July 1, 2012
Last Sunday, we saw Jesus and his disciples crossing the lake from Jewish territory to Gentile territory. This week, he is back on the Jewish side of the lake and the two healings that take place are significant precisely because they involve Jews.
The contrast between these two stories couldn’t be more striking. This is a favorite technique of Mark’s, to tell a story within a story. In doing so, he presents us with two very different sets of characters, two very different healings, and in those contrasts, hopes we will learn something new about Jesus.
Jesus and his disciples are walking along. They have returned from their visit to the other side of the lake, a journey we saw them on last week. As they go, they encounter Jairus, a ruler of the synagogue, who implores Jesus to come and heal his sick 12-year old daughter. And so they go.
But before they can get very far, Jesus has another encounter. He hardly notices it, only because he senses power going out from him does he realize that someone has come to him. It’s a woman. She’s been suffering from hemorrhages of blood for twelve years. That makes her ritually impure, and contagious to those she encounters. And she’s tried everything, doctors, quack cures. This is her last, desperate, grasping at straws, attempt to be healed. So she sneaks in through the crowd, touches Jesus’ cloak, and is healed.
When Jesus asks, “who touched me” his disciples respond with ridicule. There’s a crowd pressing around, how can we know, why are you worried about having been touched in the jostling? But Jesus persists, and the woman, in fear and trembling, comes clean. The contrast between the boldness of her actions in seeking healing and her response when challenged by Jesus is striking. In fear and trembling, she falls down at his feet, and “told him the whole truth.” Jesus comforts her: “Daughter, your faith has made you well, go in peace.”
As soon as the woman leaves, messengers from Jairus arrive to tell Jesus that there’s no point in continuing on to Jairus’ home. The girl has died. But Jesus persists, telling him, “Do not fear, only believe.” When they arrive, they are greeted by another crowd. This time, instead of jostling for position, the crowd is weeping and wailing, mourning the girl’s death. Jesus takes his closest disciples with him, Jairus’ family, too, and enters the sickroom. This time, instead of being touched by the one who would be healed, Jesus reaches out his hand to touch her. He tells her, get up. She does, restored to life and to her family.
There’s a lot that could be said about these two healing stories. They are about Jesus’ power to heal and give life to people. But they are also about something else. The ruler of the synagogue who comes pleading to Jesus could be contrasted with the woman whose hemorrhaging of blood has made her unclean for twelve years, barred from entering the temple. The ruler can expect Jesus to pay attention. He could approach as an equal but he doesn’t. Instead, he bows at Jesus’ feet, begging him to help. The woman, on the other hand, sneaks up to Jesus. She doesn’t dare confront him. Instead, it’s enough to touch his garment. But when Jesus notices her, like Jairus, she bows in deference, fear and trembling.
The body of the ruler’s daughter, once dead, defiles, makes all those who touch it impure. By restoring her to life, and by restoring the woman to health Jesus does more than heal them, he restores them to their community. The girl, who is twelve, is born the year the woman’s illness began. They are healed on the same day.
While all of these characters in the story are fascinating, and invite us to speculate about why Mark tells these stories in just this way, what’s most important about them are the miracles themselves. We want Jesus’ miracles to help us come to faith, to prove to those around him, and to us, that he is the Messiah, the Son of God. But Mark resists that temptation. For Mark, miracles do not create faith, they are created by faith. Jesus says, “Daughter, go in peace, your faith has made you well.”
These miracles are understated. We don’t see Jesus doing anything spectacular. In the first instance, he does nothing. The woman touches him, and she is healed. In the second case, he speaks to the girl as he might to a sleeping child, gives her his hand and helps her up. Ordinary actions, done hundreds of times by a mother to her child. But in this case, Jesus raises her from the dead.
These miracles do not create faith. Like the calming of the storm, they cause fear and trembling, amazement and awe to those who see them. To those who aren’t eyewitnesses, do they know anything has happened? Will the crowd outside the ruler’s home believe it if they are told that Jesus has raised the girl from the dead? More likely, they will assume that those who thought she was dead were wrong. Things like that happen all the time.
Last week, we saw Jesus crossing boundaries, from Jewish to Gentile territory. This week, we seem he subverting boundaries again, the boundaries between pure and impure, clean and unclean, the boundary between life and death. But he did that, not to show that he could, not to challenge the status quo, but to restore people to wholeness, to bring healing.
The mission of the church, our outline of faith says, is to “restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.”
On Tuesday, General Convention of the Episcopal Church will begin in Indianapolis. For the next week and a half bishops and deputies from across the church will meet to discuss matters great and small—from the proposed liturgies for the blessing of same gender unions, to open communion, to budget and structure. No doubt the national media will check in from time to time, especially as the hot button issues are discussed and decided. I hope you will pay attention to—we have various ways for you to do so. But I hope that however you pay attention and follow events, you will ask yourself, how are the actions of our church, globally and locally, helping to “restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ?”