Preacher Revd Neil Summers
Although it’s the theme of death that lurks in two of this morning’s readings, the words we heard from the Wisdom of Solomon affirm that God is associated with life. Understood literally, God’s life-giving creation only led to the reality of corruption and death because of human waywardness – essentially an extension of the creation stories in Genesis, which also indicate that death came into the world as a result of human sin, which we might define as our limitless capacity as human beings for making the wrong choices. Intriguingly, there is a hint in the first sentence of today’s reading from the Book of Wisdom that God, who, we are told, created all things that they might exist, also feels the pain of death – a very human take on divinity centuries before the birth of Jesus.
But coming to Jesus’s lifetime, today’s Gospel reading provides two glimpses into the reality of the pain of death – first, as Jairus loses his daughter and, second, what could be regarded as the living death of the woman with chronic bleeding. These two healings are entwined together, one of several examples of Mark’s fondness for sandwiching one story with another. Both emphasise the divine credentials of Jesus for this Gospel writer, and in both Jesus is seen as the one who restores the people concerned, despite the fact they were apparently beyond medical help. And we note – not just incidentally – that both are about women, showing Jesus overturning the taboos of his own time and culture.
Two thousand years on, despite all our advances in research and health care, death, the old enemy, remains the one certainty not one of us can avoid. As we all too frequently witness, for some it comes suddenly, violently and without any chance to prepare. But for all of us, it’s interesting that while we know we face death at some point, we rarely talk about it. Our culture often shies away from discussing the complexity of emotions that surround this most basic of all human experiences – in contrast, it should be said, to many other cultures around the world. The death of those we love brings so many difficult feelings in its wake – from initial disbelief and shock, through the regrets that may follow, the anger and then the grief which, it seems to me, often comes in waves and can catch us when we least expect it.
Jairus, a leader of the synagogue (our equivalent of a churchwarden) clearly feels pain. His daughter is gravely ill, there are no medicines or doctors that can help and they are just waiting for the inevitable. Now there were many travelling teachers and healers around Galilee at that time, so Jairus decides to ask one of them – Jesus – for help. Even if Jesus proved not to live up to the claims about him, Jairus had nothing to lose. But just as the anticipation is building, Mark inserts the story of the woman with the haemorrhage into the tale of Jairus’s daughter. If that’s how it actually happened, and if you put yourself in Jairus’s shoes, you’d no doubt be anxious to hurry Jesus along, frustrated that he gets diverted by someone else – to the extent that Jesus has to stop to find out who had touched him, because he discerned that power had somehow gone out of him. And it’s worth noting just how much touch is important in this entire narrative, in a culture where so many found themselves literally untouchable.
But the woman who is the cause of the diversion has her own needs. Like Jairus, she was anxious to take her opportunity to see if this latest holy man could help and heal her. It sounds incredible now, but in biblical times menstruation made a woman ritually unclean, unable to take part in both social and religious life, and ostracised by men who were to have no contact with her during this time. So cut off from her community, and fearful at being shunned for her impurity, she desperately reaches out to touch Jesus. Imagine how self-conscious she would have felt when Jesus asked who had touched him. Now she has to deal not just with her own problems, but also the risk that she’d be humiliated for making Jesus ritually unclean as well. But far from criticising her, Jesus reassures her that it is her faith that has made her well. He removes the stigma of ongoing impurity and restores her to her community, to health, and to faith.
After these few brief verses, she drops out of the narrative. No doubt her life was changed beyond her wildest dreams, but we don’t hear of her again; we never even learn her name. (I’ve sometimes wondered, though, if she might have been among that group of women who stayed close to Jesus as he was dying on the cross….) But be that as it may, Mark shifts the story back rapidly to Jairus and his daughter.
We can feel the despair of this poor man: Jesus was his last hope. Maybe if Jesus hadn’t spent so much time with that woman he might have got back to the house sooner. When they do finally get there, the professional mourners are making their commotion. Jesus asks Jairus not to fear, but to believe and, as the story makes clear, Jairus’s trust paid off and his daughter was restored to life. In a world without much in the way of effective medicine, healing ministry was vitally important and desperately needed. That’s what Jesus brought to this girl, as he had to the woman with the haemorrhage.
Centuries later, our human search for healing and wholeness remains vital in all sorts of ways, physically, yes, but also mentally, psychologically, emotionally and spiritually. As we mark the 70th anniversary of our NHS, we remind ourselves that health care began in religious communities, which is why healing is still such an important part of the church’s concern. Healing in our lives is a sign of the kingdom exemplified in Jesus among us. Not necessarily the miraculous healing promoted by some churches and evangelists, but a gentler – though no less powerful – healing that is made possible as body, mind and spirit are enabled to recover from the wounds that can be inflicted upon them by life, the world and other people. We discover, and create, healing as we build a church community in which members care about each other and bear each other’s burdens, and in which each person is valued for who they are. We create a healing community as we grow together in faith, support those who are most vulnerable, and strive to live by the values that drove Jesus.
Today’s stories also demonstrate Jesus’s willingness to welcome and include all the ‘non-kosher’ categories of people who were officially excluded by the prejudices and taboos of his own society. The list is pretty much endless, but includes Samaritans, women, tax-collectors, people suffering from leprosy or other conditions that labelled them ‘unclean’ – and all those the Gospels generally lump together under the heading of ‘sinners’. These were people who, according to the code of the Law, were supposed to be literally hateful in God’s sight, but, in complete contrast, Jesus declares them to be in God’s embrace. Hope for us all, don’t you think?
One last thought: these two gospel stories of life-giving healing each foreshadow Jesus’s own death, and also his resurrection triumph: the restoration of God’s good purposes in creation, and the defeat of the powers of exploitation, sin and death. Jesus’s actions insist that far from heaping ostracism, despair and death on human beings, the divine and the human imperative is to build a transformative and life-enhancing society in which everyone is valued, and can realise, as far as they are able, their full human health and potential.