Near Molong, NSW 2011

Fred... and much more

Week of Sunday June 28
Gospel: Mark 5:21-43

21 When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered round him; and he was by the lake. 22Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet 23and begged him repeatedly, ‘My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.’ 24So he went with him.

And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. 25Now there was a woman who had been suffering from haemorrhages for twelve years.26She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. 27She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak,28for she said, ‘If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.’29Immediately her haemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. 30Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, ‘Who touched my clothes?’ 31And his disciples said to him, ‘You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, “Who touched me?” ’ 32He looked all round to see who had done it. 33But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. 34He said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.’

35 While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, ‘Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?’ 36But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, ‘Do not fear, only believe.’ 37He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. 38When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. 39When he had entered, he said to them, ‘Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.’ 40And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. 41He took her by the hand and said to her, ‘Talitha cum’, which means, ‘Little girl, get up!’ 42And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. 43He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.

Meet Fred. Fred has done well. He has worked hard on his business. He’s honest. He’s well respected. He’s not one of those rich people who suck the rest of us dry. Fred is a good man, and he gives back to the community.

Fred also has a conscience. He’s always understood that a fair bit of his success in business was plain luck. He was in the right place at the right time. Ten years earlier and his good idea would not have appealed to the market. Ten years later... well, the competition would have drowned him out. “More good luck than good management,” he used to say. People appreciated his humility and honesty.

Fred was there when Matthew heard Jesus say, “Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” (Matt 9:13 cf Matt 12:7 Hosea 6:6) And those old words from Hosea burned into his mind. “Compassion! That’s the key; that’s the essence of being human; that’s the essence of serving God! Compassion.”

Then it happened. The apple of his eye, that gorgeous daughter whose innocence and wholeness was a sort of symbol for all his hopes, and all he held dear, was seriously ill. She’s going to die, they said. They always do, when they get this stuff. And Fred Jairus lived up to his name-- Fred God-Enlightens, it means. Fred went and sought out Jesus. Surely someone who understood so much of God would have some kind of holiness which... well, surely some of it might somehow rub off. He’d heard rumours of healings.

And Jesus dropped everything and came-- and immediately. He really was a man of compassion. But then, in the middle of that wretched crowd that was slowing them down, apparently some woman touched him.  He said he felt the power go out of himself.

Fred was frantic. But with that startling clear-mindedness that sometimes comes to us at moments of great stress-- when we would least expect it-- Fred understood. Compassion-- mercy, not sacrifice-- means that the rich have no more precedence and no more importance before God than the poor. Perhaps the poor should even be given first place the queue; after all, the rich have done pretty well so far! So Fred waited, patient yet fearful, and Jesus healed the woman.

Which meant his little girl died before they got home. That beautiful girl. His darling. Much later, he would say to people, “It is never too late to ask for help. It is never too much to trouble the Teacher further-- although he’s much more than just another teacher.” But that day, when they said, “She’s dead, why trouble the teacher any further?” it was nearly the end of him. Is this what it means to be compassionate? Do I have to give up all the power and influence I have worked for, and lose even that-- even those! -- who are most precious to me? What else will you take from me? What do you cost? Mercy and not sacrifice!? You’ve just made me sacrifice everything!

And Jesus said, “Do not fear, only believe.”

“And that’s another thing I learned,” Fred said later. “He didn’t mean check off some list of six impossible things before breakfast. He meant, ‘Trust me. Just trust me.’ So we went back to the house, and she was dead. There’s no way out of this. She was cold-- you know how it is-- something has just gone. It’s just a body. But he took her by the hand and told her to get up. She did.”

People who knew Fred was ‘pretty hard headed, and no fool,’ would wonder what was at the back of that story. Or if Fred had lost it. But the girl was definitely alive, and as Fred would say, “Sometimes we just have to accept we don’t understand everything.” He would also say, “When you get these great insights into life-- you know, when the greater reality bursts in on you-- you have to feed it. You have to give it something to eat, or it will just degenerate into a memory that you end up being suspicious about.”

