Audio transcript available at https://youtu.be/sb3bxVn1i6I.
Pentecost 5 B Mark 5:21-43
We have taken a big jump in the gospel and skipped right over the Gerasene demoniac –that passage occurs elsewhere but I have to say that today’s gospel reading is, for me, one of the most exciting passages in Mark’s gospel. There are several reasons for this. One is that from a literary point of view it is a very interesting passage consisting of a narrative which is cut in half with another story embedded in it and then the story resumes. This is known as a “sandwich” and Mark does it a number of times but this is the best example. What the scholars think is that there is a very good reason why Mark spliced these two bits of narrative together. We’ll come to why in a moment. Another reason why this passage is so exciting for me is that is deals with male /female relations and shows Jesus as a compassionate supporter of women in a society that valued women very little. This still has implications for us today and for me personally it has always resonated. The third reason why I find this passage so stimulating is that it challenges me so directly about how I relate to other people and how I relate to God.
Let me just remind you of what happens in this narrative. First of all Jesus has just got back from healing the man on the other side of the lake and the minute he gets back he is swamped with people who all want to see him work a miracle. Into this melee comes an important man, one of society’s leaders, rich and powerful. You can imagine the crowd parting as he comes towards Jesus, everyone knows Jairus, but not everyone would have known that his little girl was sick, near to death. Jairus, as soon as he gets to Jesus falls down at Jesus’ feet, and begs him repeatedly for help. Now this might not surprise you because you know that Jesus was the son of God, but in a society where “honour” is the controlling principle this is very surprising- only someone of very inferior rank would fall at another’s feet and beg. Jairus, is an important man and would be used to others doing that to him- so by doing it we see two things, the first is that he actually recognizes that Jesus is very powerful and so he thinks that there is a chance of being helped and secondly how desperate Jairus is- he really loves his little girl. So straight away the second theme comes in which is the honouring of women. Girl children often didn’t count at all in a household- the sons were numbered but the daughters were just extras. In almost every biblical narrative of the OT we know the sons names but the daughters even if they are mentioned are nameless. This girl is not named by her father either, but she is important enough to him, to beg for her.
And of course Jesus is powerful enough to heal her and compassionate enough to agree to go, so they set off.
And here comes the interruption and it has two purposes- the first is to give time for the story of Jairus and his daughter to develop. The second is to link strongly the theme of the importance of women to Jesus.
Here is the story of a woman who has some kind of gynecological problem that medical science, such as it was, couldn’t solve. And because she was constantly bleeding she was ritually unclean and anything she touched became unclean as well- she would have existed in a state of constant isolation. Women were used to being out of the loop for about a fortnight of every month- because they had to purify themselves for a week after they had finished bleeding so it was a constant thing and few women lived very long after the menopause. This was one reason why men had multiple wives and female servants because there was quite a bit of time when each woman couldn’t do any duties, and you know, this is still what happens in many Muslim societies today. This poor woman in her desperation did something that was totally socially unacceptable- she touched Jesus’ robe. Even touching his garment made him ritually unclean but she was sure that if she could just get to him power would come out of him- and she was right. It wasn’t a magic cloak or anything like that- Jesus explains to her, and to the crowd that it was because she had faith in him that the power to heal was accessed even without Jesus doing anything. But Jesus knew straight away that something had happened and so did the woman- he knew that power had gone out from him and she knew she was healed. And Jesus wants to speak to her, so he asks who touched him, and the disciples laugh at him because the crowd is all around him. Now that woman could have kept silent and sneaked off, but she owns up. She is taking a risk because the average Rabbi would have been furious that she had made him unclean. She falls at Jesus’ feet, just like Jairus did a few minutes earlier, in fear and trembling the narrator tells us and tells the whole truth- in other words she owns up about the health problem and that she touched him. Jesus speaks to her lovingly and warmly. The narrator has been calling her “the woman”, but Jesus calls her “daughter”. In other words he brings her into his close family, she is loved. He tells her that her faith has made her well, and then he confirms the healing and sends her off to be in peace. The people who were here last week will remember that when Jesus was speaking to the storm he also used those words- “be at peace”. And isn’t it something that we crave- inner peace? What we might struggle to imagine is how this healing transformed the woman’s life. She could now take her normal part in the functioning of society. We have no idea of her circumstances but we know that her life was transformed. SHE IS MADE CLEAN.
