In her book The Dream of God, Verna Dozier writes, “The important question to ask is not, ‘What do you believe?’ but ‘What difference does it make that you believe?’ Does the world come nearer to the dream of God because of what you believe?”
In today’s Gospel lesson we have a dramatic story of two desperate people from very different circumstances who acted in faith. They reached out to Jesus because they believed he could help them. Both of them act on their desperate hopes in public, and take significant risks in doing so, but to understand what’s at stake for them, we need to understand more about two important dynamics in their culture.
Ancient Palestine, like most of the ancient world, operated socially as what cultural anthropologists call an “honor culture.” Sometimes it’s called an “honor/shame” culture.” This was a highly formal system based on one’s status in society. Your position and place in society determined with whom you could associate and how you could speak and interact with them. Male roles and female roles were governed by rigid boundaries and those boundaries were strictly observed. Shame was the tool that was used to enforce those boundaries. A person’s reputation and status were vitally important. One could quite literally take them to the bank, and if you had any kind of status and reputation at all you were always careful not to do anything to risk your standing in the community.
The other dynamic that’s important in this Gospel lesson is the concept of “clean and unclean” as it was defined by Levitical law in Torah. I think after 15 months of “social distancing” and Covid-19 precautions we might understand this one a little better than we did in the past.
Most common things were assumed to be “clean” but there were a number of ways to become “unclean.” Any scaly skin condition made one unclean. Psoriasis, for instance. Any discharge of bodily fluids, including menstruation, made one unclean. Touching a non-kosher animal, touching a dead animal or touching a human corpse made one unclean. Touching a clay pot that had been touched by an unclean person could make you unclean. Touching a garment worn by an unclean person could make you unclean. Unclean was contagious. So persons who were unclean were isolated. And persons who were long-term unclean, such as lepers or the hemorrhaging woman in today’s Gospel story, were outcast—they were forbidden to put themselves in any kind of situation where they might “contaminate” others.
So now with all of that as background, maybe we can begin to see that these two stories, especially as Mark has woven them together, would have been absolutely shocking to those who were originally reading or hearing them.
The two main characters could not be more different, in fact, they stand in sharp contrast to each other. Jairus is male, wealthy, president of the synagogue. He is at the top of the “honor” ladder. For what it is worth, he is one of the few characters other than the disciples who is named in Mark’s gospel. The hemorrhaging woman is female, impoverished, excluded from the synagogue because of her condition. She is anonymous.
But both of them break rules and cross boundaries because they are desperate and they believe Jesus can help them.
When Jairus saw Jesus, he fell at his feet and 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.” Remember those rules of honor culture and social standing? A man in Jairus position would be expected to bow deeply to Jesus when making a request if he regarded Jesus as an equal. With the whole crowd looking on, Jairus falls at Jesus’ feet and begs repeatedly for Jesus to come heal his daughter. In doing this, he puts all his social currency on the line. If things don’t go well, the crowd will remember how he put his dignity aside and shamed himself.
For the hemorrhaging woman, it’s another story altogether. She’s trying to remain invisible, blending into the crowd. She’s not supposed to be there at all. But after twelve years of being an outcast, after losing all her money to quack physicians who only made things worse, she had nothing left to lose. You can imagine her thinking here: “If touching my clothes can make someone unclean, maybe touching Jesus’ clothes can heal me.” So she reached out as Jesus was passing by and touched his cloak.
Can you imagine how Jairus feels, what Jairus is thinking, when Jesus suddenly stops. They’re on the way to his house so Jesus can heal his daughter. “My little daughter,” he had called her, a term of endearment and affection. My baby girl. Time is of the essence. She is “at the point of death.” And now, suddenly, Jesus stops and says, “Who touched my clothes?”
Poor Jairus has got to be going out of his mind. He must be getting frantic. He’s got to be thinking what the disciples are saying: “Look at the crowd pressing in on you. Who didn’t touch you?”
But Jesus knew that this touch was different. This touch had faith in it. And desire. And hope. And longing. And Jesus isn’t taking another step until he knows who it was who reached out to him with all that in her heart.
“The woman, knowing what had happened to her, came to him with fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth.”
Fear and trembling. Even if she were whole and healthy, it was inappropriate in their culture for her to touch him. As it was, in her condition, it had been a flagrant violation of the Torah. Would he rebuke her? Would he somehow revoke her healing? Would Jairus, the president of the synagogue demand that she be punished? Would the crowd become indignant and drag her off and stone her?
Jesus said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”
He called her daughter. He gave her status and identity. She would forever be the one Jesus had called daughter. A daughter of Israel. A daughter of the kingdom. A daughter of Jesus. He told her to go in peace—a word not just to her, but to the crowd in case they had any ideas about punishing her. He protected her with a word of peace, a safe passage. He commended her faith and reaffirmed that she was healed. He returned her to wholeness. He returned her to community.
And that’s when the bottom fell out of Jairus’ world. While Jesus was still speaking, some people came from his house to tell him that his daughter had died and there was no point in troubling the teacher any further. I wonder what he thought, then, when Jesus turned to him and said, “Do not fear, only believe.” Did he still believe at that point that Jesus could save his little daughter?
When they got to Jairus’ house all the wailing and weeping and noise of Palestinian mourning was already in progress, and when Jesus asked, “Why are you weeping and making all this noise? She’s not dead, only sleeping,” they laughed at him. But he shooed them all outside then took Jairus and the child’s mother in to where the child was laid on her bed.
He took her hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means. “Little girl, get up!” And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about. And they were overcome with amazement.
There are all kinds of boundaries that are crossed in these two stories. All kinds of rules that are broken. All kinds of traditions that are ignored.
Jesus is on his way to help an important person from the top rung of the social ladder with a life-and-death emergency, but he stops to help a “nobody” who has been removed from the social ladder entirely.
The hemorrhaging woman touched him, making him unclean. But he ignores this law and restores her to health, restores her cleanness, and protects her with a word of peace.
When he takes the dead girls’ hand, he is technically unclean yet again. Yet again he ignores the whole clean/unclean business.
Jesus is teaching his disciples and teaching us that sometimes for the sake of healing, for the sake of compassion, for the sake of simply doing the right thing, boundaries have to be crossed, traditions have to be ignored, and laws may even have to be broken. When faith reaches out in hope asking for help, then we do what we have to do, following the example of Jesus.
And that brings us back around to Verna Dozier’s question: “The important question to ask is not, ‘What do you believe?’ but ‘What difference does it make that you believe?’ Does the world come nearer to the dream of God because of what you believe?”
Is your faith moving you to do what needs to be done for those who are reaching out in hope and asking for help, even if it means you have to cross some boundaries?