Homily: Healing Powers
Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-15, 2:23-24 2 Corinthians 8:7-15 Mark 5:21-43
Our text this week sits on that point between faith and fear. The passage contains two stories that are, for very good reason, woven into one. The story holds more meaning than might first appear. This narrative of healing and restoration of life is full of contrasts and connections that weave the two incidents together tightly. You might say that these two incidents together help us to understand each of them. They both involve women in crisis – in fact, we don’t know them by their names but by their needs – both “daughters” of Abraham, not outsiders to begin with but now both subject to the taboos around the mysterious power of life (blood) and the even more mysterious (and seemingly unconquerable) power of death. Neither a bleeding woman nor a dead girl should be touched, at the risk of conveying their uncleanness to others.
The number twelve is significant in Jewish thought (for example, the twelve tribes and the twelve apostles), so it’s no coincidence that the woman has been bleeding (and therefore cut off from life) for twelve years, I think a good word for her is /tired./ A flow of blood for ten years would exhaust a person, as if her life force were draining away. On top of that would be the discomfort and, worst of all, the feeling of isolation that comes with uncleanness and the taboos around it. And yet Jesus ignores the taboo for the sake of relationship and, perhaps, honor. He doesn’t permit this touch to remain an anonymous, passive healing on his part; he lets himself be sidetracked from hurrying to the synagogue leader’s home long enough to find the person who has reached out to him with a touch that is more specific, more intentional, than merely jostling him in the crowd. Perhaps the crowd wanted to get near a celebrity, but this woman was reaching for her life. Jesus felt both her weariness and her deep hope. How could he simply walk away?
The other nameless woman in need is barely a woman, just twelve years old (that means the older woman has been bleeding during this girl’s entire lifetime) and ready to begin adult life, ready, in her own turn, to produce life through children. However, an unknown illness has struck her down, driving her father to extremes in his desperate search for help. He’s a person with a measure of prestige, respected in his community, accustomed no doubt to being listened to by people not as highly placed as he was, people without his knowledge and the power that it brings. He was a leader, a religious leader, and yet this precious child’s illness has reduced him, weakened him, lowered him to the ground in front of a traveling folk healer in a last-ditch effort to prevent the worst from happening. This man’s name is known to us: Jairus. His name in Greek is a clue to what is going to happen: it means ‘he who will be awakened, or he is enlightened’.
It is said that in Jesus time, 60 percent of live births usually died by their mid-teens. The gift of a child must have seemed too precarious to invest in wholeheartedly, yet this man couldn’t bear to lose his little girl even at a time when daughters were not valued as much as sons.
By going to this itinerant preacher-healer who was already in trouble with the authorities — authorities like him — he risks being ridiculed, and he risks missing the last few precious moments in his daughter’s life.
It seems to me that desperation, not faith, drives the synagogue leader to Jesus and his moment of faith comes a little while later, when the news arrives of his daughter’s death. Jesus then preaches the shortest sermon of his career: ‘Do not fear,’ he says to the grief-besotted man, ‘only believe.’ This sermon was not just for Jairus’ benefit, and not just for the early church Mark addressed, but for all of us who suffer from the human condition, who are up against things we cannot control.
Into the midst of all of this comes the silent woman with a hemorrhage, without the boldness of the leader, simply hoping for one healing touch. Faithfulness or fear, desperation or hope: there’s no alternative for either one of these people, and they do whatever they have to do, whatever it takes, for the sake of healing and new life. We can connect this woman with the young girl at home, who lies dying, but we can also connect her with three other nameless women in Mark’s Gospel. Like this woman, the Syrophoenician woman, whose daughter was ill (7:24-31), the poor widow (12:41-44), and the woman who anointed His feet with oil (14:3-8) are all positive models of faith in contrast to the (named) male disciples. In their initiative, boldness, theological insight, they are fine examples of discipleship. You might say that they ‘get’ who Jesus is.
Right there, on the road to one work of mercy, Jesus ‘the multi-tasker’, encounters another person in need. His mission is interrupted, no doubt upsetting the synagogue leader who is, understandably, in a rush to get Jesus to his home. We spoke last week as interruptions as invitations. Grace means that God has no task more urgent than to bend to assist those who seek help.
How often do we have an agenda for our day that gets interrupted in unexpected (or predictable) ways, and find that our response to the interruption is more important than our original plans?
