Saturday, 27 June 2015

Unclean Healer

Now there was a woman who had been suffering from haemorrhages for twelve years.
She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.”
Immediately her haemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease.
 Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age).  (Mark 5)

We have a girl, and a woman. One quite well off, we assume: her father can afford to have her mourned for properly. We don't know her name, just her dad's - Jairus, the synagogue ruler. One poor, and we're not told her name either. Nor her husband or father, in that land where people are often identified by the men in their lives.

They've had a very different twelve years. The girl has grown up well loved, well fed, well respected with her important dad and her loving mum. The woman - well, no. We don't know what caused her illness - maybe it was in childbirth that she acquired the problem. Maybe what should have been a happy time became the start of a nightmare for her. Or a hormonal problem that meant her periods never stopped.

So she's going to prone to anaemia, to picking up other illnesses. Maybe feeling tired the whole time. Not much use, maybe, economically - unable to work much in fields, or to travel far. But maybe worse, in the society she lives in, for twelve years, she's been ritually unclean. And the rules for uncleanness are pretty strict. Her bed is constantly unclean. Anything she eats with. If she has a husband they can't make love without  him becoming unclean. If he even kisses her, touches her hand she's unclean.

If, in desperation, she sneaks up behind a famous rabbi and grabs the edge of his coat - he will be unclean. But 12 years of isolation, exclusion, loneliness - they drive her. A belief that this really is the Messiah - maybe that drives her. She believes in a God, don't forget, whose very own rules make her an outcast. And yet, faith overcoming doubt, she believes that God can make her well.

Jesus is currently on a roll. He's stilled a storm, then thrown demons out of a possessed man. But in both these cases, he's been the one initiating. On this occasion, he's effectively the victim of a drive-by healing. He should be concerned that the touch of this woman's hand has made him ritually impure. If he wants to rejoin civilised society, he should immediately run off for a bath and then, essentially, go off. And hide in the bushes for a week. And then he'll be clean. But instead, he finds out who has touched him, and then he gets her, hesitantly and scared, to tell her story.

And Jesus is so gentle to this woman who has dared so much, and broken so many religious rules, to find the healing she's dreamed of so long. "Go, Daughter. Your faith has healed you."

And he's off. Off, despite people suddenly turning up, saying, "don't bother, the girl's dead."

Mark's cut this together like a screenplay. While the attention's been on the woman, offstage somebody else has been the centre of attention. The nameless, unclean woman is free of her illness. But the little posh girl has died away from the cameras. So there was the noise of the crowd. The hush as they wait for the woman to tell her story. And now, as Jesus goes into Jairus's house, the average English person would be expecting peace. People murmuring and saying consoling things. As Victoria Wood once put it, " In India when a man dies the widow flings herself onto the funeral pyre; in England she just drags herself to the kitchen and says "72 baps, Connie - you slice, I'll spread"."

No. It's not like that.

Worth focussing on Jairus for a minute. He's one of the leading men of the town. But he's been grabbing on the feet of this wandering healer in the hope that he can do something that none of the local doctors has been able to manage. And when he was trying to get Jesus back to his house... well, you know what it's like, if you've ever had to get medical treatment for a child and you're wondering why the NHS are taking so long even to answer the phone. He's gonna be frantic. And he must be wondering what on earth Jesus is doing, wasting his time with this outcast woman when his own, precious daughter is dying. And he's told she's dead. And everything goes blank, and black. and he heads for the house with this rabbi, anyway - his faith as great as his sorrow.

And the house is in uproar. There's people howling, people wailing, people playing flutes. He's crashed back into noise. In amongst the chaos, Jairus's child is laying still, still offstage, in another room. This has been the story of the bit-parts, hasn't it? "Woman in the crowd" has been the star of the show so far, and we're still yet to meet "the girl offstage."

Jesus throws them all out, like one day soon he will throw a bunch of money-changers out of the Temple. It's just Jesus, the girl's parents, and probably his three closest disciples. I say "just". That's very nearly a small crowd, when you think about it.

