by Br Julian McDonald cfc
One of the synagogue officials, named Jairus, came forward. Seeing Jesus, he fell at his feet and pleaded earnestly: “My daughter is at the point of death. Please come and lay your hands on her that she may get well and live”.…There was a woman afflicted with haemorrhages for twelve years…She was thinking to herself: “If I can just touch his robe, I can get well.” Mark 5, 21-43
Once again, being familiar with the context is a help to making sense of today’s gospel-reading. After the calming of the storm, Jesus and his disciples made their way across the Sea of Galilee and landed in hostile territory. – the country of the Gerasenes. As he got out of the boat, Jesus was confronted by a completely out-of-control madman, so strong that he repeatedly broke the chains and ropes with which the townspeople tried to restrain him. The man identified himself to Jesus as Legion, explaining; “There are hundreds of us.” As the story unfolds, we are told how Jesus drove out the mob of devils that had possessed the poor fellow, and then how, at the request of the devils themselves, he drove them into a herd of pigs. Overcome by the devils, the pigs stampeded into the sea and drowned. In this story of the Gerasene demoniac, the word beg (in Greek parakaleo) occurs three times. And it is used again in the very first verse of today’s gospel-reading (Mark 5, 23).
In the first part of Mark chapter 5, we hear how the devils begged Jesus not to expel them from their neighbourhood. The local pig farmers then begged Jesus not to bother them anymore and to go back to where he belonged. And the man Jesus had rescued from the devils, having been restored to full sanity, then begged Jesus to allow him to go with him to Galilee.
No sooner had Jesus set foot back in Galilee than he was accosted by Jairus, a prominent synagogue leader, who begged him: “My little daughter is critically ill. Please come and lay your hands on her, so that she may get well and live” (Mark 5, 23). Of significance, however, is the fact that, scattered throughout Mark’s Gospel, there are numerous references to opposing reactions to Jesus. The Pharisees and other Jewish leaders, threatened by him and his outspoken views, wanted him out of their lives. In contrast, Blind Bartimaeus shouted to get Jesus’ attention while the crowd tried to shut him up. And there is the story of the group of men who made a hole in somebody else’s roof to let down their paralysed friend on his stretcher into Jesus’ presence. In Mark’s view, genuine faith was demonstrated by those who would not let anything stop them from getting close to Jesus. And that makes me ask if my faith measures up to Mark’s test.
Against all that background, let’s take a closer look at Jairus and the unfortunate woman who could not stem her bleeding. Jairus was in a position that kept him at the centre of the public gaze. He had a reputation to uphold, a reputation that stood to be lost in the eyes of his bosses who couldn’t stand the sight of Jesus. To be seen in public talking to Jesus would have been anathema as far as his career was concerned. Inviting Jesus to his house and asking him to touch his contaminated daughter would have been the last straw. But, standing tall in the public eye, Jairus begs Jesus to accompany him to his house and persists until he gets what he wants.
Then, there is the woman with the uncontrolled bleed. Jewish purification laws demanded that she have contact with nobody. Yet, she elbows her way through the crowd and stretches out to grab at Jesus’ cloak. For her trouble, for daring to risk punishment for contaminating those she jostled out of her way, for her undeniable faith in Jesus, she is healed on the spot.
These days, both Jairus and the unnamed woman would be categorised as boundary violators. Moreover, Jesus himself would fit into that category. He ignores the purity laws and brushes aside class and gender distinctions and rules, all for the sake of giving God’s love free passage into the lives of people in need.
All this makes me wonder just when it was that I last encountered a nameless beggar who accosted me, hoping to find something of Jesus in me? What kind of reception did I extend? Did I expect him or her to adhere to the rules of social etiquette to which I have become accustomed? And what of those beggars who just won’t take no for an answer, and those who insist on getting close to Jesus in their way, even refusing to let anyone or anything get in their way? How do I engage with them? Am I open to let my guard down, and to engage with them on their terms?
The purity rules within which the woman afflicted with constant bleeding had been forced to live were actually about the tension between exclusion and inclusion. Her unstemmed bleeding locked her out of the religious community to which she rightfully belonged. By reaching out to touch Jesus’ cloak, she effectively claimed her freedom, independence and humanity. She made a decision to stop the life being drained out of her by a set of impersonal rules designed by a group of male religious leaders. In reaching out, she not only demonstrated the faith she had in Jesus but displayed enormous common-sense and resilience.
Moreover, there is a great irony in how the events of this gospel-reading unfold. This woman, with “unclean” written all over her, unwittingly interrupts a synagogue leader who has a role in enforcing the purity code that has excluded her. What’s more, Jairus is forced by circumstances to witness the healing that comes to the woman as a result of her trampling over a rule based on false understandings of superiority and segregation. The action of the woman represents a rebellion against injustice. She is restored to wholeness and reclaims her personal dignity under the gaze of a member of the Jewish, religious elite. The action she took is surely an inspiration to all who are prepared to fight for freedom, equality and justice wherever in our world they are clearly missing.
But let’s not rush to condemn Jairus. By going to Jesus in the first place, he had put his career and his reputation on the line. Worse still, the interruption created by the woman with the bleed, meant that he was unable to get Jesus to his sick daughter before messengers arrived bringing news of the child’s death: “Your daughter is dead. Why bother the Teacher anymore?” Having overheard the bad news, Jesus encouraged Jairus with: “Don’t be afraid; only have faith!” (Recall the reflection of last week, which made the point that fear is the antithesis of faith.) By venturing into a house that supposedly held a lifeless body, both Jesus and Jairus risked personal defilement, breaching purity laws similar to the one broken by the woman with the bleed – yet another irony. In the wash-up of today’s gospel reading, I am left wondering if the Jesus whom Jairus and the haemorrhaging woman met might be found in my Church by people looking for him. Or would they find only lifeless rules?