Reflections for June are by Bishop Robert Kurtz of Hamilton in Bermuda
Today’s Gospel is something of a literary and spiritual masterpiece that relates the cure of a woman with a chronic hemorrhage condition and the raising to life of the daughter of Jairus, a synagogue official. Mark uses the literary technique of inserting the story of the hemorrhaging woman into the body of the story relating the raising to life of the daughter of Jairus. This literary device invites us and almost forces us to see both stories as closely related and to interpret them accordingly.
However, in order to understand and interpret both stories, we must refer to the Book of Leviticus of the Hebrew Bible. Leviticus is one book that is usually quickly passed over by most Christian readers of the Bible due to the seemingly endless lists of regulations regarding Temple worship and ritual purity. In the 15th chapter of Leviticus we learn that whenever a woman has a discharge of blood from her body, she remains ritually unclean. Anyone who touches her becomes unclean and anyone or anything she touches becomes unclean as well. Now imagine for a moment the situation of the woman in today’s Gospel who has suffered from a discharge of blood continuously for twelve years! This is much more than a medical problem. This poor woman has had to live in isolation, completely marginalized in Israelite society. She lived continuously in dire straits. As related in today’s Gospel, in her desperation the woman reasons that if she can only touch the garment of Jesus she will be healed and made clean. She decides to reach out and touch Jesus, no doubt knowing that this act would make Jesus ritually unclean. She risks all. She reaches out in faith, touches the cloak of Jesus and is immediately healed by the touch. She is restored to life—physically, spiritually and psychologically. And contrary to the conventional wisdom and understanding of the Jewish community, Jesus is not made unclean by the touch of the hemorrhaging woman, rather, the touch allows cleansing, healing and new life to flow from Jesus.
With this story in mind, we turn now to the story of the Synagogue official and his ailing daughter. Jairus was one of the leaders of Jewish society in his role as Synagogue official. Yet, he humbles himself, kneels before Jesus and begs him to come to his house and to cure his daughter who is at the point of death. Jesus accedes to his request and accompanies the official to his house.
Here we have to remember that the ritual laws of purity also applied to anyone who touched the body of a dead person. Only the immediate members of the family of the deceased could touch the body of the dead person without defilement because they were to prepare the corpse for immediate burial. So it is that the members of the Official’s household come to meet Jesus and suggest to Jairus that he should no longer trouble the Teacher, Jesus, because his daughter has died, implying that the Teacher would become defiled and ritually unclean in the presence of a corpse. Jesus responds: “Do not fear, only believe.” And he continues on to the house.
Jesus assures the mourners at the official’s house that the child is alive and asleep, not dead. But the people ridicule him and laugh him to scorn. Jesus enters the room where the child lies in death. Jesus takes the child by the hand; he risks becoming ritually impure. He says, in his native Aramaic language: “Talitha Kum,” “Little child, get up!” The girl gets up and begins to walk about. (This is one of only three times in the Gospels that we hear the words of Jesus in his own Aramaic language.)
The parallel between the two stories is clear and obvious. The woman suffering from hemorrhages touches Jesus and is cleansed, cured, and gains new life. The daughter of Jairus is touched by Jesus and she is raised to new life. In effect, Israel is being defined as a people in a new way. Up to the coming of Jesus, Israel was defined and identified by the Levitical laws of life, worship and ritual purity. In Jesus, these laws reach fulfillment in a new and unexpected form. Mark teaches us that the Church, the community of faith in Jesus and the New Israel, is now defined and identified in its relation to Jesus. The Church is now called to do what Jesus did—to reach out to the sick, the suffering and the marginalized. The People of God, the new Israel, are to be defined by their conformity to Jesus.
In response to today’s Gospel, it would be good to sit quietly with the words of Jesus on our lips as a type of mantra: “Do not fear, only believe.” Often in Mark’s Gospel fear is related to lack of faith. Our fears are often the result of our weak faith. Let us pray: “Lord Jesus, let us not fear to reach out and to touch the sick, the suffering and those on the margins of our society. Teach us to reach out in love and service, without fear, because these acts now define us as your disciples, people who truly believe in you, people of the New Israel, People of God. Amen.”