2 Sam 1:1, 17-27; Ps 130; 2 Cor 8:7-15; MARK 5:21-43
Let us wait for the Lord…in whose word is my hope.AMEN.
Today we hear a tense, story within a story, a sandwiched story. It pictures Jesus in action, showing who he is by showing what he does. It’s worth pausing to comment about Mark’s Gospel, its goals and techniques, because we’ll hear chunks until Advent. Today’s healings are one story, typical of Mark in form and content.
(Mary Fairchild and Jesuit Felix Just write overviews of this earliest Gospel, once thought to have been written second. I paraphrase.) This Gospel was written to prove that Jesus Christ is the Messiah. In a dramatic and action-packed sequence of events, Mark paints a striking image of Jesus Christ, illustrating who Jesus is as a person. Mark reveals the ministry of Jesus in vivid detail and presents the messages of his teaching more through what he did than what he said. He shows Jesus to be Servant. Mark records more miracles of Christ than do the other Gospels aiming to demonstrate Jesus as divine. Mark shows Jesus, the Messiah, giving his life in service to mankind and explaining his mission and message through his actions. Mark shows these actions for us to follow, learning by Jesus’ example, and calling us each to personal fellowship with Jesus through daily discipleship.
Mark’s Gospel uses several striking narrative techniques. Jesus is always on the move. Mark links the stories, often beginning sentences with “and” which pushes the narrative along, as does using “immediately” over and over. Both words propel the Gospel, giving it a somewhat breathless feel. Mark also tells stories within a story to emphasize its point. This is a pattern repeated ten times—ten—so it must be intentional. Some lectionary choices though have omitted the middle story in this morning’s narrative. Such choose to tell the story of Jairus’s plea and Jesus’ action for his daughter, leaving out the woman who interrupts that action. I think there are three reasons for that mistaken editing of this healing story. First I think there’s male squeamishness with the woman’s hemorrhages, whether for the blood or the reason for that bleeding, a visceral or even visual antipathy to the story. Next I think there has been a resistance to noticing patterns of writing that show clearly that the Gospel didn’t fall out of someone’s mouth as is, or as it happened, but clearly was created in a form to best demonstrate the points of the story. To those critics Jesus is better shown to be Messiah if the Gospel is understood as a play-by-play account without artistry, technique, or intentional writing a factor— it just happened like this. They recognize that the sandwiched stories are too crafted to be just as it happened. Those critics find these stories both less authentic and in some way diminish the Messiah-ship of Jesus. That’s just silly. Third, some critics think the point of this story is the last sentence, “He strictly ordered them that no one should know this.” This is referred to as the Messianic Secret, that Mark was showing that Jesus wanted his identity to be a guarded secret. This was an academic theory of the early nineteenth century, and apparently scholars have repudiated it since the 1970’s, thinking instead that Jesus was not keeping his identity a secret, but wanted to be able to move around, go where he chose, without being crowded out by masses of people.
If the point of Mark’s Gospel is to see Jesus demonstrate through his actions that he is Messiah, keeping those actions secret makes little sense, making Mark’s point less effective. Clearly, I hear this Gospel as one: a story within a story.
There are two healings in today’s one narrative. It begins with Jairus, a frantic father, demanding, begging, imploring Jesus to come and lay hands on his daughter, at the point of death. Consider time and distance in antiquity, and yet we feel the urgency of Jairus’ plea. We ask ourselves questions like—how did Jairus know his daughter was so sick, who told him, how long was there between knowing she was ill and getting to Jesus, and so on. Mark conveys that breathless quality of Jairus’ begging Jesus to come, and come immediately.
A woman, a no one, one without name or status, and made unclean by her years of hemorrhaging, interrupts Jairus, a man of rank and status. She had heard about Jesus and said to herself, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” She did and immediately her bleeding stopped, but Jesus felt some power had gone out of him. He asks who touched him, and his disciples try to dissuade him from pausing to find that out, given the size and pressure of the crowd. The woman came to him in “fear and trembling” to admit that she’d touched him. “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” These details and more fill out this scene, making it real. Can’t you hear this woman sigh, and say, “Caught. Here I am, I touched your garment, and why not? What’s it to you, are you going to make me untouch you?” She is both scared and defensive, and yet she must have been so elated and relieved, filled with the joy of health and experiencing the reality of knowing Jesus as Messiah in the jolt she felt when she touched his robe. We see her in shadow, in ragged clothes hidden and indistinct. We see her hand reach out for that hem, and her distance from Jesus as he raced along, and she felt her own healing, and must have felt stunned. Did she stop in place and feel herself whole and healed, and then caught, summoned to admit she’d grabbed at that hem. Surely she must have been torn between wanting to melt back into the crowd and wanting to meet Jesus, look at him, acknowledge her health and gratitude to him, and recognize him as her hero, savior, and wonder whether he was the long awaited Messiah. Could she see that in him? Was that too unbelievable or even scary, or was she eager to know that of him. Because she is both unnamed and unknowable, we can put our own questions and images into her story, leaning to reach out to him as Messiah.
We cannot linger though with her, because Jairus is there pressing in, demanding by rank, that Jesus accompany him immediately for his daughter. Jesus heals not to manage and maintain an urgent care clinic, but with a bigger goal. We care about the child, since she’s only 12, with a long life ahead of her, but she’s at the point of death. Jairus uses his power for access to Jesus, but he sounds like any, every, desperate parent, and we return to his urgency and forget the woman. Mark uses details to link the stories—she’s been ill for 12 years, the child is 12—and the latter is significant. Because the girl is 12, she’s old enough to be married, to give life in her culture as an adult. For the woman, though, 12 doesn’t seem like a necessary number, but 12 links her to the child artistically. There’s also the hurriedness of the woman’s encounter in interrupting Jairus, and his hurrying for his daughter. The speediness of the stories is about time and urgency, and that urgency melds the stories into one narrative. Their unity then emphasizes the point of the story and so the point of Jesus’ work, life, and mission.
Paul suggests that Jesus, or any faithful person, is to finish doing something according to one’s available means, and Jesus could heal these two—woman and girl. Stopping his traveling with the disciples, he could do this, so he felt it important and urgent to do, as we are always called to act when we can. Here, Jesus’ action kept Jairus from being a grieving father, keening “How are the mighty fallen,” to grieve for a beloved youth. David’s lament has echoed through the ages, and hearing it, we’re primed to wonder whether that will be Jairus’ lot even if he urges Jesus to come to his home for his daughter. Jairus says nothing, but is ordered, with the household, to get her something to eat and tell no one. This parental grief of David makes us ready to side with Jairus when he asks Jesus to come with him.
Jesus is responding to Jairus and in our ears Jesus keeps Jairus from repeating David’s lament. Jesus’ agenda was not just that, though. He was serving the two sick women. While he was following Jairus’ request, his point was to serve, to heal, and to save each woman. He was living into his mission to serve people to save them and to reveal himself as Messiah. Here he doesn’t talk about what he’s doing. In fact, he tells the woman “Your faith has made you well.” With her healing in the middle of the story of the girl, we see that it was not only faith, but it was his action that saved both. Only the Holy One could heal a woman ill for so long, the despair of doctors and community, a person who’d become unclean and out of the possibility of living in community. When Jesus arrived at the girl’s house, people reported her as dead. Only the Holy One could heal a dead person, raise them from the dead. The two healings merge into one story previewing Jesus’ own death, resurrection, ascension, and identification with and as Messiah, with the living force of the Holy One, our Savior, there for us, urging us to emulate him as servant, and there to save us always: Good News.
© Katharine C. Black 1 July 2012