The girl's twelve. To us, she's a child, just started upper school. To the first century, she's nearly old enough to marry. Just reaching the point of adulthood. Those twelve years the woman outside has been dreaming of a normal life - Jairus and his wife have been dreaming of the life their daughter will now just be moving into. Marriage to a nice boy - a good, religious boy. And her own children in due course.

Jesus is stepping into a place of broken dreams and tragedy for the second time in this short episode. And there's another common thread. To touch a woman with bleeding - that is to become unclean. There's many things can make you ritually impure, according to the Book of Leviticus - that collection of laws that are so desperate to keep God's people so pure that they will be worthy to follow the Lord. Touching a dead body makes you unclean. Remember when the priest wouldn't help the man who had been assaulted in the story of the Good Samaritan? Was that because he didn't care, or because if the man had been dead, the priest would have been ritually unclean?

We were talking the other day about these trolleys that supermarkets have these days, that can't go past a certain point. And we were wondering how they worked. And reckoning that what it can't be, is that the supermarkets put massive magnets under the ground on the edges of their car parks. Cos, if you think about it, it would stop the trolleys. But it would also stop small cars. And people with plates in their heads or pins in their legs or heart pace-makers.  But one thought that struck me was, maybe the trolleys don't go beyond that point - because they just think they can't. Maybe they're constrained by their own limitations of imagination, or fear. Maybe they think that if they venture beyond the car park, monsters await that eat trolleys? No. That's not how they work really. We googled it. Turns out, it's magic. So that's solved.

So where's the limits on Jesus, the wonder-working healer and all-star preacher here? How far can he venture beyond where people are supposed to? He's healed the woman, and yet his healing has overcome her uncleanness. He's in the room with the dead girl - not a relative of his, just the daughter of some bloke who's been grabbing Jesus's feet in the market square. And Jesus reaches out and takes her hand and says, "get up, little'un"

And up she gets.

Here's what I reckon. We box this world up into the ones we accept and the ones we don't. There's the ones we love, the ones we want to impress, the ones we patronise, the ones we avoid. There's the places we'll go, the things we'll risk, and the things that we can never consider. And Jesus breaks through all the rules and all the divisions.

The medieval Church saw the way Jesus broke across in a more radical way than we did, really. Because they believed that the dead were in Purgatory, they prayed for them to get out as fast as possible. They included the dead in their prayers. The medieval Church recognised that the Jesus who brought a young girl back to life, who died on a cross yet rose on a Sunday morning - transcends even life and death. And in doing so, they retained the dead as part of their living community - just as God does.

And that's the God I believe in, and the Jesus I believe walked this earth. One who takes all our divisions and makes them void. To Greeks, a God who took on a real human form and made it his own was madness. How could God's purity be mixed with the blood, sweat, tears and droppings of a real human being? Jesus did it. And in doing that, he broke all the other rules about what you could and couldn't be, if you wanted God to love you.

Could you be divided from Jesus because you were ritually unclean? Apparently not. Because you were a Gentile? No - he healed the centurion's servant and the Syrian woman's daughter. Because you were a woman, in such a patriarchal society? Evidently not. Because you were a leper? No. If you were dead?

No. Not even if you were dead. Jesus could still reach you there. Is still with you there.

He takes the rich and the poor. The sick and the well. The living and the dead. Men, women, children and anybody who will either grab his cloak, or let him take their hand - and makes them all one in his kingdom which has no end, and where all will be well. And he does it because every barrier that was ever put up beyond which God would never go, or beyond which God could never reach - he has broken through himself.

"Love like death has all destroyed
rendered all distinctions void
Names and sects and parties fall
Thou, O Christ, art all in all"


  1. Sure is. Loved the supermarket trolley analogy. Funny how often the biggest barriers we face are the ones we've built ourselves.

  2. Top-notch homily, thank you. Also heard an excellent one on the subject of SS Peter and Paul yestre'en, so I am well nourished spiritually.

  3. You hit it on the head and nail it down, as usual.
    Jim of Olym


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