July 1, 2018
SIXTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27; Psalm 130; 2 Corinthians 8:71-5; Mark 4:35-41
Today’s Gospel reading consists of two healing stories combined with each other. Actually, they are “sandwiched” together – the story of Jairus’s daughter is interrupted, as it were, by the healing of the unknown woman, and then resumes. This is, in fact, the second time Mark does this. He could have told the stories separately, so the fact they are combined like this is obviously intentional. The two stories work together. Each amplifies the other; each helps explain the other.
It’s instructive to compare and contrast these two stories. They differ in some significant ways:
- One is about the daughter of a well-known, prominent figure. We even know his name – Jairus. The other is about an anonymous, unknown woman.
- Jairus is a leader in his community. The woman is excluded from community – something we’ll explore in more detail in a minute.
The two stories are also similar in several ways:
- Both are about healing.
- Both deal with issues of boundaries, questions of what is clean or unclean.
- In both stories, touch of some kind is involved.
- In both stories, Jesus extends healing and life where there appears to be none. One person is chronically, apparently incurably, ill; the other is terminally ill and then dead.
- In both cases, the person healed is disenfranchised or excluded in some way.
- The stories are connected by the number twelve. The woman has been suffering for twelve years; the girl is twelve years old. Some commentators see this as a symbolic reference to the house of Israel. The healing story immediately preceding these two takes place in Gentile territory; now Jesus is back “on the other side”. God’s healing is for all, Jew and Gentile alike.
- Finally, both stories tell us something about faith and salvation.
Both stories are about healing. Healing was central to Jesus’ ministry, and healing is a central part of the Gospel. Jesus brings healing, wholeness, life, and hope to desperate people. Health care in ancient times was pretty hit and miss. Just look at the description of what the woman has suffered for the past twelve years. And there was no social safety net. As a healer, Jesus responded to people’s real needs. This is partly what contributed to his appeal and caused people to flock after him in large crowds. However, Jesus is not just doing good deeds for two people who need help. His ministry of healing is a sign of God’s reign breaking in. A couple of weeks ago, we heard how Jesus was accused of being in league with Satan himself, and casting out demons by Beelzebul, the prince of demons. Jesus replies by acknowledging that Satan is indeed under siege: “If Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come.” Jesus is carrying the fight against sin, suffering and death into the enemy’s stronghold.
Both stories are about people who are marginalized in some way. Both are female, therefore lower in the hierarchy of the day. One is a female child, lower still. Both have conditions that render them ritually unclean. Like many traditional cultures, ancient Jewish society treated the mysteries around life and death with special reverence. Contact with blood made you ritually unclean. The mysterious “flow of blood” the woman suffers may have something to do with menstrual irregularity, although the text simply says “hemorrhages”. Anything and anyone she touches becomes similarly unclean and must be purified. Likewise, contact with a dead body made you unclean. Jesus knows full well the prohibition against touching a body, yet this is exactly what he does! Being unclean meant being excluded from your family, your community, and worship in the synagogue. You had to perform a ritual cleansing before you could rejoin your family, before you could attend synagogue and share in the community’s worship. In both cases, then, healing goes beyond physical cure to include restoration to family, to community, to membership in the household of God.
Now, let’s look at these stories separately, beginning with the unknown woman suffering from hemorrhages. Jesus has been asked to come to help Jairus’s daughter, who is at the point of death. He is surrounded by crowds pressing in on him. Among them is the woman. Her situation is desperate. She has suffered for twelve long years. Not only is she still sick, she has grown worse, and she is now destitute, having spent all her money on doctors. No public medical system for her! Even today in Canada, poverty, disenfranchisement, and unequal access to health care mean some people have poorer health outcomes than others who have more resources at their disposal. The woman approaches Jesus because she is convinced that even touching his clothing will be enough. What is the difference between her touch and the jostling of the crowd? Hers is intentional, and Jesus feels it. He knows some power has gone out of him. He stops immediately. “Who touched me?” You can imagine the disciples rolling their eyes: “Seriously, Jesus? Look at all these people!”
What makes the woman come forward? She could have just melted away into the crowd. Jesus continues to look around – one commentator suggests the word means “glaring”. Mark tells us the woman comes forward “in fear and trembling”, falls before him and tells him “the whole truth”. In one sense, she has been found out. As one commentator says, she is “stealing a healing”. She has no other choice. She is in crisis. But in doing so, she has interrupted Jesus, delayed him from the healing he was asked to perform. Has she “used up” his power? Popular ideas about healing and power held that power was kind of like a bank, with a finite supply at any one time. By using some of Jesus’ power, the woman may be afraid that his power is now diminished, and he won’t be able to help Jairus’s daughter. She’s really in trouble!