“Funny bloke, old Fred. I’m still not sure about the story about his daughter,” people would say. “But you can’t fault him for holiness and goodness. God just shines out of him. That ‘mercy not sacrifice’ thing. He personifies it.”

There’s more, of course...

Note 1
Mark is making a political point against the synagogues:  It’s a leader of the synagogue who comes for help. That he should be called Jairus is pointed: those who come to Jesus and trust him are “god-enlightened.” In this story of death and long-suffering it is Jesus who has the power, not the synagogue system.

Despite that, Jesus’ power is not the only power being highlighted. Hammerton-Kelly says of the woman

It is remarkable that the emphasis is laid on her faith and not on Jesus' power. We are told that he felt power go from him when first she touched him (5:30); nevertheless, what the woman did is emphasized rather than what Jesus did. (Quoted by Paul Nuechterlein)

And Jairus, too, has faith. He is not even given the symbol of clothes to touch: only the command to trust. Perhaps unless we trust and act, all our statements about the power of Jesus remain words, even platitudes.

Note 2
Both stories—  it’s a Markan sandwich, after all—  concern healing. They play off each other and interpret each other. Here is some of the interplay between them.

Nuechterlein quotes Ched Myers and others in "Say to This Mountain": Mark's Story of Discipleship,

In the art of narrative, every detail is there for a reason, and Mark’s “aside” that the girl was twelve years old is a good case in point. She has lived affluently for twelve years, and is just on the edge of puberty. In contrast, the bleeding woman had suffered for twelve years, permanently infertile. This number symbolizes the twelve tribes of Israel (3:13; see Chapter 4), and represents the key to the social meaning of this doublet. Within the “family” of Israel, these “daughters” represent the privileged and the impoverished, respectively. Because of such inequity, the body politic of the synagogue is “on the verge of death.”

The healing journey must, however, take a necessary detour that stops to listen to the pain of the crowd. Only when the outcast woman is restored to true “daughterhood” can the daughter of the synagogue be restored to true life. That is the faith the privileged must learn from the poor. This story thus shows a characteristic of the sovereignty of God that Jesus will later address: The “last will be first” and the “least will be greatest” (see 10:31, 43).

I like the "detour that stops to listen to the pain of the crowd." In a sense the woman is the crowd. She is like the growing number of poor and disenfranchised in Australia whom the powers ignore as they seek to subvert the rule of law, and seek to reframe legislation to benefit the rich. [For some reason, my spell checker grabbed hold of "reframe," and inserted "refranchise" into the text. Who said machines cannot be intelligent!?]

Nuechterlein develops this further.

While Jesus paused to listen to this nameless, penniless, unclean woman, the daughter of this important, named leader of the synagogue has died. Isn't there a scandal here? In a society of winners and losers, Jairus' daughter clearly should have come first, and this woman second. But Jesus lets her interrupt his mission of healing. She is not just some loser by comparison, but in fact is every bit as much of a "daughter" as is the daughter of this important official. Jesus does not get caught up in the usual human games of winners and losers.

The stories as we have them concern people, but Debra Dean Murphy shows us the wider implications of these collisions of class.

... Scripture is quite clear that healing has to do with the mending of all creation, and that curing the sick has to do primarily with restoring a person to his or her community. ...  As Wendell Berry puts it: “the community—in the fullest sense: a place and all its creatures—is the smallest unit of health and… to speak of the health of an isolated individual is a contradiction in terms.” When we pray for someone to get well— to be healed of an illness or infirmity— our prayer also ought to be for the well-being of the place, the people, the neighborhood, the land: the whole “kin-dom” to which that person is connected, “kin to,” as we say in the South— to which he or she is bound in relationships of mutual responsibility and care. When Jesus says to the woman, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease,” it is an invitation to full restoration.

Note 3: Blood
My own website has several treatments of Mark 5:21-43. I have long been intrigued by the interplay of the two women; one twelve years old, on the cusp of life, but dying, and the other bleeding, almost dying, for twelve years.

