A sermon for the 5th Sunday after Pentecost (text: Mark 5:21-43)
Mark has just given us a master class in storytelling – and in the radically subversive message of Jesus. It’s the story of two healings, and of the shocking irrelevance of conventional notions of greatness and goodness in the kingdom of God. Let’s follow the narrative – closely.
It begins with Jesus and his disciples back on the other side of Lake Galilee, on Jewish soil, after their brief excursion into the Gentile territory of Gerasa, where Jesus cured a pig-herder possessed by a “legion” of demons – a man, that is (if you follow the code – a “legion” is a Roman military division) – a man suffering from severe trauma due to the daily humiliations of imperial occupation. (Witness the deterioration of the mental health of the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories.) So we are back beside the seaside, and by the seaside Jesus does some of his best work.
He is approached by a man named Jairus, a member of the Jewish ruling class, a leader in the local synagogue. Jairus kneels, respectfully, and, man to man, begs a favour: “I have heard that you are a healer; my daughter is very sick; come, please, make her well.” And off they go, accompanied by a huge crowd, which, for Mark, is a term suggesting the social location of the poor. The word “crowd” appears five times within just ten verses. Remember, the gospel is, above all, good news to the poor, the lost and the losers, people who are always being told – by the wealthy and the winners – “We’re all in this together.” (Yeah, right.)
On the way to Jairus’ house, however, there is a delay. From under the cover of the crowd a woman sneaks up on Jesus. Who is this woman? We are not told. Unlike the bigwig Jairus, she is unnamed, she is anonymous. She is, after all, a woman in a man’s world. Worse still, she is a sick woman – she suffers from chronic menstrual haemorrhaging. And this illness is not only physical, it is social – her bleeding makes her outcast. She is an “untouchable”. According to the purity code in the book of Leviticus, she is unholy, and if she touches anyone, or anyone touches her, they become unholy too. She will be living in extreme isolation; she will be very, very lonely. And she is penniless, having spent what little she has on quack remedies (snake oil salesmen, like loan sharks, are ever around to exploit the poor). That her condition demands rigorous segregation, but that she has joined the crowd – this is an extremely dangerous situation for her, and shows just how desperate she is.
And now how terrified: she touches Jesus – a woman a man, a “contaminated” woman a “clean” man. Oh no! Jesus realises that she has touched him: her cover blown, she can expect the worst. Like Jairus, she kneels at Jesus’ feet, but not so much to show respect as to beg for mercy. And Jesus? He calls her “daughter”. Daughter! But haven’t we just heard that word? Yes, Jairus’ daughter. But this woman – she is a nobody, and not young and pure but old and defiled. And Jesus calls her daughter! And more, in the presence of the disciples whom he is constantly calling faithless, he says, “Your faith has made you well.” This is scandalous behaviour in a holy man.
Touch – the word occurs four times in five verses. Contact with the unholy is supposed to make you unholy too. But Jesus – Jesus both violates and subverts the culturally accepted understanding of contagion: purity, he demonstrates, he teaches – purity, not impurity, is catching. In moral terms, goodness, not badness, is contagious, and acceptance trumps rejection.
Is this primitive anthropology? Don’t kid yourself! What sociologists call “social disgust” continues to inform the contemporary: think of racism, nationalism, and gender-biased attitudes. And sociologists further observe how social disgust takes on a moral dimension. Think of the odious social and moral “zoology” (if you like) ever exploited by those pursuing agenda of fear and hatred, deploying for their propaganda animals, animals that make our stomachs turn, our flesh crawl. For the Nazis, the Jews were rats, flea-ridden, disease-bearing; for bigots from Northern Europe and America, people from Italy, Spain, Latin America are slimy creatures, greaseballs, low-life. And, most recently, for the media personality Katie Hopkins, migrants and asylum seekers are “cockroaches”, filthy, scuttling insects. Rats, snakes, cockroaches – vermin, not people, with a corresponding zero moral status that allows us, even obliges us, to detest them, and, to isolate and marginalise them: they are dangerous and therefore dispensable.
And observe that we’re talking feelings here, hot, visceral, more powerful than cool intellect. Speaking of the white jury that unjustly condemned to death the black Tom Robinson in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch tells his 12-year-old son Jem that “you saw something come between them and reason … something in our world that makes men lose their heads.” Which is why reason alone, though reason we must, will never turn people from their racism, xenophobia, homophobia. It takes experience – knowing, befriending, eating and drinking, laughing and crying with black people, foreign people, gay and lesbian people. It takes contact – touch – the touch of Jesus. It takes love, a love which is the “suspension of disgust” (Richard Beck).
But the story as Mark tells it is not over. Imagine how Jairus must be feeling, this VIP suddenly backgrounded by a menstrual nobody – and while his child is gravely ill, with not a moment to lose. Hurry, Jesus! Alas, too late. Word comes that the child has died. But Jesus is undeterred. Like that desperate daughter of Israel, “You gotta believe!” He strides to Jairus’ home, taking Peter, James, and John, the Big Three, with him. (Hint: something momentous is going to happen.) They arrive to the tumult of weeping and wailing of family and neighbours. Jesus insists that the child is not dead, merely sleeping; the mourners respond with derisive laughter. Jesus, of course, knows the child is dead (“sleeping” then, as now, a euphemism). Nevertheless, impatient with the mourning party, Jesus clears the house, and with his disciples and her parents watching, he – what? – he touches this daughter of Israel too; and because she is physically dead, she, like the haemorrhaging woman, who was socially dead, is also – even more so – unclean, unholy. But again, oblivious to religious convention, he takes her hand and lifts her up. Not one but two resurrections: not bad for a day’s work! Give the girl some chicken soup!
End of story? Almost. But observe one final detail. Both the older woman and the little girl have been called “daughters”. They also have a number in common. (Numbers are very significant in the Bible.) Mark has told us that the woman had been ill for twelve years; now he tells us that the girl is twelve years-old. Twelve – ring a bell? Twelve as in the twelve tribes of Israel? The twelve disciples, symbolically representing Israel, are male. Here the representatives are female, and particularly insignificant females at that, a sick outlier and a mere child. In both stories in our master class of a narrative, Mark is pointing to the new social order and, indeed the new kind of human being that Jesus has in mind when he speaks of the “kingdom of God”: an egalitarian community in which insider and outsider sit at table side-by-side, the one relieved of pride, the other of despair, each discovering their own good in the common good, each encountering Christ in the other. For now, it remains a work in progress, the work of church, what Rowan Williams calls the “pilot project for the human race”.
It’s a project that – back in To Kill a Mockingbird – that same night, shortly after his conversation with Atticus, Jem tries to puzzle out with his sister Scout. Jem himself is pessimistic, not only about what we would call racism and classism but about human hierarchies as such. He says he’s “got it figured out. There’s four kinds of folks in the world. There’s the ordinary kind like us and the neighbors, there’s the kind like the Cunninghams out in the woods [second class people], the kind like the Ewells down at the dump [“white trash”], and [at the bottom of the heap] the Negroes ”. Upstairs and downstairs, insiders and outsiders – and the hardly human – there is, Jem thinks, a pecking order among folks, built into the nature of things. But Scout disagrees. “Naw, Jem,” she says, “I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks.”
Scout is 9-years-old. Who was it that said something about having to look at the world like a child, about being “young at heart”, before you can see the kingdom of God? Yep, there’s just folks.
Wednesday, 8 July 2015
A sermon for the 5th Sunday after Pentecost (text: Mark 5:21-43)