Mark 5: 21 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. 22 Then one of the synagogue leaders, named Jairus, came, and when he saw Jesus, he fell at his feet. 23 He pleaded earnestly with him, “My little daughter is dying. Please come and put your hands on her so that she will be healed and live.” 24 So Jesus went with him. A large crowd followed and pressed around him. 25 And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years. 26 She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse. 27 When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, 28 because she thought, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.” 29 Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering. 30 At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and asked, “Who touched my clothes?” 31 “You see the people crowding against you,” his disciples answered, “and yet you can ask, ‘Who touched me?’ ” 32 But Jesus kept looking around to see who had done it. 33 Then the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told him the whole truth. 34 He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.” 35 While Jesus was still speaking, some people came from the house of Jairus, the synagogue leader. “Your daughter is dead,” they said. “Why bother the teacher anymore?” 36 Overhearing what they said, Jesus told him, “Don’t be afraid; just believe.” 37 He did not let anyone follow him except Peter, James and John the brother of James. 38 When they came to the home of the synagogue leader, Jesus saw a commotion, with people crying and wailing loudly. 39 He went in and said to them, “Why all this commotion and wailing? The child is not dead but asleep.” 40 But they laughed at him. After he put them all out, he took the child’s father and mother and the disciples who were with him, and went in where the child was. 41 He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha koum!” (which means “Little girl, I say to you, get up!”). 42 Immediately the girl stood up and began to walk around (she was twelve years old). At this they were completely astonished. 43 He gave strict orders not to let anyone know about this, and told them to give her something to eat.
“Here is my heart in place of his,” the mother prayed, through her tears. “…I give it in place of my son,” she cried, on her knees before God. The mother had just learned that her oldest son was missing in action in the Korean war. So, was he alive or dead? Not knowing was at least as bad as knowing the worst.
We meet this mother in the novel, And the Earth Did Not Swallow Him Up, by Tomas Rivera. Its about the difficult lives of Latino migrant farm workers in 1950’s Minnesota. But any parent, of any culture, any time, praying and wailing in any language, would identify with this mother and her prayer, for her missing son. “Better my life than his….He’s not even old enough to have done anything deserving of death….Why, I still have all his childhood toys and books and comics, even his kite here……”
And so, I suspect, were the prayers of Jairus and his wife, on behalf of their twelve year old daughter. “Spare her” maybe even, “take me instead.” If anyone’s prayers would be answered, you’d think that those of a rabbi, a scholar and a spiritual leader like himself would be, especially his prayers in the correct, biblical Hebrew. Instead, word comes to him, “Don’t bother the Nazarene; your daughter has died.” Like those of the Mexican migrant mother, the prayers of the righteous rabbi, the godly scholar, and those of the wife and mother who kept his kosher home, go unanswered, even mocked by death.
So were the prayers of the desperate woman in today’s story, until she met Jesus. Through the same years that the rabbi and his God-fearing wife had loved and lived with their beautiful daughter, this other woman had lived in pain and shame, in the shadows, untouched and untouchable, because her non-stop bleeding rendered her ritually, legally unclean. While Jairus was a very respected and visible man in his community, this woman was invisible, and avoided. While Jairus was very helpful and important to his community, the woman was considered expendable, even a threat, at least to everyone’s purity.
Two people then are driven to their knees before Jesus, one literally before him, to plead the cause of his dying daughter, the other somewhere behind him most likely, so as to remain invisible, just to touch the hem of his cloak. They come from very different places in society, but they end up in the very same place, at practically the very same moment: bent to the ground in desperation, literally floored by their crying need, in the presence of Jesus. There at the feet of Jesus do we see so clearly the human condition, whoever we are, whatever our status, our background, our citizenship or our education.
Because both of these stories came to a head at the same time, same place, same person, the Word invites us to ponder at least three things that the woman, the scholar and synagogue ruler, and his daughter have in common, as do we. They are:
The ground where we kneel at the feet of Jesus is level, whoever we are, whatever our background or our status. Something will drive us all to the ground there, if it has not already, at the very least, the common human denominator of death and dying. There we will find that no one has any advantage over another. We all share a solidarity of life and death, of weakness and need, whatever our language, race or nationality.
The grace of Jesus is also equal for all the desperate and despairing at his feet, whoever we are, whatever our background or our status. For there, both Jairus and the un-named, unclean woman received words and a touch of healing and hope from Jesus. It does not matter to Jesus that one is ritually clean, while the other is not. Nor does it matter that one is a scholar, learned in the scriptures and traditions, while the other, most likely, is not. His heart, and his healing power, go out to both, equally.
- The word of Jesus is the same for all the desperate and despairing who fall to their knees at his feet. To all he says, “Go in peace; your faith has saved you,” even, and eventually, as to the little girl, “Arise.” That last word we shall even hear personally, as did the young girl in today’s story. For as Jesus told his disciples in John 5: 25 “Very truly I tell you, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live.” When Mark gave us the very words of Jesus, in Aramaic, the words that brought life back to that little girl, he was inviting all of us to imagine ourselves hearing the same word of Jesus, in our most desperate and despairing condition of death. Just substitute your own name before the word, “Arise.”
