June 28 (Proper 8), Church of the Nativity, San Rafael
The Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-15; 2:23-24; Psalm 30; II Cor. 8:7-15; Mark 5:21-43
This has been quite a week in the news! Last Sunday we had already heard of the horrific murders at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, but since then we continue to both shake our heads at the mindless hatred that brought the deaths about, and stand in awe of the faith of family members who said to the killer “we forgive you, may God have mercy on you.” Their extraordinary witness to what faith can do and how it can change us should be sufficient to move our hearts to pray for the same kind of faith, and to examine how we forgive others.
More recent public announcements have brought news of justice in housing equality, of mercy for the poor in access to health care, and a Supreme Court decision that means a more inclusive reality of belonging for all who want to be legally married. Quite a week for those many consider to be the “other”, the “outsiders”, or the “least in our midst.”
In today’s gospel we have a story of a seriously ill 12 year old girl, a story split in half by a second story about a woman in need of healing. Why are these two different stories arranged in such a way? The same strange arrangement here in Mark’s gospel is also found in Luke and Matthew’s retelling of the story, so clearly it is not an accident – what are our modern ears meant to hear?
I suspect there are layers of meaning in these two stories bound together, as there always are in stories. But clearly the link between these two “daughters”, the daughter of Jairus, leader of the synagogue, and the woman Jesus calls “daughter”, is that they are the least, the unimportant, in the midst of society.
In the first story, the unnamed daughter of Jairus is called “my little daughter” by her father, and “little girl” (talitha) by Jesus – she must therefore be pre-puberty, not of marrying age quite yet. She is a child, and a girl child at that, a sort of sub-human possession, but also a source of great worry, because at 12 years old, she is close to being a woman. In a shame and honor society, keeping unmarried daughters pure was a major concern – the honor of the whole family was concerned. But – she is loved – her father, a synagogue leader – falls at the feet of Jesus and “begged him repeatedly.” To drop down on one’s knees is to be a humble begger - Jairus does this publicly – he doesn’t care what people think.
In the second story, an unnamed woman enters into the crowd and touches Jesus’ clothes. This woman has been bleeding for 12 years – as long as the little girl has been alive. Let’s be clear here – this poor woman has had a 12-year period, this is not just any blood, this is the blood that makes her unclean. In Jewish law, purity and impurity are the defining categories of life. Because she is contaminated, defiled, she is a total outsider to society. No one can sleep in the same bed as her, no one can sit in a chair on which she has sat, no one can eat the food she has cooked – otherwise they will be made unclean. Purity laws – laid down anciently in the book of Leviticus – were ways to keep the unchangeable realm of the holy pure in Judaism. To be sick, to be impure, to be unclean was a moral charge – sickness = sin in this world, an equation that has taken us a long time to get over.
She touches Jesus – making him unclean religiously and socially, but – instead the opposite happens. She becomes clean, she is healed from touching Jesus. The one who is ostracized, poor and alone is reincorporated back into society – this is a social healing, as well as a physical healing. And Jesus calls her “daughter” – now she has a family – “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”
Then Mark brings us back to the second story, Jesus accompanies Jairus back to his home and again breaks religious and social boundaries. To touch a dead body was defiling, it makes one unclean. But Jesus takes the girl “by the hand” and pulls her up – and again, he is not defiled, but she is resuscitated, raised up, healed.
The teaching of Jesus has not changed – he never taught that the sins of the parents fell onto their children, he never taught that some people were more worthy than others to desire and strive for and be within the kingdom of God. He never taught that sin was catching through touch – that sinners should be shunned. The invitation to repentance is for all, the invitation to follow Christ is for all. The problem is that through the ages we – in our humanly constructed societies – have been unable to put this into action. Laws change, our understandings of purity and impurity, of the outsider and the stranger, of the sinner and the ostracized change – but, because of our individual and humanly constructed reality, sometimes they change very slowly…
One example of how central theological ideas really do chance in the church: the majority of the Anglican prayer books, until very recently, maintained the relationship of sin and sickness as causal – sickness was at least partially caused by personal sin. Here this from the visitation of the sick in the1662 prayer book, THE prayer book for centuries and still the primary book in many parts of the world.
Dearly beloved, know this, that Almighty God is the Lord of life and death, and of all things to them pertaining, as youth, strength, health, age, weakness, and sickness. Wherefore, whatsoever your sickness is, know you certainly, that it is God’s visitation. And for what cause soever this sickness is sent unto you; whether it be to try your patience, for the example of others, and that your faith may be found in the day of the Lord laudable, glorious, and honourable…or else it be sent unto you to correct and amend in you whatsoever doth offend the eyes of your heavenly Father; know you certainly, that if y truly repent you of your sins, and bear your sickness patiently, trusting in God’s mercy for his dear Son Jesus Christ’s sake, and render unto him humble thanks for his fatherly visitation, submitting yourself wholly unto his will, it shall turn to your profit, and help you forward in the right way that leadeth unto everlasting life.”
Today we understand the human person in a holistic way – we are physical, mental, spiritual, emotional, social beings – and sickness of any kind affects the whole person, but sickness is not caused by personal sin, it is not a punishment from God.
The theological introduction to EOW II reminds us that “there continues to be a residue of older prayers and hymns suggesting that illness is judgment from God on the individual” those materials are to be avoided (page 14), but there is also a return to real healing, rather than curing: “healing must never be seen as an end in itself. Scripture teaches us that Jesus’ healings were a sign of the reign of God come near…healing is not merely the alleviation of affliction, but testimony to the wholeness and salvation God intends for us.” (page 16)
This is but one example of how the Holy Spirit finally got through – a return to the gospel, a return to the primary context of Jesus’ teaching and example – God is love, love one another, do and be for others. True healing of communities must be based on what are the primary teachings of Christianity, discerned in tradition and wisdom and open to the newness of the Spirit.
In a commentary on today’s gospel, Betsey Barber focusses on the seemingly odd line that Jesus commands the parents of the little girl to do – “and he told them to give her something to eat.” Barber says that this is proof that the girl is not dead, only the living eat. But, she says, we too, when we are pulled from death by the hand of God and the voice of God, will arise to eat at the “marriage supper of the Lamb.” We have the honor of eating and drinking at this the foretaste of the marriage supper of the Lamb – the eucharist that sustains us in this inbetween time, between the first and the second coming of Christ. Happy are those who are called to the supper of the Lamb – and even as we say “Lord, we are not worthy that you may come under our roof, but only say the word and we shall be healed.
We hear in this gift the words of the psalmist today: “O Lord my God, I cried out to you, and you restored me to health…weeping may spend the night, but joy comes in the morning.” Thanks be to God!