What the woman discovers, though, is that you can’t steal what someone is willing to give away for free. The biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan says that healing without price is one of the hallmarks of Jesus’ ministry. In fact, Jesus says he hasn’t done anything. It is the woman’s faith that has saved her. And with healing comes restoration. She who was shunned and excluded is now called “daughter”. Remember Jesus’ conversation about who constitutes his true family? “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” – and he might have added daughter as well. She is publicly affirmed as a child of Israel, a child of God, a daughter of the kingdom.
Now let’s look at the raising of Jairus’s daughter. After all, that’s where this whole episode begins. Jairus is just as desperate as the woman. They each have their own brokenness. Jairus has obviously heard about this healer. He falls at Jesus’s feet – as did the woman – and begs “repeatedly” for Jesus to come and save his daughter. He asks Jesus to lay his hands on her – to touch her. But it is too late. By the time Jesus has finished dealing with the woman, the child has died. The futility of the father’s request is in the words, “Why trouble the teacher any further?” We can imagine the father’s despair, and perhaps his anger at the woman for delaying his only hope. Jesus tells him not to give up, and they keep on going towards the house, to meet another crowd of people weeping and wailing. Jesus makes himself a laughing stock with his assertion that the child is not dead. He means that all is not lost, and the dead child can be “awakened” to life again. He restricts the audience to a few – the girl’s parents and his own followers. I am struck by the intimacy of the words, Talitha cum. The Aramaic words, spoken in Jesus’ everyday language, literally mean, “Lamb, arise”. Isn’t that beautiful? Jesus has never met this child, but he loves her. It’s so vivid that I can only think this is the report of an eyewitness – and there is a long, if unvalidated, tradition going back to the second century, that Mark’s gospel is based on the preaching of the apostle Peter. It’s easy to imagine Peter recounting the story afterwards and lingering on those words, “Lamb, arise”.
What do these two stories tell us about salvation? The word that is translated as “saved” also means healing, wholeness, and holiness. Jesus says to the woman, “Daughter, your faith has made you well/saved you/made you whole.” Salvation is more than forgiveness of sin for eternal life. Salvation is for this life too. It encompasses physical well-being, emotional, social, and spiritual wholeness. Salvation is not just about individuals; it is also communal. Both the woman and the girl are restored to full participation in their communities. Crisis isolates. Anyone who has had to cope with serious illness, job loss, loss of a relationship, or bereavement knows that isolation first-hand. Loss and disappointment come to all of us. We cannot be restored by our own efforts. We all need salvation from outside ourselves. God reaches out in a compassionate friend, a counsellor, an addictions worker, a coach or teacher, a fellow believer, and above all in Jesus. Jesus it is who made himself poor, as Paul says in today’s Epistle reading, who emptied himself, as Paul says elsewhere, so that we might become rich – rich in the knowledge of God’s grace, rich in love, rich in generosity, and rich in faith.
And what about faith? Jesus steadfastly rejects any kind of magical interpretation of his power. It is not the touch of a holy man that heals; it is faith. “Your faith has made you well,” he says to the woman. What may have begun as a superstitious gesture – “If I can just touch his clothes, I will be made well,” becomes an affirmation of her faith in the power of God to heal. To Jairus he says, “Do not fear; only believe.” Actually, a better translation would be, “Stop being afraid; keep on believing.” Of course, Jairus is afraid! His daughter is dead. His faith is waning. But he trusts Jesus and they keep on walking.
Faith is more than assenting to a creed or formal statement of faith. Faith is the attitude with which we approach God. Sometimes faith is reaching out to God, seeking God in utter desperation: “Out of the depths have I called to you, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice!” Sometimes faith is waiting in quiet confidence: “I wait for the Lord; my soul waits for him; in his word is my hope…O Israel, wait for the Lord, for with the Lord there is mercy.” Sometimes faith is hanging on, persevering through long suffering, hoping against hope in God’s saving, restoring love. Sometimes faith is falling on your knees in awe, maybe even in fear and trembling, before God’s holiness. Faith is the deep-down trust that God is good, even though that trust may be shaken and tested by events and circumstances.
These healing stories in Mark’s gospel are part of a series of miracles, in which Jesus demonstrates his power over nature, demons, illness, and death. The miracles reveal who Jesus is. He is God among us, the one who became poor for our sakes, to free us from all that binds and limits us and to declare us God’s beloved children. How rich is the grace of God! Amen.