By Fr. Michael Cover
Series: The Questions Scripture Asks Us Question 4: “Who touched my clothes?” (Mark 5:30)
Greetings, in the name of Jesus, the Son of God who heals us!
As we’ve already heard, today is Diversity Sunday at St. Paul’s Church. It’s a day when this parish community celebrates the many differences that enrich us, inspire us, challenge us, and ultimately reflect the infinite creative diversity of the one God we worship. Reflecting on our diversity as a church is important, because it challenges each of us to remember that Jesus did not come just to save people like me; he came to save everyone. If we really want to understand the full breadth and color spectrum of God’s Beloved Community—the human race he came to die for—it is imperative for us to listen to our differences. Beyond the Word and Sacraments, the bedrock of any church community is the sharing of diverse stories of hope and salvation. What greater first gift can we offer one another than the invitation to tell our stories; or, as Shakespeare put it, to “tell me the story of your life”—and then to recognize in such mutual tellings how much deeper and wider are the mercies of God than we had ever dreamed.
Today’s Gospel reading gives us two such stories—two very diverse stories—of the healings done by Jesus for two very different people. The first is the healing of a twelve-year-old girl, the daughter of a socially important male leader of the Galilean Jewish synagogue named Jairus; the second is the healing of an apparently single woman, ostracized, alone, and suffering for twelve years from a socially stigmatizing illness. It would have been easy enough for Mark to tell these two stories serially, one following the other. Instead, Mark intentionally interweaves them, to make a point: no one is saved alone; Jesus comes to heal everyone, and our salvations are intertwined with one another.
The scene opens with Jesus returning to the third-coast Shorewest of the Sea of Galilee. He is met there immediately by a very important man named Jairus, whose daughter is on the point of death; Jairus begs Jesus to heal his little girl, before it is too late. The two of them set off together. But then, something happens on the way. In the heat and confusion of a crowd, an unnamed woman sneaks up and touches the hem of Jesus’ robe. She steals some of his power and the bleeding ceases. Jesus stops, looks around, and tries to sort the situation out. In the meantime, Jairus is getting anxious. This unexpected delay is putting his daughter’s life at risk. He begins to feel angry at Jesus, then despondent, then panicky. What is taking Jesus so long in the crowd? Doesn’t Jesus know who he is? Jairus runs back into the crowd, and overhears Jesus saying “Daughter, your faith has made you well.” At that selfsame moment, a servant taps him on the shoulder and says: “Jairus, your daughter is dead.”
Jesus looks up from the woman and is transfixed by Jairus’ angry, tear-filled eyes. But Jesus only smiles sadly, as if to say: oligopiste, my son of little faith! Are you yet impatient? Do not fear. The God who has the power to heal, also has the power to raise the dead. And though you could only believe in the lesser miracle, that I would heal your daughter; now you will receive the greater miracle instead: I will raise your daughter from the dead, to show you that there are no limits to the power of the Son of Man.
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Mark’s reworking of these two stories might fittingly be named “Girl, Interrupted.” The story of the healing of Jairus’ daughter is literally broken up by the healing of the woman with the flow of blood. In American biblical studies, this narrative pattern is colloquially referred to as the “Markan sandwich,” with a secondary story—the healing of the hemorrhaging woman—placed within a primary story, as a cold cut placed between two pieces of white bread. Not unlike a real sandwich, the “meat” of a Markan sandwich is often to be found in the middle—ministry, as they say, is in the interruptions. Clearly, however, Mark means both stories to illuminate one another. There are numerous “rhymes” between them, not the least of which is the woman’s 12-years hemorrhage corresponding to girl’s twelve years of age. But before we consider how these two healings are similar, we do well on Diversity Sunday to listen to their differences.
And the differences are many. The first story has to do with the petition of a powerful, named, Jewish man, with servants, social standing, and a family; the second story has to do with a powerless, unnamed woman of undisclosed religion, apparently single and definitely poor—having spent all her savings on doctors and a broken medical system. As Mark tells us: “She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse” (Mark 5:26).
