The truism says every age thinks it's the one where something truly significant is happening. It's always said with hindsight, safely separated from the disaster or event in question. But our time is the moment in which we must live, and at the moment we are watching with horror as the deranged president of the United States seems hell bent on accelerating the decline and fall of his nation in order to satisfy his own narcissism. If this tragedy, which will reshape the world, and if the current pandemic were not enough, they are distracting us from the accelerating climate catastrophe which according to the science, not to opinion, will cause unparalleled suffering, and which risks societal collapse, and may threaten our very survival. How do we live in this? What does the gospel say?
I'm currently working in the Gospel of Mark and for some reason thought of the two women in chapter five. Does this story say anything to us in our predicament?
The story is a Markan sandwich. The story of the older woman is placed within the story of the girl who is on the cusp of womanhood, and starting her life. This literary technique tells us to read and interpret the story which is 'the bread,' the girl's story, in terms of the filling which it contains. The bread is the story of a little girl who is on the point of death. The father comes to Jesus in desperation.
The father's name is Jairus. We are told this only once, but we are told four times that he is the leader (or one of the leaders, cf one of the scribes in Mark 12:38ff) of the synagogue. It is as the leader of a synagogue that we are to think of this man, first of all. Mark tells us this leader is named Jairus to make the point that he is an "enlightened one," a not too subtle hint that this leader of the synagogue has seen much more in Jesus than some of his contemporaries. And even that we should follow his example. Jesus agrees to go to the house of the leader of the synagogue.
On the way they cross the path of one of the little people of the land. This unnamed woman had suffered bleeding for twelve years. The doctors had taken all her money yet she had grown worse rather than better. To "endure much" under the physicians is to endure the discounting and disbelief women so often receive about chronic illness, not to mention the stigma of a menstrual disorder. She is likely shamed by those around her. She is an outsider, and no one really cares.
The number twelve directs us to see her, and her plight, as that of Israel, the people of twelve tribes: sick, weakened, living under the terror and poverty of empire, and with little if any hope for healing. She too must sometimes feel at the point of death.
If I but touch his clothes…. I shall be made well. There is nothing magic about the clothes as such. This is a trust that Jesus is the one who 'makes well.' And she is made well, and healed of her disease. Jesus knows something has happened. The question about who touched his clothes is greeted with scepticism by the disciples but the woman "tells him the whole truth." She is healed. The bleeding stops. She is also saved. The Greek word can be translated either way – and even as delivered. In that context it can refer to a whole people. Jesus is clear that it is her faith which has saved her.
We should understand here that healing in Jesus' context is not the narrow biomedical thing which we believe it to be in our culture. Healing is a much more wholistic event, of body, mind, soul, and a place in society. Ultimately, healing means all this in a society which itself has been made whole and which is truly human or, to make the point clear, humane. Which is to say, like Jesus. This healing is indeed to be saved.
But the delay with the woman means that the girl, who is twelve, Israel is again in mind, dies before Jesus gets to the house. He says to the leader of the synagogue, "Do not fear, only believe."
The word is pistue, it's the some word used for faith a verse or two earlier. Faith is not to agree to some list of theological propositions. It is Jesus saying, "Trust me to make you well, to save you". As Jesus uses it here it is a present-imperative. It means keep on trusting me. And the girl is raised to life and walks around.
What does one from whom the light shines, an enlightened one, learn from Jesus for our time? How will we be saved and made whole, and how will we be a leading light for our people? The leader is told to feed his daughter so that she continue to be well and "start to live again." (Joel Marcus pp355) But he can only do this if he realises that both women are his daughter. They are connected by the twelve of Israel. If he thinks he can live only loving those close to him, those connected by blood and class, then his people will slowly bleed to death, and he will find that plague has come into his own household.
And he must learn that he is the woman. Leader or not, rich enough to have a house with more than one room, he is still as poor and vulnerable in the world as the poorest. None of us alone has the power to be made well. We are made well in the community of God's people. Where we seek to build our own power base at the expense of others— this is the way of the world which always sacrifices the lives of other people somewhere— then the world itself will continue to bleed and we will find death enters our own house.
To trust Jesus here is to ignore the gospel of Trump, which is the gospel of empire. It is to embark on the long and slow vulnerability of being family with all the people we meet. Of loving "to prefer the other" as Mumford and Sons put it, instead of living a faux love which "just makes you feel good." It is to trust the way of Jesus which values all people just the same, regardless of creed or race. And that means to seek to live the way of Jesus, which is the hardest thing we will ever do, but the only thing really worth doing.
The journalist Hadley Freeman says Trump "function[s] as a distorted mirror to so many, one in which they see their own fantasies reflected back at them…They look at him and see what they want to see: themselves." The catch in what she has said is that we all do this. We all look to someone to copy. We all see ourselves in them. This is the human condition. We are all related to Trump somewhere along the line; we call this original sin. Or we can look at Jesus, a clear mirror of whom we can be and are meant to be, and see ourselves there. And begin to live again.
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