5 Pentecost B—6/28/15
By Melody Kroeger
Many of you, maybe even most of you, have read the great American novel Grapes of Wrath. If you haven’t read the novel, perhaps you’ve seen the movie – John Ford’s adaptation, starring a very young Henry Fonda.
The novel lays out the story of one Oklahoma family, the Joads, leaving their devastated Dust Bowl home to find work picking fruit in California. As the family pulls out of a gasoline station, one attendant, remarking on the sorry state of the Joad family car says to the other:
“You and me got sense. Them damn Okies got no sense and no feeling. They ain’t even human. A human being wouldn’t live the way they do. A human being couldn’t stand to be so dirty and miserable.”
The story of the Joads could be the story of my father’s family. They too were poor Dust Bowl Okies – forced from the farm by dust and wind. These are my people – these dirty unclean Okies.
The themes of clean and unclean and the healing power of the kingdom of God dominate the scripture text chosen for today.
It could have been any beautiful summer day in Capernaum – like today. Jesus is at the height of his ministry. Large crowds follow him wherever he goes; crowds hungry with hope; crowds fired-up by his countercultural words and miraculous healings. On this morning as Jesus prepares to teach the crowd, a distressed man bursts through the people standing around Jesus and falls at his feet. This man is important, so important that we have all known his name for two thousand years. This is Jairus, one of the leaders of the synagogue. Jairus presided over the services in the synagogue and would have been in charge of sorting and separating clean from unclean. Only clean individuals, mostly men, could enter the synagogue. Only the clean had access to God.
Now breathless, Jairus begs Jesus “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.”
Every loving parent has been Jairus at least once in their lives. We know these parents. We are these parents. Parents who burst into emergency rooms with a seizing infant in their arms. Parents who worry about having enough money to buy food to put on the table – to pay the light bill and still buy school supplies. Parents who tell their young sons to watch where they put their hands when stopped by police and their daughters to avoid walking alone. Parents throughout history rendered helpless by disease and lack of access to health care, poor schools and crumbling neighborhoods, gun violence and poverty, by the very forces of unbridled power, greed and indifference. We know these parents.
Jesus leaves to accompany Jairus but his journey is interrupted suddenly by another urgency pushing forward from the crowds; a woman, apparently of low important because we have never known her name. She is a woman defined for two thousand years by her affliction. She is the woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages. The woman has some sort of trouble with her monthly flow so that her constant bleeding not only causes her physical problems but makes her religiously unclean and socially unacceptable. Furthermore, anything or anyone she touches becomes tainted – unclean.
This troubled woman may have been at some point in her life, wealthy. She may have been privileged, from a prominent household. Certainly she had a name. We don’t know and Mark doesn’t tell us. What we do know is that she had “endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse.” The last twelve years have been spent literally in embarrassment, isolation and socially shame. For all intents and purposes, the woman was the living dead.
We know these women. We are these women. Women whose sons and daughters are profiled, stereotyped and hunted on violent streets. Women who are scorned for demanding equal opportunity, equal pay and equal rights. Women who suffer disproportionally from war, poverty, hunger and violence. Women who are trafficked, prostituted and victimized by the long saga of domination. We know these women.
Desperate, she stretches out her fingers through the crowds to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment. Immediately, Mark tells us, her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. It is enough – it is everything. The woman, restored to wholeness and made clean again, retreats back into unanimity.
Standing in the background, Jairus waits, no doubt with growing panic, anxious that Jesus heal his young daughter. But his servants arrive, confirming his worst fears. “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” But Jesus replies, “Do not fear, only believe.”
In Jairus’ home, Jesus takes the dead girl’s hand and calls her back to the living. There is no darkness, devastation or death from which the power of the kingdom of God cannot draw us into life. Something new is being created!
For the moment the girl lives. But at some point in history, she, like all of us, will die. So the miracle in this scripture text is not only about the restoration of life – or simply to illustrate the healing power of the kingdom of God. It is that – but not just that. Mark is far too clever to be so transparent.
Rather, Mark brings out the parallel dramas in the two stories by letting the reader understand the struggle the woman undergoes when she reaches out and touches Jesus. She must have enough faith in the promises of the kingdom to break the religious and social taboos that did not allow an unclean person to reach out and touch a man. In healing the woman, Jesus not only cures the woman’s physical ailment but also shows that she is clean and acceptable. Jairus, the character in this story with all the power and social standing, must have enough faith to walk past his neighbors and members of the synagogue who laughed at Jesus because contact with the little girl’s body would have made Jesus ritually unclean.
Mark uses the woman’s story balanced against Jairus to inform his contemporaries and modern readers that in Jesus, the barriers between powerful and powerless, named and unnamed, clean and unclean are broken down – so that the power and promise of the kingdom is for all of us.
This, my sisters and brothers is Good News!
If you are poor, the promises in the kingdom of God are for you.
If you are sick and suffering, the promises in the kingdom of God are for you.
If you are hurting, the kingdom of God is for you.
If you are dirty, tired, and hungry, the kingdom of God is for you.
“Do not fear, only believe.” Powerful or powerless, clean or unclean, the kingdom of God is for you!
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