Sermon Mark 5:21-43
Rev. Felicity O’Brien 1 July 2012, all rights reserved. PDF
Have you ever greeted a child after a really exciting day at school? If you have, you’ll remember how the words and the facts just tumbled out, with explanations popped in after the facts, and how other bits of the story interrupt as the child, telling you about their really exciting day, can’t wait to convey as much information and emotion as they can.
Well, today’s gospel is a bit like this.
Technically, we can say that the story of the woman with the bleeding problem is ‘bracketed’ inside the story of Jairus’ daughter. But the breathless way much of Mark’s gospel tumbles onto the page reminds us of the child, with something so exciting to tell that it just splurges out, with minimum of explanation, except where absolutely necessary to make sense of it, and with minimal reflection. Mark leaves it up to us to figure out the implications.
There are two stories here – both involving faith, and both about women. It’s interesting how many of Mark’s healing stories involve women- nearly half of them are about women. Does this reflect the time when they were written? Well, no. First-century Palestine, from our perspective, looks patriarchal, male-dominated, with women particularly constrained by various purity laws and regulations. Indeed, in a court of law, the testimony of a woman was only worth half that of a man. But Jesus’ ministry, as we see it here, affirms women.
Let’s look at the middle story first – that of the woman with the bleeding problem. Jesus doesn’t treat the woman with the ‘woman’s problem’ as unworthy of his attention. You know, I wish we knew her name, but again, Mark is light on details. She would have been ritually unclean according to Old Testament laws, and anyone encountering her was unclean. If she had been married, her husband, if he hadn’t divorced her, would have considered unclean, and barred from public worship, as she was.
We are told a little of her medical history – she had consulted many physicians about her problem, which may have been something like a fibroid tumour of her uterus. She needed a good gynaecologist. She had been losing blood for 12 years, so was probably anaemic and weak. She had spent all her money so she would have been destitute, at the edge of despair, unable to worship God in the synagogue, so an external profession of faith was not available to comfort her. But she knew Jesus could heal her.
She went out into the crowds, unclean and all, and probably embarrassed, wondering whether the rags she bound around herself would keep the blood from being noticed. She pressed in towards Jesus, bravely ignoring the others, and touched his garment. In doing so she would have been making him unclean too, but she had faith that he could heal her.
Jesus knew that power had gone out of him. He could feel the change, and stopped. When he asked, “who touched me?” his disciples thought, what a ridiculous question! There are thousands of people pressing in here, it’s all we can do to stop getting knocked off our feet, and he’s asking who touched me? Jesus could see her faith. He knew that it was more than just a mere brush against his clothes from someone jostling forward.
The woman came to Jesus, and, fearfully, told him the whole story. He listened to it – he didn’t interrupt and send her away in disgust, or rebuke her for making him unclean. He didn’t need to worry about his own status with God. But he gave her the time of day, he listened. This is a good picture for us to absorb, Jesus standing there listening while this poor unclean lowly woman tells him the whole story.
Sometimes we can be so quick to jump in with a solution that we don’t listen to the whole story.
When Jesus spoke, he commended her faith. This is a really important point in her story.
Jesus didn’t say, “My power has made you well”. He said, “your faith has made you well”.
She had already felt something change in her body, and knew that she was healed.
When she was telling Jesus her tale she must have felt a growing confidence that she would be alright from now on. Imagine her bubbling up excitement as the whole tale tumbled out – and then let’s imagine how she felt when Jesus affirmed her as he said ‘your faith has made you well.’
What does this story have for us? There are two important themes here – first, that no matter how ‘unclean’ or sick we are, that Jesus is always ready and willing for us to approach him. No matter how much society shuns us, we can approach God. No matter how much we don’t fit in, we are still loved.
People who might not look like they are outcasts from society, may still feel shunned by family, or by church communities, because of differences, such as in their sexuality. I have heard a tale of a young man who was gay, rejected by his church, and his family ostracized too. They all left and didn’t continue worshipping God in a community. Who can blame them? Would Jesus shun them? He didn’t shun the unclean woman, whose bleeding had separated her from public worship for 12 years.
Sometimes legalism can get in the way of the spirit of the Gospel, and just as we can look at Levitical rules about purity and discard them as irrelevant to modern Christian life, so we can put aside prejudices and judgmentalism, and love people as Jesus does. Jesus was really radical in turning upside down the expectations of the established religion – when I look at how religion has made so many walls out of the freedom of the Gospel message, I can imagine Jesus watching, shaking his head in sorrow.
The other point in this story is that of faith. The woman had faith. She knew that Jesus had the power to heal her. She knew who he was. She knew she could approach him. But her faith in him came as the last resort. She had spent all her money over the last 12 years trying to be healed by doctors. She couldn’t go to the synagogue for healing so she tried the human way.
