Todays readings for the 6th Sunday in Pentecost 2 Kings 2:1-12 Psalm 50:1-65 2 Corinthians 4:3-12 Mark 5:21-43
Transcript of the Sermon given by Reverend Roberta Hamilton.
Of all the healing stories in the gospels today’s is the passage that I like best. It’s in many ways the most complex and there are an awful lot of things to explore in the text itself and that always excites me, but much more than that it teaches us some very important things and is particularly affirming for women. It also presents a series of puzzles and I am afraid there are a lot of things that I have no answer for.
The first thing that I think we need to note is the context both in the narrative but also the social context into which this is being written. The narrative context is that Jesus and the disciples have crossed over the sea, heading away from the Jewish territory and towards the Gentiles. While they are going across the sea a terrible storm arises and Jesus calms the wind and the waves. In Jewish culture the sea was the place of chaos and Jesus calms it. When they get to the other side, out of their comfort zone, they are confronted by a violent man possessed of an unclean spirit. He is unclean at all kinds of levels and the first audience would have been shocked and scandalised at Jesus contact with this man, as indeed are the townsfolk who inhabit the land. When the townsfolk see the man clothed and in his right mind they beg Jesus to leave. Jesus has defeated the demons of the wind and waves, and the demons of violence and madness. So the literary context is of a man who crosses barriers and who is not afraid to touch both the demons of nature, nor the personal demons of a man who is, presumably, gentile. Jesus returns to the shore from which he set off and back in the Jewish world he is about to be confronted by a different kind of uncleanness.
This next section has a very interesting construction. Mark begins to tell one story and then interrupts it with a second story. It is generally thought that when Mark sandwiches two bits together like this, and he does it a number of times, the two stories add to each other’s meaning. There is also a lot of common vocabulary between the two scenes that link them.
So we have Jesus back on the right side of the lake in a crowd that is squeezed around him, the text says. An important man, Jairus, one of the leaders of the synagogue, named- so well known both to the crowd and to the audience, comes and falls at Jesus’ feet and begs him to come and heal his daughter. Now this is where a bit of the social context comes in. In an honour/ shame society like this an important man does not fall at the feet of an itinerant preacher and beg for salvation for his female child, and yet that is what is happening. On Jairus’ part it is an acknowledgement of who Jesus is, intrinsically, you might say. It doesn’t reflect Jesus’ worldly status but his status in the coming Kingdom of God. And to beg for help over and over again as it tells us in the text tells us something about Jairus’ concern for his daughter which overmasters his own personal honour. The rules are being broken here. Jesus shows immediate compassion and still surrounded by people goes towards Jairus’ home. Then the interruption occurs, both in the narrative and in the action. A woman, the text says, ‘being in a flow of blood for twelve years’, who has suffered at the hands of men, who have taken her money and worsened her condition, comes up behind Jesus and grabs his garment from behind. The Greek is interesting here because this should all be read as one long sentence, with all the details leading towards her determination to touch Jesus because of her faith in him. Yes, she is ritually unclean and shamed in her society. Yes, she has been impoverished, so again shamed in her society, but she is so strong of determination that she gets her reward which is that as she touches Jesus’ garment she feels the power flow through her and heal her. Isn’t this a wonderful affirmation of courage and strength? Her society has disempowered her, because of her condition but Jesus empowers her in a most amazing jolt of energy so that she knows immediately that she is healed and Jesus knows immediately that he has healed someone. And as if that wasn’t enough Jesus wants to speak to her. In admitting that it was her that touched him she risks further shaming because her action should have made Jesus ritually unclean but she trusts him, even though she is afraid, and she too falls at his feet. The honour she does him, both in a formal sense of falling at his feet, but also in the informal sense of putting her trust in him, is in stark contrast to the disciples who are quite rude to Jesus.
