Listen to the audio of today’s Reflection:
A Dead Girl and a Sick Woman
21 When Jesus had again crossed over by boat to the other side of the lake, a large crowd gathered around him while he was by the lake. 22 Then one of the synagogue rulers, named Jairus, came there. Seeing Jesus, he fell at his feet, 23 and pleaded earnestly with him, “My little daughter is dying. Please come and put your hands on her so that she will be healed and live.” 24 So Jesus went with him.
A large crowd followed and pressed around him. 25 And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years. 26 She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse. 27 When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, 28 because she thought, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.” 29 Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering.
30 At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and asked, “Who touched my clothes?”
31 “You see the people crowding against you,” his disciples answered, “and yet you can ask, ‘Who touched me?’ ”
32 But Jesus kept looking around to see who had done it. 33 Then the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told him the whole truth. 34 He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.”
35 While Jesus was still speaking, some people came from the house of Jairus, the synagogue leader. “Your daughter is dead,” they said. “Why bother the teacher anymore?”
36 Ignoring what they said, Jesus told him, “Don’t be afraid; just believe.”
37 He did not let anyone follow him except Peter, James and John the brother of James. 38 When they came to the home of the synagogue ruler, Jesus saw a commotion, with people crying and wailing loudly. 39 He went in and said to them, “Why all this commotion and wailing? The child is not dead but asleep.”40 But they laughed at him.
After he put them all out, he took the child’s father and mother and the disciples who were with him, and went in where the child was. 41 He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha koum!” (which means “Little girl, I say to you, get up!”). 42 Immediately the girl stood up and began to walk around (she was twelve years old). At this they were completely astonished. 43 He gave strict orders not to let anyone know about this, and told them to give her something to eat.
For most of the time I’ve been doing these Reflections, when this story turned up as the day’s gospel reading in the lectionary, I just picked one of the two intertwined stories and wrote about that. It actually shows up fairly often, because the story appears in Matthew and Luke as well as this original version in Mark.
But over time, I’ve come to the conclusion that we really should think about the two stories together. Apparently that’s what the Holy Spirit has in mind – that there’s something to be learned by reading the passage as one story. I suspect that the Spirit has given us a clue that the stories are meant to be connected by including the references to “twelve years” in each of them. The little girl is twelve years old, and that’s how long the woman has been bleeding. On the face of it, the age of the girl and the length of the illness don’t really make any difference, so it strikes me that the twelve years is just intended to connect the two stories together.
And as I’ve thought about these stories, it’s started to seem to me that they have other things in common, too. In both stories, Jesus is surrounded by big crowds. And in both of the stories, the people in the crowds miss what’s really happening. Power flows out of Jesus, but most people don’t perceive it – the power flows to the two people who really need it.
In the story of the sick woman, we’re told that Jesus is being surrounded and jostled by a big crowd. But apparently none of them have any idea that the woman has tapped into Jesus’ divine power. Jesus, of course, notices it right away. And later, when he goes to the house of the synagogue leader, Jesus finds himself surrounded by a big crowd of mourners. They’re wailing and crying out in their grief, and they don’t believe (or at least they don’t understand) what Jesus says about the little girl being “not dead but asleep.” Only the little girl’s parents believe Jesus, and their daughter is restored to them.
But the more I think about it, the more it seems to me that it’s the desperation of the characters in the stories that we’re meant to notice. Both the sick woman and the little girl’s parents are so desperate that they are willing to sacrifice their own dignity and self-esteem.
The sick woman knows that she’s regarded as ritually unclean, so touching a famous rabbi would be considered a violation of the laws of Moses. But she’s so desperate, she shoves through the crowd and touches Jesus anyway. And she is healed.
The synagogue ruler almost certainly knows that his fellow Jewish religious leaders want Jesus dead. But he’s so desperate he risks his standing among that leadership, and he gets down on his knees at the feet of Jesus and ‘pleads earnestly’ for his daughter’s life. And as a result of his desperate pleading, the little girl’s life is restored.
In this story, the two people who receive the power of Jesus stand out from the crowd. Not because they are the more righteous or virtuous, but because they are willing to lay aside their own dignity and self-reliance, and admit their desperate need for what Jesus offers.
One of my favorite contemporary Christian praise songs is entitled Breathe. It’s not that popular among Presbyterians because it doesn’t have many words and it’s really more of a chant than a hymn. But the simple refrain is, “And I, I’m desperate for you.” And that, I think, expresses a simple truth about following Jesus: that those who truly experience the healing power of Jesus are those who can face the fact that our own wisdom and strength and righteousness are not enough to save us. Those who experience that power realize how desperately we need Jesus.
That can make the life of genuine faith a challenge for us, for American Protestants, because we’re raised to be independent and self-reliant. But in terms of our relationship with God, independence and self-reliance don’t work. Following Jesus is not a self-help program. If we try to rely on our own virtue, on our own righteousness, that self-reliance will wind up being an impediment to genuine relationship with the one who died for us. It’s when we drop our self-delusions and face our desperate need for Jesus that his power can really flow into us, and he can heal us of whatever ails us and give us new life.
Let’s pray. Lord, you know how stubborn we can be about our own independence of heart and mind. But we pray that you will soften our hard hearts, and help us to face our desperate need for your healing and life-giving power, so that we can receive it and embrace it, and know your joy. Amen.
Grace and Peace,
(The other readings for today are Psalms 57 and 85; Isaiah 48:1-11; and Galatians 1:1-17.)