Peter’s mother-in-law has a fever and is perhaps suffering from malaria or some other disease. Jesus heals her on the Sabbath and she begins to serve him.
First, if Peter have a mother-in-law, then Peter was a married man. In Matthew 19:27 Peter says he has left everything to follow Jesus, including his house and wife. However, 1 Corinthians 9:3-5 implies Peter was married when Paul write that letter.
Second, what illness was his mother-in-law suffering? The verb πυρέσσω and the cognate verb πυρετός are rare in the New Testament and the only the verb appears in the LXX in Deuteronomy 28:22 where translates the Hebrew noun קַדַּחַת (qaddaḥat). This kind of fever is associated with the curses for covenant unfaithfulness and only appears elsewhere in Leviticus 26:16.
Matthew’s version of Mark 1:29-34 is briefer and omits the fact this occurs on the Sabbath. Luke 4:38-41 also sets the healing on the Sabbath, but Jesus does not touch her hand, but rather rebukes the fever. Luke adds the fact she was tormented (passive participle of συνέχω) with a high fever (πυρετῷ μεγάλῳ). Compare this to the father of Publius in Acts 28:8, he was suffering with dysentery.
Davies and Allison point out the connection between a fever and demonic activity in the Testament of Solomon 7. In this apocryphal story, Solomon questions the demon Lix Tetrax who describes himself as causing fevers which last for a day and a half.
Testament of Solomon 7.5–6 “I create divisions among men, I make whirlwinds, I start fires, I set fields on fire, and I make households non-functional. Usually, I carry on my activity in the summertime. If I get the chance, I slither in under the corners of houses during the night or day. I am the direct offspring of the Great One.” 6 I asked him, ‘In which constellation do you reside?” He replied, ‘Toward the very tip of the horn of the moon when it is found in the South—there is my star. Therefore, I was assigned to draw out the fever which strikes for a day and a half.
However, there is nothing else in the story to imply this woman was under demonic oppression. Perhaps an outsider might have considered the possibility she had a demon, but that is not at all the point of this story.
After she is healed, she immediately serves him (Jesus). On the one hand, this may refer to her returning to her role as a hostess for a Sabbath meal for an honored guest. But on the other hand, this is the first person in Matthew’s gospel who serves Jesus. As Donald Hagner comments, “She ministered to him in grateful response to what he had done for her—a fundamental aspect of discipleship: (Hagner, Matthew, 209).
Walter Wilson recently suggested Matthew re-worked this story to recall Elisha and Shunammite woman’s son (2 Kings 4:18-37). He points out the healing of the leper in Matthew 8:1-4 alludes to the healing of Naaman, a gentile military officer with leprosy (2 Kings 5:1-14). When Elisha entered the house, he there was a child lying dead on the bed; when Jesus entered the house, he saw Peter’s mother-in-law lying in the bed. In both cases, the women serve the prophet (2 Kings 4:16; Matt 8:14).
Wilson and others who draw parallels to Elisha are likely correct. Just as the Sermon on the Mount drew comparisons to Moses as Israel’s lawgiver, these miracles draw comparisons between Jesus’s healing ministry and the two greatest prophets from Israel’s history.
But there is more here. The first three miracles in Matthew 8 concern people who would be excluded from worship at the temple and would certainly not be the sort of people expected to express faith in a Jewish teacher like Jesus.
That evening, many are healed (8:16). In the parallel story in Mark 1:29-34 Jesus was in the synagogue on the Sabbath and returned to Simon and Andrew’s home when he healed Peter’s mother-in-law.
Matthew concludes these three healing stories by declaring Jesus fulfills Isaiah 53:4 (Matthew 8:17). The verse is part of the four “Servant songs” in Isaiah, the most significant is 52:12-53:12. Matthew’s quotation here follows the LXX, which has the gist of the MT.
Isaiah 53:4 (ESV) Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.
Isaiah 53:4 (LES2) This one carries our sins and suffers pain for us, and we regarded him as one who is in difficulty, misfortune, and affliction.
How does Jesus “take up” illness? In the first century, sin and sickness were often connected. This is more clear in Matthew 9:1-8 when Jesus forgives a paralyzed man’s sin, prompting the teachers of the Law to accuse him of blasphemy.
Bibliography: Wilson, Walter T. “The Uninvited Healer: Houses, Healing and Prophets in Matthew 8.1-22.” JSNT 36 (2013): 53–72.