In Mark 5:21-43, who were these people Jesus healed? Jarius, whose daughter was close to death, was called the leader of the synagogue. That could mean patron, as in big pledge giver, but more likely he was an officer somewhere between sacristan and administrative officer. A blood flow for twelve years in a woman could be caused by a number of things, things we probably can treat medically today. But this woman had spent her fortune on doctors. A woman rich enough to employ a battery of useless doctors, now not only unclean, but destitute. With a blood flow like that it is unlikely she would be able to carry a child to term, if she could conceive at all. We have some notions about women being used as livestock to breed, but in that world children were a major asset to a family, and a son was not only the heir to the family name and fortune, but the only resource for a widowed mother. One can easily imagine that Mary was more venerated in her home town for bearing James, Joseph, Judas, and Simon, as well as Jesus, although there were some questions about how he came so early. Oh, and some sisters, too. That is assuming that Mary resumed a normal life after Jesus’ birth, a theological argument we are not going to get into.
But perhaps God was using this unfortunate woman to show Jesus’ glory as the Son of Man. Again, our modern vision of the Holy One is one of justice and abiding love, but here in the Gospel we are in the midst a sea change, a new covenant, the first since Abraham was called to sacrifice his only son. And God might have not saved Isaac, and later provided another miraculous birth for Sarah. Our minds are not as high as God’s, and we can’t see how cosmic history plays out in the mind of God. We no longer think that God gives illness, perhaps as punishment for a sin. There were plenty of people walking around with ordinary illnesses, but this woman who bled was the one chosen for healing by Jesus, by something which drove her to touch his garment. Perhaps she did it as a magical act, touching a talisman. But perhaps she was moved by God to do this in faith, need, veneration. Of course his energy goes out to her, as in her need she wordlessly calls out to him for his Spirit to come to her. Her reaching out was a prayer. Her prayer for twelve years. And Jarius’ daughter’s twelve years of life is about to end. And both healings, both gifts, bring Glory to the Holy One.
These two tales even in the terse language of Mark are so touching, so alive, so real. When Jesus turns to the woman she is terrified, as in the fear of God, not the fear of a Roman soldier or social superior. She is used to being shunned, cursed, reprimanded, or even having things thrown at her so that she doesn’t infect others with her impurity. This is different. He turns and sees her. She comes to him. She falls to his feet. And she tells him the truth, as an example of how we are taught to make our confessions, not only of sin or perceived sin, but our fears, our despair, our doubts. She tells the truth to the Christ, the Son of God, the Son of the Father, the Holy One come to us. And what Jesus tells her is that her faith has healed her. He calls her his daughter, not just a cultural nicety of the time and place, but an affirmation that she is his, forgiven. I absolve you. That is what he offers. And with that gift, the hemorrhage and the fear and shame lifted, and he tells her to go in peace and be healed. One always wonders with those who are healed, forgiven, exorcised of their demons, where they go. Can she go home and, voila, here I am all healed? If so, she is spreading the Gospel even as it is being enacted. Or did she seek out and follow the disciples, one of the women who took care of them? We don’t know, but her life has been changed.
As for Jarius’ daughter, after Jesus ordered her parents, gushing with gratitude, to feed her, as he has already fed her with life, with the gift of the Spirit, the giver of life, what of her? An arranged marriage? A good normal comfortable life? Did she hear about the miracle of her new life, leading her to the first gathering of his disciples after the Crucifixion? We don’t know. But her life certainly has been changed.
Jesus changes our lives, heals us, when we let him, when we seek him, when we trust him in faith. It is no different now. We can get distracted with these stories. They are not about a twenty-first century notions of justice. They are not about the injustice of condemning a woman for her monthly menses or for required postpartum isolation, although that law did protect women from unwanted or unsafe attention from their husbands for at least forty days. They are about a changed life, a life with the yoke of life’s pain, illness, death lifted for the yoke of Christ to lift them up by his grace and become part of his own in forgiving community. But at this time even Jesus’ community is blind to the notion that Jesus could see who touched him. Jesus didn’t call mystics or scholars. He picked fishermen, often by pairs. Local boys. And tax collectors. And Jesus healed a Roman centurion’s slave, a girl child of a synagogue official, a Gentile woman’s demon infested daughter, this unknown unclean woman, and a whole host of demoniacs, lepers, cripples. The vulnerable, no matter what their status. The humble, driven to him by their need, by fear, sorrow, pain. He draws to himself those who can listen, because they have been stripped of those normal survival strategies of self-assurance, pride, control, anger when all that fails.
Can we see ourselves fighting through a mob of adoring groupies, knowing that we are contaminating all we touch, to touch the hem of the garment of Light, Life, Truth? I know that the early AIDS patients I knew felt this. I knew those who found peace at the end, and at that time it was a death sentence, in the light of Christ, being healed of soul, and after that the body was not so important. (Although I am grateful for the medical research that gave so many hope for a longer life.)
His power will go out to us, too, through his Advocate, the third person of the Trinity, through the Son’s voice and presence with us, through those moments of grace when we see, feel, hear the comfort, correction, love of our Father, our Abba.
He will bring us out of our sleep and feed us. We only have to reach for the hem of his garment. I do. Frequently.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.