And remarkably Jesus is not made unclean- his power has flowed over them both to cleanse and heal.
And while this is still happening some messengers come to tell Jairus not to bother because his little girl is dead. Can’t you imagine how impatient Jairus has been feeling while this incident with the woman is happening? And now the message comes that it is too late. Before Jairus has time to say anything Jesus intervenes and encourages him not to fear but to believe. He thins down the group and takes only the inner circle of disciples because he knows that they are about to witness something quite extraordinary. Now we get to one of the bits that really perplexes me. Jesus here, and at other times in the gospels says to people that others are not dead but sleeping, when everyone knows that they are dead. In fact when it is Lazarus he is talking about, in John’s gospel, the disciples get so confused by what Jesus is saying that Jesus has to explain that Lazarus IS actually dead but that they will soon see God’s glory. I have puzzled about why Jesus keeps saying this and I think that perhaps it reflects Jesus’ attitude to death. St Paul says that death is the last enemy to be defeated and I think that Jesus hates death because of the pain and suffering it causes. I am quite sure that God never desires the death of anyone but it is part of the fallen world, part of the consequences of sin and Jesus hates it. In fact that is ultimately the reason he chose to die on the cross was to defeat death utterly and forever in the resurrection. And this little story of the girl, contains so many references to the resurrection that we don’t see in the English translation. When Jesus tells the little get to “Get up” it is the same as saying to her, “be resurrected”. And again, when Jesus touches this dead girl he is risking ritual uncleanliness and once again he doesn’t care. His power is sufficient to heal and to save and to cauterize the wound that is death.
And again, do you notice the loving way he speaks to her? He calls her in the Greek, “little one” which is one of the terms he uses all the time for people that are precious. Now this girl is not actually a child, the text specifically tells us she was twelve and being twelve she was actually of marriageable age. But Jesus doesn’t care that she is officially now a woman that he should have no contact with, he just sees her urgent need, and the grief of her family, and raises her up. And just to confirm that they are not seeing a ghost he tells them to give her something to eat. I find it so consoling that Jesus even while he was God, and concerned with the eternal things still cared about the normal physical things too, like giving a child something to eat, who probably hadn’t eaten for days.
The thing that links these two bits of the sandwich together is the fact that Jesus doesn’t care about the taboos of his society and that Jesus really values two women.
And you know there is still entrenched discrimination against women even in our society, and round the world it is rife. It is not what Jesus wants.
As a woman who has been called by Jesus into a traditionally male role I have felt the pain and difficulty of that discrimination myself. A woman who was a great campaigner for the rites of women, Dr Patricia Brennan, said, “we will know that we have equality when incompetent women are promoted into positions of power”. We are still waiting for that to happen, aren’t we?
So let me ask you, do you discriminate against people because of their gender? Jesus didn’t. Do we discriminate against people because we think that they are unclean in some way? Are we prepared to touch the untouchables of our society? Jesus is. Are we prepared to treat the unequal with equality? Jesus calls us to do this. All these things are things that Jesus demonstrates to us here. He loves the unclean and embraces them.
Or what about this? Do we have faith in Jesus’ resurrection and do we live as saved people? Do we live as people for whom this life is a temporary state and death is a sleep from which we shall waken into the true life of eternity with God? My prayer for each of us this week is that we might go out and act like Jesus, showing lives of compassion, making a place of love in which healing can take place, because that is what matters in the big scheme of things.