We don’t get to hear this Gospel very often, displaced as it often is by the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul. But it is one of the most intriguing sections Mark wrote. Mark tells the story of two women: one is well-to-do; the other is poor, a nobody. One story begins and gets interrupted by another. First, Jairus, a leader of the synagogue, approaches Jesus because his young daughter is gravely ill. Could Jesus please come and heal her? Sure. But, on the way, Jesus is interrupted by a woman who also desperately needs help. Jesus delays his walk to Jairus’ house, even though the little girl is at the point of death. He stops his trek to the well-to-do daughter to deal with a poor nobody who had the audacity to take matters into her own hands.
It was no accident that Mark wove these two stories together.
The daughter of Jairus is a young woman of privilege — her dad is a leader of the synagogue. At 12 years old she’s entering puberty. The promise of full womanhood lies before this young daughter of Israel. The girl lives in comfort and affluence. Her father enjoys power, prestige and wealth. She has the best advocate any little girl can ask for: her dad. And Jairus does not hesitate to approach Jesus within socially sanctioned propriety.
In those same 12 years that the young girl was growing up, the bleeding woman has been suffering terribly. Her future has been “spent” in more ways than one. She too is a “daughter” of Israel, but she is nameless (so is the young girl) and destitute. And she has no advocate fighting for her. The promise of her full womanhood has never been realized, drained out of her in a flow of blood for 12 painful years.
Because this woman bled all the time, she was not to be seen anywhere near the temple or synagogue, or anywhere near a religious leader. The bleeding woman, therefore, suffers double isolation. Illness was considered divine punishment for sins and resulted in being cut off from normal social relations. This woman was nobody’s friend. She has no one to speak for her and so must take her salvation into her own hands. And she does it by breaking social and religious taboos: unclean, an outcast and a woman, she touches a man in public in the vicinity of a leader of the synagogue. According to ancient custom the woman’s touch — even if only his cloak — defiled Jesus.
What does Jesus do? Does he call for the purification rites in order to make himself clean again? After all, he’s on his way to Jairus’ house, a leader of the synagogue. Does he ignore this nameless face in the crowd because he’s on an important mission on behalf of the rich and powerful? No, none of that.
Jesus knows that “power has gone out of him.” It’s the kind of energy that reaches out to another, the energy of love and healing. And in Jesus that energy flowed so freely that even touching the hem of his cloak gave the woman access to its healing power. Jesus knows that someone touched him with intent. Not only does Jesus attend to this destitute, nameless nobody, he singles her out for her faith, her perseverance, her courage.
Jesus uses this unclean, repulsive, outcast woman, the one whom nobody wants, to teach the rich, the religious and the powerful a lesson about faith: “Daughter, your faith has made you well.”
When Jesus arrives at Jairus’ house, he is told that the girl has died. Immediately he tells Jairus, “Do not fear, only believe.” But everyone is skeptical; they even “laugh at him.” No trace of faith here, not in this well-to-do house. Imagine that: the nameless, rejected woman shows stronger faith than the religious experts of the synagogue. Talk about turning the tables. Nevertheless, healing energy flowed forth from Jesus to the young and the old woman alike, because God’s healing touch knows no outcasts, knows no inferior folk, nor is it reserved for the privileged few.
This is an important lesson for us today. Suffering, death and other personal afflictions can rob us of life-giving blood of any kind, sometimes making us bleed for 12 years or more. Sickness and death play no favourites either — rich and poor are afflicted.
But the pain of our bleeding can be touched deeply by faith, love and resurrection. In fact, Jesus has touched our pain on the cross. He entered our suffering and death in the most intimate way possible. That touch of Jesus, which we share through our baptism, invites us to do at least two things: to let God touch our pain and, even in the midst of our own agony, to interrupt our lives in order to reach out to those rejected by our world because of their stigma: men and women, boys and girls trapped in prostitution, afflicted with AIDS and HIV-related diseases, suffering cancer, MS, depression — you name it.
“Who touched me?” says Jesus as he looks around. Anyone afflicted in mind, body, heart or soul has only to touch the hem of his garment, and that hem could be us when somebody reaches out for love and care.
Our own healing journey must take detours to attend to those less powerful and more destitute than we are. Only when the outcast woman is restored to true “daughter-hood” can the daughter of the synagogue leader be restored to new life. That is the faith the rich and famous must learn from the poor.
Ternier-Gommers, wife, mother and grandmother, is a retreat leader and spiritual director, freelance writer and author of two books. She has worked in diocesan and parish ministry, in ecumenical dialogues and ministry, and co-ordinates an ecumenical network of women in ministry. Visit her website at www.prairie-encounters.ca and her blog at https://graceatsixty.wordpress.com