry Pierse, C.Ss.R.

Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time

February 9, 2003
Job 7:1-4, 6-7; 1 Cor 9:16-19, 22-23
Mk 1:29-39

We Are All Mothers-in-Law


There is a rather insensitive joke told about Jesus and Peter, arising from the story in today's Gospel. One evening, it goes, they were having a chat over a drink when Jesus asked, "Frankly, Peter, was there ever a time when you were angry with me?" Peter hesitated and shuffled for a moment. "Well, actually there was, Lord," he said. "The time that you cured my mother-in-law!"

I say this is an insensitive joke because it trivializes what is a common and grave pain felt by many wonderful women. A mother-in-law and daughter-in-law can often be two good, sincere, kindly women and yet a high pressure of toxic feeling grows up between then. It makes life intolerable for them and often also for those around them. And yet, that this happens is not too surprising, considering the dynamics involved.
To become a mother-in-law is to hand over your child - especially your son - to the love and care of another woman. There can be an unacknowledged feeling of having been robbed of your treasure and your life's work by this girl who now takes the center of the stage. She is younger, so you are getting older. She is life-giving, so you are no longer fruitful. In short, she becomes a symbol of your own dying.

The daughter-in-law is young and inexperienced. She is exulting in her newfound womanhood. She is a newcomer to the work of being adult, wife, mother and she wants to be the best - in her own unique way. She is, as yet, insecure and sensitive to criticism. Even the most innocent remark from the old pro can be interpreted by the daughter-in-law as criticism or interference. All sorts of meanings could be read into a simple remark like, "John is looking tired today." So the neophyte may find herself threatened by the old-timer who becomes a symbol of her own anxiety. The grandmother will wonder often whether she is being used or being useful when caring for her grandchildren. Add to this the unpredictable moods associated with menopause and morning sickness - and a husband caught in the cross fire between the two women that he loves - and you have the ingredients of a bloody civil war.
Each of us are in different ways Mothers-in-law. From the day we are born we begin to need to "let go." When we go to school we let go of the security of the home. As we lose friends and relatives to death, as we lose our teeth and need eyeglasses, we are letting go to a process of aging which we often want to deny and subtly fight.

My own experience, apart from observing five wonderful sisters-in-law, is that of being a missionary. When I came to the Philippines 37 years ago the role image that I had of myself was very much that of being a mother. I was bringing the life of faith and the nourishment of the sacraments to a dependent flock. But, to be a missionary today is to stand back, to let the local Church take over, to let the laity take charge, to facilitate the growth of the Spirit already present. It is to move away from the center of the stage. It is, in short, to be a mother-in-law.

Christ also had the 'mother-in-law' experience. He had to let go of his own home and his own mother. He prepared the field for others to plow and reap. These others were humanly speaking very weak and incompetent. The apostles were a cowardly gang. Peter was impulsive and unreliable, Thomas lacked faith, and Judas used to help himself from the common purse. Yet, he gave over the stage to them and they carried on the work in their own way.

A grasping, "Lord, give me what I want," kind of prayer will do little to prepare us for the letting go of the center of the stage that is the mother-in-law part of all of our lives. But if one has been meditating for 20 to 30 minutes twice daily we will be used to following the Lord's command to leave self behind. We will not find it too difficult to accept 'the letting go' of control and of the center of the stage, the becoming a mother-in-law, that is a part of everyone's life.

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Taken from Sundays into Silence - A Pathway to Life. Copyright © 1998 by Claretian Publications

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