Jesus’ response is to call her ‘Daughter’, which is an intimate and loving response in a text that refers to her as ‘woman’. There is also an echo here of the comment a little while before that those who do the will of God are Jesus’ family. This woman whose faith has brought her healing has become an insider with Jesus.
‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace and be healed of your disease,’ Jesus says and what we risk missing is the complete transformation that healing gives to this woman’s life. She can now take her rightful place as a member of the community, albeit a woman’s place, which is definitely secondary. This woman’s story is one of great courage and trust in Jesus being rewarded by healing and wholeness and a changed life. In many ways she becomes a model for all of us whose lives have been broken, those who are permanently disabled by trauma or physical infirmity or disability of any kind. I need to be careful here, however, to say that there are many of us, and I count myself among the number, for whom healing does not mean that the disability goes away, rather that we learn to live as whole people, insiders with Jesus, daughters and sons of God however frail we might remain. She was a woman who would continue to have to deal with all kinds of difficulties, but by accepting her, as she was, and counting her worthy of his love Jesus changed things forever for her.
And then we come to the rest of the story of Jairus’ daughter. From the healing of one woman, and the interruption of the journey we now have a seemingly insurmountable problem. Jairus had described his daughter as approaching death, and while Jesus is speaking to the woman, people come to tell Jairus that his daughter has died. Jesus turns to Jairus and encourages him to be like the woman. He says, ‘Do not fear, only believe,’ which sums up exactly what he had found just a moment before. Jesus thins down the group and takes only the most trusted ones, you might speculate that he leaves behind the ones who have been rude to him a moment before, and goes to the house of mourning. The ritualised mourning is clearly already underway, and Jesus rebukes them asking why they are doing it when the child is not dead but sleeping. It is hard to know what Jesus means here. The other occasion when he describes a dead person as sleeping is in the case of Lazarus, who is most certainly dead, but is this child really not dead but in a coma or something? I have always believed that Jesus hated death so much that he wouldn’t allow it, but reading the passage again this week I have realised that Jesus uses a different word in the Greek, here, to that used in John to describe Lazarus’ sleep of death. I don’t know what it means, or signifies. Jesus goes and takes the girl by her hand and speaks to her in Hebrew and she gets up and walks about. Now there seems to be quite a bit of confusion in the passage about this girl’s status. Jairus, quite reasonably refers to her as his daughter, as do the people who come to get him. This, of course, echoes the language that Jesus has used for the woman. Jesus refers to her as a child and then as a maiden, and the commentary of the narrator tells us that she is twelve, which, in fact, makes her a woman. Again why this is here is unclear to me. It is also hard to say why Mark includes the Hebrew, I am sure it has some significance which is lost to us.
Culturally, then, Jesus has crossed two more boundaries. First he allows a woman to touch him, and encourages her.
Then he goes and touches the dead body of another woman, which is doubly unacceptable. His language seems to reflect a tenderness that sees both of them as a precious child of God rather than as a woman in a culture where women were subject to all kinds of taboos. Once again ritual uncleanliness is subsumed into Jesus’ complete health and power. Jesus also cares for the girl’s immediate needs- he has healed her body, now he wants it to be fed.
This sign of Jesus’ power, to use John’s language, shows us very clearly several things. First that regardless of how the culture sees gender, a woman is just as precious to God as a man. This shouldn’t need saying but in this current climate with the pushback against #MeToo, it does. Women, in their own bodies, are valued by God and must be respected as God’s beloved daughters. This gospel story when it was written marked a complete oversetting of societal norms, that we are still struggling with in our culture.
Secondly, those who we see as unclean, for whatever reason, are touched by God and transformed. There is no ‘other side’ of the lake as far as God is concerned. We are all, regardless of gender, colour, religion or race, equally valued by God. Knowing that the Kingdom of God has room for all should enable us to reach out with the same kind of generous love as Jesus does here, to touch the untouchables and bring them in to relationship.
My prayer is that we, as God’s people gathered here might be people who individually and collectively live out God’s Kingdom here on earth.