I must crave your indulgence this morning, because today’s Gospel reading contains what is possibly my favourite story in the whole of the New Testament – so my apologies if you have heard me on this subject before, because I really cannot get enough of it – it is truly remarkable.
A bit of background to this: many years ago I picked up a rather dated book about St Mark’s Gospel, which said of the gospel reading that we have just heard, what a pity it is that St Mark disrupts the flow of a perfectly good miracle story – the raising of Jairus’s daughter – by dumping another, completely unrelated story in the middle of it: the healing of the woman with the issue of blood. Which goes to prove how little that particular author understood either about our reading, or indeed about St Mark.
Because nothing could be further from the truth. St Mark’s gospel is certainly full of rough edges – and he leaves us, his readers, with all the work to do in making the connections between the things he sets before us. But he always knows exactly what he is doing. And what he is doing in weaving these two stories together is just mind-blowing. So let’s look at it:
Jairus, who is one of the leaders of the synagogue (note that detail!), begs Jesus to come and lay hands on his daughter, who is at the point of death. So Jesus sets off with Jairus to his home, accompanied by a large crowd. And it is then that the second story begins. Because a woman who has been suffering from an issue of blood for many years, comes up behind Jesus. Now, this is a woman who is at her wits’ end. Not only is she physically unwell – indeed, her condition is deteriorating; not only has she used up all her resources in her desperate attempts to find a cure – but there is also one additional dimension to her plight that is arguably worse than everything else.
Because according to Jewish religious law, a woman in her condition was deemed to be in a permanent state of ritual impurity. She was literally untouchable, because she contaminated everything and everyone that she touched, even her own family members. Which rendered her an outcast. And that, of course, is why she feels unable to approach Jesus directly. She cannot ask Jesus to lay hands on her and make her well, simply because no-one is able to touch her. Which is why she creeps up behind him and touches – well, she dare not even touch his person, merely his cloak – for she thinks that, just possibly, that in itself might be enough.
And when she does this, Jesus, feeling the power go out from him says, ‘Who touched my clothes?’ The disciples are perplexed: there is a whole crowd pressing around Jesus – how could he possibly be conscious of a single individual touching him. And the woman, realizing that she has been discovered, comes forward and falls before him in fear and trembling, because of course, she has done something that she is expressly forbidden to do – and she is guilty of contaminating him.
And we then come to the really astonishing bit. Just pause and think about the similarities and differences between these two healing stories for a moment. In Jairus we have a named individual; an important religious authority; a man who approaches Jesus directly and falls before him pleading for him to touch his daughter. How old is his daughter? Twelve years old. Then we have our nameless woman, too fearful to approach Jesus directly, and who cannot ask him to touch her, who also falls down before him, but does so out of fear, because she has been ‘found out’. How long has that nameless woman been suffering from her condition? Twelve years.
Whether you are the most respected of religious leaders, or the most impure, unclean, nameless, fearful outcast, Jesus sees your need and responds to it. He makes no distinction whatsoever. But this is only the start.
Because who were the people who were responsible for upholding the purity laws, and had the power to declare individuals ‘clean’ or ‘unclean’? It was of course the religious authorities – men such as Jairus. It is entirely possible that it was Jairus himself who was directly responsible for the woman’s exclusion from society. And yet, in purely human terms, Jairus is every bit as needy and desperate as the woman whom he, or his like, have excluded.
But for Jesus, not only do the distinctions between ‘respectable’ and ‘outcast’ mean absolutely nothing. Much more startling, in terms of the conventions of his culture, is his utter disregard for the Jewish distinction between ‘pure’ and ‘impure’. Because his compassion extends to all, and embraces all, regardless. He is the bringer of new life – to a young girl whose twelve year old life has come to an end – and to a woman whose life has been draining away from her for twelve long years. Their circumstances mean little to him; their need means everything.
But for me, there is one additional detail in the story that is often overlooked, but which I find more powerful and more poignant than all the rest put together. Jairus is a man with a home; with a family; he has a crowd of attendants and servants surrounding him all the time. The woman is utterly isolated, and comes to Jesus completely alone, concealing her presence within the crowd that throngs him. And, in the story, as I have already observed, she does not even have a name.
Except that she does. Because Jesus gives her one. His very first word to that poor, isolated, desperate, outcast, terrified woman, is ‘Daughter’. And by addressing her in this way, he not only gives her a name, and an identity, but he breaks through her utter isolation by giving her a relationship – a direct personal relationship with him: ‘Daughter’.
When Jesus raises from the dead the other daughter in this story – the daughter of Jairus, he addresses her simply as ‘Little girl’ – ‘Talitha’. Because, of course, that little girl already has all the things that the other woman lacks: she has wealth; she has people to care for her; she has, above all, an utterly devoted father – she is already somebody’s daughter.
So in our gospel reading today what we have is a tale of two daughters, whose stories go back twelve years, and whose lives are suddenly woven together in an extraordinary and mysterious parallel: one a much-cherished little girl; the other a complete outcast who has nobody, but who is every bit as precious in the sight of Jesus. Because, far from recoiling from her when she defiles him with her touch, he draws her to himself and calls her ‘Daughter’.
Ours is a God whose love, in Christ, knows no bounds. It is a love that cannot be contained, even by death – hence the raising of Jairus’s daughter. It is a love that defies the boundaries of social convention and moral acceptability – hence the healing of the woman with the issue of blood. It is a love that pours out excessively and profligately, touching everyone and everything, healing, transforming, and saving.
I can remember hearing Rowan Williams’ reflection on being caught up in the horrific events of 9/11 and the destruction of the Twin Towers. He observed (I am paraphrasing his words) that terrorists only ever view human beings from a distance, as undifferentiated masses of people who fall into distinct categories: ‘Western civilization equals bad’; ‘different kind of Islam equals bad’, and so on. From any terrorists’ point of view (whatever their particular religious or political affiliation happens to be) anyone falling within such broad categories is deemed a legitimate target; and any others who suffer in the process are merely co-lateral damage. But what Jesus does is the exact opposite: he doesn’t care about categories at all, because he sees human life, not from a distance but in close up: because for him each and every human life regardless of culture or status or tribe is distinct and precious in his sight, as in today’s gospel.
Which is why ours truly is a faith based on love. Because love can only ever exist and have meaning at the level of an individual life, and it does so, regardless of what that life happens to be.
‘Jesus said: “Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace.”’