Now it may be that going to Jesus hadn’t been an option for her. Maybe this was the first time he had been to her town. But we don’t have that excuse. How often do we make asking Jesus for healing our last resort? ‘I’ve tried everything, now I can only pray.’ Well, pray first, and second, and between appointments, and keep praying. In our family, we always pray over headaches before reaching for the paracetamol. And in nine cases out of ten, that’s all it takes.
We can always approach Jesus, praying for healing, for improvement, for peace in Syria, for example. Don’t leave it till all the other options are exhausted. It may be that the woman was not able to see that asking God to heal her was an option. Perhaps as she received the gift of faith, something clicked and she just knew that this is what she had to do.
The gift of faith is so special. It gives us an anchor, when everything else is swirling around and uncertain. We can trust it. Like any other gift, if it sits on the shelf, wrapped up in a box, it can’t be used. Unpack it, use it.
The other part of today’s Gospel reading , which starts before the lady we have just seen, and finishes after her healing, is also about faith. In this case Jairus was a leader of the synagogue – ironic that the very thing denied to the woman in the other story was an important part of his identity. Jairus knew who Jesus was too. He begged repeatedly for Jesus to lay hands on his daughter and heal her. Jesus’ reputation was getting about – Mark has already told us in preceding chapters about six individuals being healed, and several instances of crowds coming for healing and deliverance. Jairus knew what could happen when Jesus laid hands.
His daughter was terribly sick. He would do anything to restore her to health. Many of the healing stories in Mark have a parent begging for healing or deliverance for their child. Jesus set off for Jairus’ place. On the way, the other story took place. But Jesus was still talking to the woman, Jairus’story cuts in again, interrupts, takes over. The worst has happened, the girl had died. This part of the story seems shockingly blunt.
But that wasn’t the end of the story. Death is never the end of the story when we live in the hope of resurrection with Christ. Jesus however is not blunt, but kind.’ Do not fear, only believe’. What wonderful comforting words. Can you imagine the turmoil going on in Jairus’ mind, being told that his daughter had died, but then Jesus seeming to offer him hope. He didn’t want to believe that she had died, it couldn’t be true. He must have seen something in Jesus to know that there as an alternative version of reality, that it wasn’t the end. His faith in Jesus, his recognition of Jesus, kept them hurrying to Jairus’ house.
Jesus sent everyone else away – the crowd were probably still stunned at the other healing that had taken place, and were trying to comprehend it. Jesus just took his closest disciples. The friends and neighbours were wailing and mourning the death of the young girl.
She was obviously much loved. This is interesting, in that we see a young girl who was valued, both in Jairus going for help, and in those people mourning for her. We can contrast that with the fate of young girls in parts of the Old Testament – where Lot was ready to let his daughters be used by the crowd in order to protect his guests. That seems unthinkable, and Jairus’ actions seem completely natural from our perspective, but in this contrast we do see a shift in attitudes. Jesus affirms the value of the young girl in going to lay hands on her.
Mark gives us a crisp and clear account of Jesus’ actions. He told the girl to get up, in his heart language of Aramaic. She not only got up but was strong enough to walk about. This was indeed a miraculous healing. It wasn’t just a rallying, a regaining of consciousness, a lowering of a fever, but she could actually get out of bed! And then, the lovely practical, nurturing touch of giving her something to eat. Jesus knows even our most basic needs.
This story parallels the themes from the other story – that the woman whether older and unclean, or still a much-loved child, is a valuable part of the community, and has access to God’s love and healing. -that those who are of little consequence are still important in the eyes of God. We can take this as reassurance that when we feel insignificant and forgotten, when no one rings us up, or we are overlooked for promotion, that God still values us, for who we are.
We can also take this as a challenge to value others as God does – no matter how people may not seem to be successful in the eyes of the world, they are still worthy of our love. No matter how much they annoy or even disgust us, love is not optional. If everyone who knew that they were loved by God really could see the ‘unloveable’ as God does, what a difference that would make to our world!
We can’t do it on our own, that’s why God gave us faith. Faith in God’s love for everyone, God’s care and concern, and the resurrection power of the Holy Spirit. Jairus had faith, that Jesus could and would heal his daughter, even when it looked hopeless. Even when he was a leader of the established synagogue and he might be seen to be departing from doctrine, or tradition, in even asking Jesus. But Jairus begged Jesus, repeatedly. He wasn’t going to be put off by what his standing in society would have him do. His faith in Jesus was what restored his daughter to life.
Here’s a question to take away with you.– does your faith in Jesus restore you to life?