Bible Mark 5:21-43
There is long hidden pain in this story. The little daughter dies quickly, but the woman is dying slowly. If we hear nothing else in this reading but the love of God for the little people who suffer, and understand that God loves us like that, then we will have done well. But there is more! In this story you will hear about being healed, and being made well, which is not quite the same thing.
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.
This is a sermon which deals with violence. It speaks about sexual assault, and all the other violent exclusions we commit against sisters and brothers. I wonder if I have any right to speak about these things, but maybe a male voice is needed; we don't listen to the women.
The text starts with Jesus and a leader of the synagogue… Sometimes it's called the Healing of Jairus' Daughter, but if we look carefully we can see the story uses his name only once… and keeps calling him the leader of the synagogue. I think it might be called The Enlightening of the Leader of the Synagogue, because it just so happens that the leader of the synagogue is called Jairus: Jairus means enlightened one. Do you see it?—at the end of the story he really is an enlightened one.
Jairus' daughter is an unnamed little girl, but the daughter of a leader of the synagogue is also… the community of faith… This is a story about the death and resurrection of a faith community; it could be our spiritual leader— John— coming to Jesus and saying about us, "My little daughter— my little congregation— is at the point of death."
The story of the little daughter has another story in the middle of it, and that's the story of an unnamed woman who has been ill for 12 years. She has been bleeding life for 12 years. She is slowly dying, too. And she is healed, as well— I should say the story says she is healed, and then, that she is made well which, perhaps, is something different.
The way stories work, and the way these two stories are linked together, is that we are meant to understand the story of the little daughter through the story of the older woman. Mark is saying to us, if you want to know how the little girl is healed, you have to understand how the woman is healed. And not just healed of the bleeding; what is it that makes her well? And how does what happens enlighten the leader of the synagogue, who is a man?
There is an easy answer— it seems a bit simpler— and there is a deeper one. I want to look at both of them this morning. (And there are other lessons people will see, too.)
The easier answer simply says that the leader of the synagogue, whose daughter is twelve years old, is a man with lots of privilege, but he has to wait— he has to learn to wait— for the healing of a nobody, poor woman who has been bleeding for twelve years. This reading of the story says that if you want your little daughter, your spiritual community, to be healed, … then all the daughters have to be healed. Jesus does not give healing on the basis of status and income. Jesus heals the outsiders, too.
Trusting Jesus— faithing him— means living as though all people are equal— because they are. Churches which do not work to remove hierarchy, status, pride, and exclusions, will never really become well. And there is a true lesson to learn from this. A good deal of our "wellness" in this place comes from our very serious attempts to include all of us— even though we struggle to do that as well as we'd like.
But I'd have to say that this interpretation— true as it is— and we won't be well if we don’t take the lesson— this interpretation has something missing. It reduces the woman to a prop. She is just there to enable the powerful members of the community to learn a lesson.
At the very least, there is another layer to this story, which fits, incidentally, with what I see within our congregation. It is the poor woman, the least of the community, who enlightens the leader. It is the woman who has no hope at all, but who still trusts Jesus, who teaches and enlightens the rich man in his time of need.
We need to grapple with this. The greatest learning I have received, and the greatest inspiration I have received, from our community here, is from those of us who are suffering, and who are, according to society, the needy ones who have the least to offer.
But what about the second way to read this story?
First of all, do you notice how this part of Mark's gospel is full of crowds? He's been having to stand in the boat because the crowds are so large. They've been growing since Chapter 1 (v33) when "the whole city was gathered around the door."
Crowds are dangerous places. We never quite know when they will turn into a mob. In this story the crowds press in upon him. We are getting close to dangerous ground— to the truth of us— when we are in crowds.
Crowds are lost places; we lose ourselves in a crowd; we are made less of a person. Mark 6:34 says that "As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd…"
And crowds are a good place to be— to stay— invisible. You don't want to stand out in a crowd, or it may pick on you, and vent all its fear on you.
The woman knows she is slowly dying. She has done all the right things. She's been to all the doctors; she was no better; it hasn't helped; it's made her worse. Do you see that her healing comes because she makes herself visible? She does the dangerous thing; she steps out of the crowd.
And the text says, immediately her haemorrhage stopped. When she stepped out of the crowd and touched him, the thing that was making her slowly bleed to death… stopped. Then… she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease.
What do you think she stepped out of? What is it that she stepped away from, in the middle of a crowd which was pressing in on them both? What made her different?
Jesus knew something had happened, but what follows is fascinating. The woman falls at his feet… just like the leader of the synagogue. That separates both of them from the crowds; it's a symbol of worship, a way of saying that both she and the leader acknowledge Jesus is the one who carries the truth of life.