As I write in 2009,

My colleague Anne Butler brought this story alive one morning in college chapel. She read verses from Leviticus, about bodily secretions, which I have never heard read in church, before or since. These verses deal with the uncleanness of women. Then Anne read the story of the woman with the flow of blood from Mark. By healing her, she proclaimed, Jesus made all women clean.

I went on in that post to say

The interesting thing about today's reading is that we have two stories, one inside the other. The story of Jairus' daughter begins, is interrupted by the story of the woman, and then continues. This is a sure sign that Mark intends us to understand that the two stories are related to each other. So we need to look at both stories to understand either of them....

Do you notice that the woman bled for 12 years, and the girl was 12 years old. For twelve years the woman had been as good as dead, because her bleeding was seen to make her unclean and cut her off from all of the life of Israel. She was utterly isolated, no one could even live in the same house with her. [So I said, but see below.] And at twelve years old, the age when you begin to bleed, the age when girls were usually betrothed to be married5, the age when you became a woman! ....the little girl dies. Is it not odd that at the time of healing of one woman, another is raised to life, and that their stories be told together? I once asked in a bible study how many women were healed on this day... and one of the women present said "Only one." Both women she realised, were in one sense, the same person.

You will see similar treatments in 2006 and two of them in 2012. (Here and here)

What I say in them about the misogyny of men, and about the burden which that hate puts upon women remains true; if you are male, I encourage you to read them. Indeed, I think matters are worse. However, there is serious challenge to the characterisation of Judaism as excessively misogynist or sexist. What I have done in these posts is make Jesus into some kind of "anomalous" Jew. In making him the non-sexist hero I am expressing likely unwarranted anti Jewish sentiment.

In Chapter five of her book The Misunderstood Jew, Amy Jill Levine writes of our text

Christian feminists tend to love this story for, selectively interpreted, it plays perfectly into the argument that Jesus rejects any religious practice that would keep women from being equal to men. The problem with the argument is that it rests on faulty historical reasoning, and bad history cannot lead to good theology. Although no version of the story cites Leviticus, mentions impurity, expresses surprise at a bleeding woman in public, finds odd Jesus’s touching a corpse, or portrays Jesus as abrogating any Law, New Testament scholars import all this and more.... Thus we read of the “woman’s courage in breaking with crippling cultural taboos imposed on her so as to reach Jesus directly and be fully restored and integrated as a person with full rights in her society.”12 The inevitable conclusion of this reading is its practical payoff for women in the church today: “To continue to exclude women from certain Christian ministries on the basis of outmoded Jewish taboos is to render null and void the liberation that Jesus won for us.”13 The end, the liberation of women today, does not, however, justify the means, the false portrait of Judaism.

      The term “taboo” is already loaded; “crippling cultural taboos” much more so. Both are unwarranted. There is no reason why the woman would not be in public; there is no reason why she should not seek Jesus’s help. No crowd parts before her with the cry, “Get away, get away, hemorrhaging woman!” No authorities restrict her to her house or require her to proclaim herself “Unclean, unclean.” And, finally, Jesus abrogates no Laws concerning any “crippling cultural taboos,” for there is no Law forbidding the woman to touch him or him to touch her. [I only have this book on Kindle, so have no meaningful page numbers. As noted above, we are in Chapter 5. Andrew]

Guilty as charged. I think Levine’s argument is rather akin to what I might say to my atheist friend: It’s hardly fair to take unreasonable statements from one Christian like Fred Nile or Ken Ham(— sorry America!) and extrapolate them to the whole church.

So why do we Christians quote a rabbi here and there who was clearly a misogynist pig and assume that all Jews were like that? Moreover, just because the Old Testament has some extreme views about purity (as we see it) does not mean they were what everyone lived by in Jesus’ time. After all, do we live by, or assent to, some of the wackier ideas in the New Testament?

Today I would write the posts referenced above with much little reference to alleged Jewish taboos. If Levine’s book says anything, it says I don’t know what I am talking about when I say “Jews believed...” The taboos to which I referred in those posts are not Jewish. They are our taboos, which we seek to abrogate— good, and long overdue—  by fabricating a first century Jewish culture which is a fiction based upon incomplete and faulty reading of the Jewish tradition— aka cherry picking, or more accurately, antisemitism.

