Jesus reaches across the human divide of important and unnamed, gender, and the chasm between life and death itself, in order to restore to wholeness those who have faith. And at different times of our lives we are likely to plead like the desperate parent, stealthily seek healing while feeling so outcast we cannot make eye contact like the unnamed woman, and at times like the innocent child lie so desperately ill we cannot even seek our own healing. We are all promised joy in the morning. (RCL Lamentations 3:22-33; Psalm 30; 2 Corinthians 8:7-15; and Mark 5:21-43)
Mark’s gospel does not record much teaching except in parables. Much of the teaching of Jesus according to the narrative of Mark’s gospel is the teaching that is inherent in his healing ministry. Such as the text this week in which two healing stories are interconnected.
According to the Jewish first century historian Josephus there were several itinerant preachers and several spectacular miracle healers in the time of Jesus. Yet according to the witness of Mark’s gospel Jesus does not seek an audience or recognition for his healing ministry. He often asks those who have benefitted to not tell others (although they usually do). Was that pretend modesty or something else?
I think that at least three things were happening. Firstly Jesus was revealing his true identity in a way and over time so that his disciples and followers could grow in understanding as they were able and even so they did not really understand until after Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension. Secondly the healing ministry of Jesus was an expression of his true identity (the divine who offers wholeness and healing in human form) and as such his healing was offered to those who glimpsed this and had faith that he could heal them (which is quite possibly why he could do no deed of power on home soil!) And thirdly there may have been a practical element of crowd control for he was swamped several times when the word did get out!
In the Mark text this week we have two stories of healing which at first seem unrelated except by time frame. A religiously important man seeks the healing help of Jesus for his daughter. In the middle of that healing story – between Jairus coming to Jesus and Jesus reaching his house – a woman with no name and who is ritually impure because of her constant bleeding “sneaks” contact with Jesus desperately believing that even his nearness will heal her. Which it did. And Jesus needs to address this before he can go forward and heal the young woman. This time line alerts us to the similarities and the contrasts and how together these two healings teach us something important.
The similarities are important. Both Jairus and the unnamed unclean woman believe that Jesus can heal them and both are indeed healed. There is also the similarity, less obvious, that the girl child is twelve, and that the woman has been bleeding for twelve years. We might speculate that twelve years is socially and religiously the first phase of life – birth until the age at which adult activities can begin. Secondly related to this is that for women the age of twelve is approximately when menses begin. Also of course twelve is the number of tribes and disciples – the whole chosen people of God – so there is something about healing being available to all who believe and will come forward.
The differences are significant however. The male is important and named but the two females are not named. The male, the father, is religiously important but the woman is impure and would have been for at least twelve years because of her bleeding. The girl child is an innocent, only on the cusp of adulthood, while the woman has had a life time’s experience including being outcast and having exhausted her own resources on doctors and those who could not heal her. All of these differences only speak to the breadth and depth of Jesus’ healing love for those he met and his willingness to reach out to those because of belief and/or desperation were ready to seek him. Those who knelt before him and called him teacher and those who desperately snuck up behind him because they were so ashamed and frightened, both were responded to with compassion.
We can only image the joy that came in the morning to both the little girl and her family and the unnamed woman with that healing. We can only imagine that they were restored to not only their family but to their community and full participation in life in their time. We can only imagine that their faith was deepened by the answer to prayer and petition.
But what about us and those times when we have begged for healing for those we love and ourselves and healing has not come in recognisable form? How do we understand and live with our desperation, need and faith? Few of us will not at times have wished for more obvious healing. While I do not presume to know a great deal about the life giving purpose of suffering I do offer the following.
Firstly the lack of physical, discernible healing, and avoidance of suffering even to death, is not evidence of being God forsaken. Jesus did not seek avoidance of suffering for himself and neither did his apostles for most of them became martyrs. Even St Paul confessed a thorn in his side and admitted that he had often asked to be free of it but that he was not. Even Lazarus the friend of Jesus who was raised from the dead went on to die a natural death later. Healing is not about avoidance of human frailty. Secondly suffering and death can be part of spiritual growth indeed may be essential. At the heart of our faith is the suffering and death of our Lord and his subsequent resurrection. In our suffering and at our death we will be met by the Lord of apparent failure and humiliation who made the tomb a birth place of life. And thirdly if the healing ministry of Jesus took place in the context of relationship and faith then we can enter into wholeness and restoration and life giving relationship whether our physical ailments and emotional anguish is resolved in the way we asked or not.
Don’t get me wrong – if my child is dying I will throw myself at the knees of whoever I think can help. In my shame and suffering I will try and sneak relief at the hem of any I think can relieve my suffering. And if I am lying near to death I will appreciate my family seeking mercy. But I reluctantly accept that the healing that Jesus brings is not always miraculous relief from physical suffering or mental disturbance. While I will always ask for what I desire I accept that sometimes wholeness is to be able to live with the way things are and that one day restoration will be to die into the joy of our eternal source.
I pray that I and you continue to grow into that surrendering faith in the goodness of God and the Beloved Child of God. Into the hands of the One who created me and loves me I surrender again and again knowing that healing is union with the Holy One. And the Jesus who leant across the divide of humanity and divinity, of known and unknown, of gender, of life and death itself, in order to bring healing to us asks us to follow and to also lean across what divides us so that healing may come to all we encounter.
Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ, heal me of my fear and separation that causes such suffering and restore me in your loving embrace of all.
I am indebted to the wisdom of:
Bergant, Dianne with Fragomeni, Richard "Preaching the New Lectionary, Year B", The Liturgical Press, Collegville, 1999
Levine, Amy-Jill and Brettler, Marc Zvi "The Jewish annotated New Testament NRSV Bible Translation", Oxford, New York, 2011
Woodward, James; Gooder, Paula; and Pryce, Mark "Journeying with Mark Lectionary Year B", SPCK, London, 2011