Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

The text at hand is one of those two-for-one deals where one story is used to frame another, and they mutually interpret each other.

June 28, 2009

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Commentary on Mark 5:21-43

The text at hand is one of those two-for-one deals where one story is used to frame another, and they mutually interpret each other.

Look for both differences:

  • the socially and religiously prominent Jairus in contrast to the unnamed woman
  • one makes a formal request while the other sneaks a touch

and similarities:

  • the role of the crowd and of the disciples
  • the issues of fear and faith
  • a 12 year-old girl and a 12 year sickness

Now, let’s think about how these stories go together.

Prior to the events described, Jesus had been on the far side of the Sea of Galilee where he had encountered the Gerasene demoniac. Now back in Jewish territory, Jesus faces potentially dangerous situations again, both from being crushed by the crowds and being infected with ritual uncleanness.

I suppose a preacher has to say something about this uncleanness business. Safeguards are placed around such matters and given a ritual context involving priests and sacrifices, but it is also a matter of plain common sense. If a body is oozing, flaking, bleeding, or dead, you probably don’t want to touch it. Being unclean, therefore, is going to leave you socially isolated.

However, the situation is complicated. After all, the woman, clearly unclean by the standards of Leviticus 15:25-27, is mixed up in the press of the crowds around Jesus. The ‘dead’ girl is surrounded by family and friends.

I realize how tempting it is to focus on this story as an example of holistic, social healing which reintegrates a person into community and restores one to family. I also suspect we do so because we are quite hesitant to promise miracle cures and revivals from death.

Is there another way to preach this text other than the typical “Jesus-interacted-with-untouchables-and-restored-them-to-community-and-so-we-should-do-the-same-to-those-who-are-metaphorically-untouchable-today” sermon? It may be good practice but it can make for a yawner of a sermon.

Actually, today’s text is not a good model for authentic (pastoral?) care at all. In the central story, Jesus does not seek out and restore the woman. She’s the one who takes the extraordinary and prohibited initiative in touching Jesus.

English translations attempting to provide a clear and understandable story obscure the dramatic way the scene is described. In a more literal rendering, you should hear the string of participles that build up, finally culminating in the woman’s action: “And a woman–having been bleeding for twelve years, and having suffered greatly from many physicians, and having spent all she had, and having benefited not one bit but rather having gone from bad to worse, having heard about Jesus, having come in the crowd from behind–touched his cloak.” Jesus stops and makes a scene, while the disciples get testy with Jesus and his seemingly futile desire to know who touched him. [Note: Avoid bad allusion to “touching” speech in School of Rock movie.]

It reminds me of the scene in Genesis 3 after Adam and Eve have eaten the fruit and are hiding from God. God takes an evening stroll in the garden and calls out, “Where are you?” It’s not that God is unaware of their location. Rather, the question offers an opportunity for Adam and Eve to come forward and come clean. God will do a similar thing again in Genesis 4 when asking Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?”

In those cases, the truth comes out in nuanced parcels or is avoided altogether. In Mark 5:33, however, “The woman, fearing and trembling, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell down before him, and told him the whole truth.”

The whole truth! This seems to me to be a good preaching approach. What does it mean for this woman to tell the whole truth? Is she confessing something about her plan and her confidence in Jesus? Is she telling the truth about herself? I imagine her saying something like, “I was desperate, and you were my last hope.”

What are the consequences of this woman speaking the truth? Jesus responds with three affirmations:

  • “Your faith has saved/healed you.
  • Go in peace, and
  • be cured of your disease.” (Mark 5:34)

Tell the truth in your sermon and see what happens!

And now, the rest of the story: people come from Jairus’ house and tell him, “Your daughter is dead. Why bother the Teacher any longer?” Way to show compassion and sympathy for a grieving father! A little Stephen Ministry training would be helpful here, no?

But even Jesus, rather than compassionately sharing how he feels Jairus’ pain, basically tells him to buck up and keep the faith. Arriving at Jairus’ house and the distressed commotion of the grieving family and friends, Jesus tells them to knock it off, because the girl is only sleeping. [Note: Insert Monty Python’s Holy Grail “I’m not dead yet” joke.]

The distraught crowd promptly responds by laughing at Jesus. I’m not sure which stage of grief that reflects, but Jesus is surely the one still in denial.

Jesus’ next empathetic move is to kick them all out except for the parents and his chosen disciples. He takes the girl’s hand (remember, touching a corpse makes you “unclean”), and with a couple simple words restores her to life.

Other than telling the truth, how are you going to preach this text? Some ideas:

  • Look around! Are there miracles happening that we do not notice because of the crush of so many who press upon us?
  • Look ahead! Are we so sure of what we think are the facts that we laugh off the possibility of what God might actually be able to do?

You may have to think about what qualifies as a miracle today, but I think it counts if it displays Jesus and the power of the Gospel.

In any case, as Jesus says at the end, “Give them something to eat.” Or at least something to chew on!