Sunday, July 02, 2006

Touching and Being Touched by Jesus

In this week's lectionary story [1] we see some extraordinary scenes of high drama. First a leader of the synagogue falls at Jesus' feet and begs him for help, not once but repeatedly. How undignified! What must the other villagers have thought?
No doubt some sneered to see him brought low, but others must have felt sorry for him. His daughter wasn't really little. She was twelve years old – almost a grown up by the standards of the time. So, unless she was remarkably short, the expression, 'my little girl' has got to be a term of endearment, a sign of the man's great love for his daughter. Later, Jesus borrows the same turn of phrase himself when he goes to heal her.
The story contradicts the idea we sometimes have that women were not valued in the ancient world. Here we see that fathers could love their daughters every bit as much as they loved their sons.
As the scene unfolds, a woman turns out to be so ill, and so desperate, that she is prepared to sneak up on Jesus just to touch his clothes as he goes by. And, when she is found out, she too ends up falling down before him – this time in fear and trembling. Not only that, but she blurts out the whole embarrassing story about her illness, about the misery which the doctors have caused her instead of making her better, and about her shortage of money. But, unlike Jairus, it's not desperation which causes her to fall at Jesus' feet. It is alarm that he might be about to punish her. What must the other villagers have said to one another as they listened to her story?
For the whole of the time that the little girl had been growing up in the village, this woman had been battling to overcome her illness. Where had her money come from? Again we are often told that – in the ancient world – women had no money unless they were widows. But the money to treat her illness might have been given to her by her husband so, again, perhaps she was valued and loved just as much as Jairus' daughter.
She discovers, to her embarrassment, that it isn't possible to be a secret friend of Jesus. His disciples try to reason with him when he demands to know who touched his clothes. There is a huge crowd pressing round them. It could have been anyone. But Jesus continues looking all round, searching for the needy person who has found wholeness by believing in him. She must come out into the open, so that others can know she has at last found peace and so that her own faith can be affirmed.
Then, there's the way that Jesus brusquely throws the mourners out of the house, accusing them of making a commotion – a fuss about nothing. 'Jairus' daughter is not dead,' he tells them. She's only sleeping. We know exactly what they thought. Tears of sorrow turned to scornful and derisive laughter. Jesus must have lost his marbles. He must be several knives and forks short of a full picnic set! And yet, to everyone's amazement, the girl gets up and immediately begins to walk about.
What are we to make of this? Even if the girl wasn't really dead, but only in a coma or unconscious, it is remarkable that she should be walking around and eating food straight after meeting Jesus. And if she was dead, is this a promise that all of us are only sleeping when we die and will one day wake up again and be with Jesus?
In some ways these stories of dramatic healing can seem strange to us because we are not used to such things, but in other ways the stories are oddly familiar. Today illness continues to have huge implications not just for the person who is unwell, but for their family too. The lives of carers can be blighted by strain and sadness as they watch a loved one, especially a child, slowly succumb to ill health. Or families can be bankrupted by the cost of having someone who needs urgent or expensive treatment, such as a new wonder drug not available on the National Health Service, or when one of the family breadwinners can no longer earn a living.
The transformation in the lives of the two women is also a reminder of the way that encountering Jesus always transforms the life of the believer – sometimes in very dramatic ways. Meeting Jesus is never a non-event.
And the story is a reminder of Jesus' openness to women. They are certainly every bit as important to him as the men he meets. But then we have also seen how important his daughter was to Jairus, and how important the woman must have been to whoever paid for her expensive treatment. If we proclaim Jesus as the first male supporter of feminism, as some Christian feminists have been tempted to do, are we perhaps being unfair to some of the other men in Palestine at the same time?
Finally, the thing that makes Jesus' experience of the story different from our own understanding of it is that he would have seen both the woman and the girl as ritually unclean. The woman would have been seen as unclean, or unholy, because of her illness, the child because she was dead. To touch or be touched by them was supposedly to be cut off from God. Or, at least, that was the standard view at the time. In challenging him to work a miracle for them, Jairus and the woman knowingly ask Jesus to overlook that risk. But, of course, Jesus knows something they don't know, but we do. These things do not cut us off from God. God's love is no different from our love. Like our families and our true friends, God goes on loving us come what may. In fact, God's love is broader and deeper than our love. Nothing can cut us off from it at all. When Jesus asked, 'Who touched me?' it was not so that he could complain about being made unclean. It was so that he could celebrate the breaking down of yet another barrier between people. In him we are all one.
[1] Mark 5.21-43

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