If we would follow Jesus, then we must also have the assurance of the same three things: first, that we are all of us in the same boat, in the same desperate straits before death, loss and suffering, that neither race, class, status nor smarts will make the ground of human need any higher or lower for anyone before the feet of Jesus. Secondly, we must be convinced that the grace of Jesus is equal for all persons at his feet, whoever they are, wherever they come from; and thirdly, we too must have the assurance that even if our prayers for healing and help are not all answered in this life, they will be when he says to all who died with faith in him, “Arise.” For its only a matter of time before we hear the same voice calling our names.
But in this year’s preaching theme of “Come, Follow Me,” we’re not only looking at who and what Jesus is for us, but what Jesus would teach us. For all the things he did were not only loving, miraculous and meaningful signs of the kingdom now come; they were also teaching moments for the very people who would carry on his ministry in the world: us. If we would follow in Jesus’ steps, then we too must have the same curiosity, compassion and care that he showed when that woman touched his robe, namely, that there be for us no invisible, expendable people.
As for being invisible: it always amazes me that, with so many people crowded around Jesus, no one could answer his very simple question, “Who touched me?” How did that woman so nearly get away with that?
But if you’ve ever read the Cold War spy novels of John LeCarre, you find that there is a science, an art, of making oneself nearly invisible, or at least, unobtrusive, un-noticeable, easily overlooked or quickly forgotten. Its not just a trick of professional espionage; we all learn how to hide ourselves, or parts of ourselves, whenever we are uncomfortable or ashamed.
As for being expendable, sacrifice-able: there’s something about most human societies that requires scapegoats, villains and victims, people to reject, on whom to project the things we most want to hide about ourselves. Having enemies and alleged inferiors also gives people a sense of unity and identity, however false and fleeting. For the people around Jesus, the people to fear would have been people like that ritually, technically unclean woman.
Being invisible and expendable often go together. People who find themselves the scapegoats, villains and victims of a group, a school or a society, often learn how to blend in, to avoid being seen, at least not in the wrong places, and to deflect attention away from themselves. This very neighborhood is full of invisible people who are trying to stay that way, because of addictions, debt, disability, mental health issues, criminal records or immigration status. And there is a corresponding effort on the part of society to keep them out of sight. Its an open secret that when a social service agency wants to set up a group home in other parts of Minneapolis, those neighborhood associations band together and say, “Not in our backyard, you don’t; Go to the Phillips Neighborhood, the Central Neighborhood, or to North Minneapolis; what will one more service agency, group home or treatment center matter in those neighborhoods?”
So now it doesn’t surprise me as much that this woman could get up to Jesus, touch him, and nearly get away without being seen, even in a crowd. Through her twelve years of illness and ritual uncleanness, invisibility was probably a learned art, on the level of LeCarre’s greatest spies. And her neighbors had likely learned how not to see her, too.
But to Jesus, no one is invisible, nor expendable. To the sacrificial Lamb of God, there are no scapegoats or rejects. Nor does he fear our infirmities or uncleanness. Jesus came expressly into our world of shadows to seek all who suffer from them. And to seek the weak, hidden and rejected parts inside all of us, to find and illuminate everyone and everything that he finds in the shadows with healing love. In every such encounter you see Jesus acting on the faith that the goodness and holiness of God overcomes the uncleanness and impurity in the world, and not vice versa. So when he got the woman in today’s story to confess her action, Jesus did not condemn her for violating the letter of the purity law. Instead, he commended her faith and her courage in front of everyone.
The lesson for the disciple of Jesus is clear: everybody counts; no one is to be invisible, expendable, scapegoated or rejected. For the one perfect sacrifice necessary has already been made once and for all everybody’s cleansing and healing: Jesus himself, the Lamb of God.
But in this time of economic uncertainty, and in an election year, its open season in the hunt for enemies and scapegoats. The newest scapegoat du jour is the immigrant, especially the undocumented, Spanish-speaking immigrant. Yes, I know there are legitimate questions and disagreements around matters of law, borders and policies. But we mustn’t forget that we’re talking about people, and their children. And the scapegoating fever has gotten to the point where many who are here with documents are being judged and treated as though they were not.
And now someone has tapped us on our shoulder, and is asking us not for pity but for partnership, not for hand-outs but for friendship, companionship on the road to full citizenship in this country, and in the kingdom of heaven. And for some tasks, English will suffice. This is our chance to demonstrate before the world a human society that needs no villains, victims nor scapegoats to stay united. Its called the Church of Jesus Christ. This is our chance to demonstrate the faith of Jesus Christ: that the goodness of God overcomes all things, even fear, divisions and death. For the ground at his feet is level for all who come to Jesus seeking healing, help and hope. That’s good news for everybody.