But then it says that the woman "told him the whole truth." Why doesn't it simply say, "The woman said, 'I was the one who touched you. I'm healed.'"— isn't it a kind of over-the-top way of answering him? It sounds like… a confession! A confession that is the whole truth— something much larger than, "I was the one who touched you."
What is the whole truth about us as a society that we need to confess? Well, there is no easy way into this, so I'll just say it. We all make people bleed, but we blame the women.
We all make people bleed, but we blame the women— let me try to explain.
Back in theological college, one of my female colleagues— she was your minister here for a while— preached a stunning sermon about how Jesus declares to the woman with the haemorrhage, and to all women, that they are clean and whole, despite what society, and the men who made the purity rules, says to them about bleeding. I could weep for the pain that must have been behind all that.
Even as a young bloke, I knew enough to hear truth in this, and so with some anxiety I preached it one Sunday morning, and was then in that odd place ministers end up, sometimes… where we preach something we think might get us into trouble, and then, nobody says anything!
But a couple of days later, the oldest woman in the congregation came to speak to me about my sermon about menstruation. You can imagine I tensed up! She said "the women of the congregation" (that's a direct quote) had asked her to come and say, "Thankyou." And, how helpful it had been to hear that. I could weep for the pain that must have been behind all that.
Recently, I've been talking about the text with another female colleague, and she said to me that she'd not really experienced that folk were hung up about menstrual bleeding. But then she said, "My experiences with “blaming women” have more to do with sexual assault— she was asking for it, what does she expect when she goes out wearing clothes like that?"—and so on.
I thought: we don't blame women for bleeding— we cause them to bleed…
and I remembered something. And here, as a man, I am well qualified to speak to you. When men are angry, and bitter, and frightened— about anything, their anger has an astonishing tendency to descend into abusive hatred of women, and into swearing and other language about the female reproductive system.
We all make people bleed, but we blame the women— remember that? Let me rephrase that: We all shed blood, but we blame the women.
Think about our society. Women carry within them the gift of bearing new life. And the sign that they can still give birth to new life is that they bleed. And yet we have taken this gift of being a co-creator with God— I can never carry a child— and have made it into a thing of shame; in my lifetime there were services for the churching of women. We say the give of bearing life makes a woman impure. And we use her body for swear words. And we say, at all sorts of levels, at every level, that she is less… than men.
Why do we do this?
It's because we all shed blood. We all have blood on our hands, but we blame the woman.
It's the hardest thing to see. Deep within ourselves, blood reminds us that we are the ones who take life. We all shed blood, and not for bearing [cleansing] life. Our society is built on excluding people, choosing scapegoats, and upon murder. Our society is built upon the shedding of blood; the first story when Adam and Eve leave the Garden— the first story of the real human world outside the paradise— is the story of a murder: Abel and Cain.
So we blame the women. We pretend we don't shed blood— only women do that— and we say they are unclean, they are separated from God, because we know we are unclean, we are separated from God. We hate and exclude and kill. And, of course, the place where this happens most of all, is in the crowds.
But this woman steps out of the crowd and holds onto Jesus. (Hamerton-Kelly The Gospel and the Sacred.) She leaves the crowd because she can tell the whole truth about her own anger and hatreds to him, and chooses to live his way instead. And to stop "shedding blood" in the way she lives with others. She chooses to stop making others less than herself. …
I used to think there was a great irony for the leader of the synagogue in all this. After all, he witnessed Jesus healing someone "on the spot." I've never seen that; it always happens in the next suburb. But he sees it! — And then realises that perhaps this interruption by the woman means that his little daughter has died before Jesus can get to her.
But Jairus' daughter did not die because the woman slowed Jesus down.
The daughter of the leader of the synagogue was raised— his synagogue was given new life— because he was enlightened by what Jesus did for the woman.
The enlightened leader recognised that to step out of the crowd is to treat all people the same.
It is to abandon the violence of exclusion, and the violence of labelling people right or wrong.
It is to abandon living by status, and to trust and live the way of Jesus.
It is to stop blaming women for all our troubles, and to stop the abuse; that's what faith means.
So maybe the little girl dies because Jesus was late because of the woman whose life had been bleeding out of her. But she is raised because her father, and her people, paid attention to that woman and to Jesus.
Do you see what happens at the end?
Jesus says to the leader of the synagogue: Give her something to eat. Feed her. Grow this new life— give her my life, the bread of Eucharist, and the blood of loving and caring. Then she will remain well. He is speaking of each one of us; he is speaking of the church, for we are daughter of God, also. Amen.
Andrew Prior (2018)
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