Viewed in this light, the intended offense of Mark’s sandwich is to show Jesus refusing to privilege the request of a wealthy, religiously and socially significant husband and father over the petition of a poor, socially insignificant outcast of a woman, with no named religion and no family to speak of. Both of them require God’s healing, and both ultimately receive it—though not precisely in the form requested. This is Mark’s first point: God’s love is for everyone; the saying of St. Paul is true: “God shows no partiality” (Rom 2:11); but it also said by Solomon: “he who gives to the poor, lends to the LORD: he shall be repaid in full” (Prov 19:17).
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Often times in meditating on this Gospel passage, the homilist will invite the congregation to consider: with which person in the story do I most identify? In which of its diverse cast of characters to I see my own story reflected? Jairus, the woman, the disciples, a bystander, the 12-year-old girl? These are not bad questions to ask, and it’s good to remember that we will all naturally come to the story from different and unpredictable horizons. This morning, I would like to suggest a slightly different approach. I would like to invite us all to look at this story from the point of view of Jairus or his wife. Imagine that someone in your family—your loved ones—is sick to the point of death. Imagine that you’ve got an appointment scheduled with Jesus. And then imagine: someone interrupts Him and he stops. Wouldn’t you want to know? Who was it? Who made him stop? Who touched him?
“Who touched my clothes?” (Mark 5:30). That is the question that Jesus asks. And that, in a slightly modified form—“who touched his clothes?”—is the fourth and final question that Scripture asks us in our sermon series in June. Who touched Jesus’ clothes? Who interrupted him? Who is so important as to distract Jesus from our story? The disciples themselves try and shrug off the question: Teacher, they reply, “”You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’” (Mark 5:31). But, in a detail that the other Evangelists erase, Jesus continues to “look around” for the person who had so boldly taken power out of need.
Strictly speaking, in Jesus’ case, such searching was not necessary. As we saw last week, Mark’s Jesus, whom the wind and sea obey, is YHWH. In his divinity, he knew who had touched him; though Mark may here also be giving us a window into Jesus’ true humanity as well. Jesus could easily have let her take his power and moved on. But Jesus stops. He looks. He wants to know who it was, whose faith it was; he wants personally to meet the tired-footed, dirt poor, weary-spirited lady that has had the chutzpah to touch his clothing. It’s as if he says to Jairus: you’re concerned with your daughter. But this woman is my daughter. She also is my Beloved. What right do you have to privilege your daughter over mine?
And what is more, according to Mark’s Gospel, Jesus accommodates his healing to the diversity of this woman’s illness. Just as the woman has an uncontrollable flow of blood, so Jesus heals her by evincing an uncontrollable flow of mercy—the “man with the flow of power,” as one critic has called him. The point which Jairus is led to see is that just as there is a diversity of people who come to Jesus in need, so also is there a diversity of ways that Jesus will heal them, meet their needs in a special manner, personalize his healing to their stories in such a way that “grace never looks the same way twice.”
Each of us, then, is invited to ask “who touched his clothing?”—but in two different ways. First, we may need to ask ourselves from the perspective of Jairus’: who is it that we particularly do not want to have touched Jesus’ clothing; to have run to Jesus for mercy; to have stolen some of His power? Who do we imagine not deserving his attention, when our own house is in trouble? Whose story of faith would we want to avoid having sandwiched in with our own?
Second, we are invited by the Gospel to hear the question “who touched me?” through Jesus’ ears: who is this new son or daughter who has come to Jesus for help? Who are these “other children of Jesus”—this diverse and ever growing family of sons and daughters of the King; “sheep, not of this fold,” as Jesus says in the Gospel of John, who have come to the Good Shepherd by some other way, but come all the same? Jesus wanted to stop and meet this child, and so he invites us to do so as well. In welcoming her—whoever she is—may our faith grow like that of Jairus; and may we who ask for the lesser miracles receive the greater ones as well.