We do not need to make Jewish society excessively misogynist and fixated upon female biology to learn from Jesus' behaviour in this story. We are already misogynist enough. His actions are revolutionary in our time. In 2012 I wrote this:

There was a fruit picker who hated women. [We shared the same picker’s hut.] He was terrified of them; his conversation continually fell back into abuse about menstruation and genitals. He was a real life stereotype, an exaggerated illustration which had somehow come to life from a feminist comic book.
He was disgusting.
I realised, eventually, that I still remembered him because he is in me. I am horrified and ashamed to find how much I have absorbed the worst misogyny of my culture. And how much I have perpetrated it; it still surfaces from within me.

I don’t need any reference about Jewish people’s alleged attitudes to make that point. If Jesus had been that fruit picker he would have sworn at the bleeding woman with all the vulgarity far too many men still use on a daily basis. Instead, Jesus "lifted her up." Jesus let the compassion of God over-rule the undoubted fears and hatreds that I suspect have infected all men, and treated these two women simply as human beings.

Any reading of popular media shows us the all pervasive nature of our perversion of our God-given biology into a weapon of hatred and discrimination. Gamergate, the latest selective banning by Facebook, this time concerning Clementine Ford… the list is endless and takes mere seconds to google-populate with examples. And that's before we get to the depressingly familiar news stories of the Chillicothes of the world, or the epidemic of domestic violence in Australia.

Pastorally, I am finding it hard not to be buried by the avalanche of violence, and explicitly sexual violence, in our society. As a society in decline— we feel our insecurity, even if we are unable to name it— and with the rampant scapegoating that is the hallmark of our Federal Government— they rule by inciting fear against others— we retreat to into our oldest fears. Girard says that human culture is founded on the violence of scapegoating.

Societies unify themselves by focusing their imitative desires on the destruction of a scapegoat. Girard hypothesized that the violent persecution of scapegoats is at the origin of the ubiquitous human institution of ritual sacrifice, the foundation of archaic religions. (Imitatio)

and

[For modern societies] the confidence is in violence. We put our faith in that violence, that violence will keep the peace. (Quoted here)

As a nation, we are engaging in institutionalised violence and scapegoating in our treatment of refugees, in contravention of the very UN Conventions we helped frame. There is constant pressure to reduce care for the poor, the unemployed, and the aged, and in recent days the softening up process has begun to remove the basic right of free education as the rich seek to take over the nation.

The disease of privilege and exclusion permeates all of our culture. We are built upon it. My daughter, the artist Deborah Prior, continued Adelaide's long tradition of 'clothing Venus.' Her work of Venus holding her own organs is easy to find on the internet. But always the front view. No-one photographed her from behind, where the blood red skeins ran down her legs. I watched passers-by as they discovered Venus' predicament. A few women laughing uproariously, mothers hastening curious children away, expressions of disgust and even shame. What have we done to ourselves?

In the copyright free zone of the internet, another of her works is altogether absent. This beehive of multiple hanging uteri, knitted together and solidified in beeswax and chocolate, hung as a centrepiece in her exhibition The Anatomical Venus: Exquisite disgust & desire: crafting the body in contemporary art practice. And the cultured folk of Adelaide peered and mused, and then, far too often for a healthy society, recoiled when they noticed the waxen blood dripped onto the floor beneath the sculpture. This is all of us. She exposed our primitive selves and fears.

Surely, if an ordinary Jewish man, 2000 years ago, is not bothered that a woman is bleeding, we could take a lesson. He is simply human and compassionate toward those who suffer which, in the story, overrides our all inherent misogyny. This is the lesson of the stories for me. As for the taboos and fixations of the Jews?  Well, I'm not sure that we are in any position to pretend to be superior or more enlightened. Our instincts are just as primitive, and just as gendered. And, contrary to the Steven Pinkers of this world, (referenced here) I have no confidence that we are any less violent.

We are all at the point of death, and if we will not trust him enough to reach out and touch that of which we are most afraid, we will not be lifted up and healed.

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!


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