For Jesus, the most important thing in that moment is to face the person who has touched him, to encounter her as a human being and not just as an anonymous touch. Eugene Peterson translates his words in this way: “Daughter, you took a risk of faith, and now you’re healed and whole. Live well, live blessed! Be healed of your plague”. Jesus then continues on his journey to the synagogue official’s daughter.
When they arrive at Jairus’ home, they make “their way through the gossips looking for a story and neighbors bringing casseroles”. Perhaps Peterson makes the crowd sound like some of us church folks today, but in those days it was the custom to have “hired mourners,” and Jesus speaks to them in much
other hand, Perhaps, though, they wept and wailed because they didn’t have it in them to pretend that the death of a child is anything but the tragic and unspeakable thing that it is, and Jesus didn’t say anything to make them change their minds, didn’t tell them that it was God’s will or anything like that.
Unlike the noisy, dramatic, terrifying storm of people outside, it must have been a tender scene, in the quiet that surrounds the sorrow for a dead child, yet Jesus is once again calm and confident. Instead of raising his hand to command the sea to calm down, he reaches down to invite the little girl to rise up and live. And the little girl does get up “immediately,” and walks around, to the amazement of all. Jesus has to be the one to remember that she might be hungry after her ordeal, and tells them to feed her. He doesn’t miss the most ordinary, and compassionate, details.
One can not read this text and easily avoid the question of faith and healing, or the related question of prayer. Most painfully, we ask why everyone who suffers is not healed, even when they do have faith, even when they pray and believe and trust God. This question is most painful when it cries out in regard to one’s own child, just as Jairus watches his little girl, his beloved daughter, suffer with a life-threatening illness. Neither the pastor nor the parent finds an easy answer at such a moment.
Many biblical commentators have wrestled mightily with these questions and find no easy answers in this passage. But they often take this opportunity to explore the purpose of prayer. To often we see prayer as a means of getting God to do what we want and give us the things we believe would be best for us. But what is more to the point is prayer’s uncanny ability, on the other hand, to center us in God’s will, to be changed ourselves rather than thinking that we can change God, or God’s mind about things. Jesus himself prayed for a miracle, for deliverance from suffering, the night before he died.
Still, he did God’s will and trusted God’s goodness all the way to the End.
The real mystery behind prayer, then is: “God’s mind may or may not be changed, but I – my mind and heart – may be”. Miracles are not always what we imagine, and neither is healing. In fact, one theologian suggests that healing might be experienced as ‘the restoration of meaning to people’s lives no matter what their physical condition might be”.
It seems to me that the scholars are reading in this text a lesson about trust and openness. They find in this story a basis for our lives to led in ways that are generous: generous with ourselves and with what we have, with our time and our money and our gifts, generous and open to those who come into our lives. In our second reading today Paul reminds us at length about generosity and sharing.
Jairus’ daughter lies dying today in little girls jeopardized by illness, lack of food and water and the necessities of life, the safety and security they deserve. What sort of miracle would it take for us to transform the world’s systems, and the hearts of its people, so that all children in need can rise up to new life? We might feel overwhelmed by the suffering of children around the world, and find ourselves accepting it, if only passively, out of our helplessness. However, Jesus reminds us that all of these suffering people are on God’s mind. The question of whether human misery, the ongoing process of being born, of being ill and dying, are somehow outside God’s concern. The real question we have to ask ourselves is whether they are outside of our concern. The Church itself must face the fact that Jesus refuses to keep himself removed from those who are declared unclean by religious authorities. The Church must reflect upon the way it treats all of God’s children. Clearly, Jesus calls us to follow in his ways. How well do you think we are doing with that?
Put yourself in the place of the little girl, as Jesus speaks to us, taking our hand and telling us to rise up and live: “You who believe, and you who sometimes believe and sometimes don’t believe much of anything, and you who would give almost anything to believe if only you could….’Get up,’ he says, all of you – all of you!
Jesus gives life not only to the dead, but to those of us who are only partly alive; who much of the time live with our lives closed to the wild beauty and miracle of every day we live and even of ourselves. That is the power at the heart of this story and all of our stories: the power of new life, new hope, new being. Whether we take notice or not, miracles happen around us every day, and every single breath we take is a free surprise from God. Faith does not work miracles. God does. And every miracle gives a taste of the reign of God that is to come.
What miracles have you seen in your own life? What miracles have you missed, only to perceive them as such much later? How might this story apply to the life of a parish today? Are there parishes – and whole Churches — that appear to be dying or even dead, that might yet rise up and live? Kathryn Matthews Huey