“Your daughter is dead.”
I can’t imagine any words more devastating. I don’t know how I would react if that happened but I expect that if I was told my child was dead, I would fall apart, overwhelmed by fear and despair - just like Jairus, the leader of the synagogue in today’s gospel.
This text is one of the most carefully and artfully crafted narratives in all of Mark’s gospel. It is the story of Jairus and his daughter; but it is also the story of the woman who has suffered from hemorrhages for twelve years. The two stories play off one another: the sick girl is introduced as a daughter, the anonymous woman is named at the end as “Daughter”. The woman has been bleeding for twelve years; the girl is twelve years of age. The woman has been unable to bear children because of her bleeding; the girl who is just reaching the age of child-bearing is at risk of never realizing that potential. But even more importantly, both stories take their protagonists to the threshold of their greatest fears. For Jairus, it is the death of his daughter; for the woman who tries to be anonymous, it is the fear of public shaming, condemnation, and exclusion.
Why is Mark so intent on bringing these two stories together? What is the point of the overall narrative that he has crafted for us so carefully? It’s tempting to give the easy answer, that all this is meant to show us that Jesus is a great healer. But that can’t be the main purpose. Because we know that already. The first four chapters of Mark have already made that abundantly clear. Why after all, do you think there are such great crowds that gather around Jesus the moment he steps off the boat? They know that Jesus is a great healer; the word is out, news has spread, people were bringing all of the sick to Jesus. They track his every movement and wherever he goes, he is swarmed by crowds. Even modern day historians, some of whom read the gospels with a skeptical eye, all agree: Jesus was known a great healer and that’s why he attracted such crowds. We don’t need another story to tell us that.
So what is the point of this story? There is a hint in Mark’s intro. “When Jesus had again crossed over by boat to the other side of the lake, a large crowd gathered around him while he was by the lake.” The lake, the Sea of Galilee, is the boundary between Israel and foreign lands, and Jesus has been moving back and forth across it in the first few chapters of the gospel, literally crossing the boundary between home and away, between where we are safe and where we are not. And as this story begins he is by the lake, again right on the boundary between land and sea. That may not seem like much to us, but it would have had more significance for Mark’s original readers. The sea symbolized the forces that destroy humanity, chaos and evil. The land is where we are at home, indeed, the home God created for humanity, safe, ordered, peaceful. These stories take place on the boundary between safety and danger, between hope and fear, between order and chaos. They are about what happens when we get pushed over the edge.
And so the stories themselves are crafted with a boundary that gets crossed. Mark makes it easy for us to see the boundary in the story of Jairus and his daughter because he splits the story into two parts for us. The second part starts with the words “your daughter is dead”. In the story of the woman suffering from hemorrhages, the second stage begins when Jesus asks “Who touched my clothes?” and the woman falls to the ground, trembling with fear.
These are the places where we cross the threshold, where we go over the edge, where hope turns to fear and we fall apart. Mark brings us there because he wants to make us a promise. Because in each story, when the boundary from hope to fear is crossed, that’s when Jesus takes over. You might have noticed that in both stories, Jesus does not speak until that point is reached, but then he does, and he becomes the protagonist who keeps it together when the world falls apart.
At the beginning of the story, the woman who suffered from hemorrhages, despite her suffering, she is full of faith and hope. She knew about Jesus, and she thinks, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.” She is the one who drives the action forward – she sees her opportunity in the crowd, comes up behind Jesus and touches his cloak, and she is rewarded – immediately her bleeding stops. But then the moment she dreads is upon her. Jesus turns around in the crowd and asks, “Who touched my clothes?” And the woman who wanted to be anonymous, falls at his feet, trembling with fear.
Why is she so afraid? Where has her hope gone, where is the assertiveness and determination that she showed just moments before? Where is the joy that should come from her healing?
She trembles because her greatest fear is at hand, and that is the fear of being shamed, publically, in full view of the crowd. That was something she’d been dreading for twelve long years. In her society, bleeding made her impure. Unable to marry, an outcast in society. No children, no husband, with all the shame that that entailed in her world. As someone who was impure she shouldn’t have been in the crowd, certainly she shouldn’t have touched Jesus. She had hoped to remain anonymous, nameless, but she was being outed. The moment of public shame she had feared had arrived.
“Who touched my clothes?”
She falls at his feet and confesses, telling him the whole truth. And then Jesus surprises her. There is no shame, no condemnation. “Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace and be healed of your disease.” Not only has she been healed of her disease, but more importantly she has been absolved of her deepest shame and relieved of her greatest fear. No longer is she nameless, rather she has been given a new name. Daughter. Child of God. One who is in relationship, part of a family, no longer anonymous and isolated. Not only has she been healed; she has been made well. She has been saved.
Jairus too is hopeful at the outset of his story. He comes to Jesus, he falls at his feet, he tells Jesus exactly what he wants. “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.” Jairus may be desperate but he is forceful and his faith is strong. Jesus goes with him.
But as they go, people come from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead.” With those words, Jairus loses his name and never speaks again in this story. His greatest fear has arrived, the death of his daughter, and with it his faith and his hope dissolve. And again, it is at this point where hope dissolves into fear that Jesus who has not yet spoken in the story of Jairus, Jesus takes over and begins to speak and to direct the action. His first words go to the heart of Jairus’ state of being:
“Do not fear, only believe.”
And he goes to the girl, and takes her by the hand and say to her, “Talitha cum” which means, “Little girl, get up!” And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about.
Two amazing stories. Yes Jesus is a great healer. But there’s much more. There is a promise.
Imagine your greatest fear. Perhaps you don’t have to imagine it, perhaps you’ve already lived it, maybe you’re living it right now.
Maybe it’s the fear of being publically shamed, humiliated, condemned and excluded.
Maybe it’s the fear of death, even the death of one’s own child.
Whatever it is, imagine yourself at that place, at that threshold, where hope and faith collapse into fear, where you fall to the ground, where you lose your voice?
Here’s the promise. When we get to that place, when we cross that threshold, when we we’re pushed over the edge, Jesus will be there to catch us.
These stories are meant let us know that when we get to that place, that boundary where hope and faith give way to fear, Jesus will be there waiting for us. Even, or perhaps especially, in our darkest moments, God is with us, speaking for us when we are speechless, guiding us when we are lost, caring for us, telling us not to be afraid. There will be no words of condemnation but rather God will remind us once more that we are daughters and sons, beloved children of God; we will be brought into community, we will be made well, and even in our darkest moments, God will move us once again from fear into faith.
Homily: Yr B Proper 13, June 28 2015, St. Albans.
Readings: 2 Sam 1.1, 17-27; Ps 130; 2 Cor 8.7-15; Mk 5.21-43
Image by Stephen Mccowan (Creative Commons)