The Gospel of Mark carries an urgency unique to this portrait of Jesus of Nazareth. The narrative itself is trimmed down to the absolute essentials, the core of the life of Christ.
That urgency is evident in today’s reading, in which we appear to have two healing stories wrapped around each other. The synagogue leader, Jairus, approaches Jesus at what must have been a stumbling, desperate run, falling at his feet to beg for his help.
And with no segue, no transition, as Jesus is on his way to the house of the synagogue leader, another healing story begins, again with the abrupt urgency we find in Mark. Now there was a woman. Mark sketches her sad story with his usual economy. Twelve years of hemorrhaging. She had endured much under many physicians and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse.
There’s a reason, though, amid this economy of form, that these two stories intersect. A woman with no power is placed in contrast to a man of great power, or so it would seem.
Here we are shown a woman with no power whatsoever. To begin with, she’s a woman, which means in this society of Jesus’ day she has no power, no voice, no value. And she has a chronic illness that results in an unstoppable flow of blood. The custom of her time would have meant that anyone who was bleeding was forced into isolation until she was free of symptoms. So that our woman has not only been chronically ill, she has also been alone in her sickness. Cut off from society and from relationships, marked out as unclean. Her very existence is an insult to religious faith – to touch her would have made another person unfit for worship. Jairus, by contrast, is shown as a leader in the synagogue. He was male, which automatically conferred on him a great deal more status; and more than that, he would have been chosen as a leader in the synagogue as a sign of respect. And once having been chosen, he would be entitled to respect because of his position.
And the third central character in our drama is, of course, Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus, who has the power of God – but who doesn’t seem to view or to value power the way most of us do.
The word power in Greek is dunameis. It’s where we get the word dynamite, which always reminds me of the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote. Kaboom! With dynamite, things happen.
And power is everywhere in this tight little story, Jairus has all the power anyone could want – and yet it means nothing to him because he has no power for the thing he values most – the life and health of his daughter. The woman has no power by society’s standards. She’s not even a part of the community. She has no one and nothing to support her. And each of them, having nothing to lose, chooses to act in ways that are unexpected.
Synagogue leaders don’t approach others. They summon. Jairus would have been expected to sit in the synagogue and send an underling with a message for Jesus to approach him, so that Jairus could request that he take a look at his daughter. It’s not dignified for Jairus to go to Jesus. He’s losing face.
He doesn’t care.
All Jairus’ power is worthless to him. He doesn’t care that it’s demeaning for him to go to Jesus. He doesn’t care that it’s undignified to beg. In his words to Jesus, in his request, we can hear the unspoken counterpoint: Take my power, take my prestige, take it all, without my child I am nothing.
So he runs to Jesus. He pleads for help.
And then the scene shifts. Jesus heading toward Jairus’ house, the crowd pressing against him like golf fans moving in a group from one tee to the next.
And this woman, this outcast, has no power with which to bargain. She has nothing at all to lose. And it is her desperation that prompts her to do the unthinkable. She wades right in to this crowd, brushing against everyone she passes, possibly infecting them with this strange bleeding.
Maybe after trying to squeeze through the crush of people, she tries another tactic. She gets down on the ground and begins crawling, because when you’re in a crowd and something brushes your leg you instinctively move aside. She gets closer. And she sees his back. And this woman with no power at all, this woman with nothing to lose, she recognizes power when she sees it.
Even from the back.
She knows that she doesn’t have to see him face to face. She knows that she doesn’t have to touch her hand to his hand. She knows. If only I can touch the hem of his garment, I will be made whole.
Reaching, stretching, trembling, she manages to get her fingertips to make contact with the ragged edges of his robe. The barest breath of contact.
And then everything happens very fast.
Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?”
And amid all these transfers of power, of dunameis, of dynamite, we see something extraordinary. That power in Jesus’ way of being is very different from power as we define it.
For Jesus, the only value in power is that it can be shared with others in the restoration of the Kingdom of God.
Jesus is unimpressed with Jairus’ temporal power and influence but is moved by Jairus’ recognition that he is powerless without the relationship that gives him life – that of parent and child. Jairus willingly surrenders all his earthly powers, and his daughter, his relationship, his love is restored to him. And the woman who touched Jesus – “He said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.’”
To Jesus, being made well means being restored to relationship and community. It’s almost secondary to him that the bleeding will have stopped. Because the bleeding has stopped, she is now once more welcomed into the village. Welcomed to be part of life in relationship with others. Welcomed once more into the Kingdom of God.
How Jesus defines power, then, appears to be in stark contrast to our understanding – which maybe ought to stop us in our tracks. What happens when we throw away, like Jairus, all that everyone else values and fall at Jesus’ feet, begging for relationship in the Kingdom of God? What happens when we ignore others’ expectations of good manners and having the decency to keep ourselves quarantined and do whatever it takes to be open to receiving Jesus?
Only God knows.