Saturday, July 01, 2006

Have faith, and believe

Have you ever wondered about women’s magazines that tell us all about Jennifer Anston’s heartbreak, or Nicole Kidman’s fairytale wedding?  These are basically people who are famous for being famous, aren’t they?  Why is it that the private details of their lives sell magazines?  You wouldn’t see an edition of New Idea with photos of Evan and Alison taking their little nephew and niece ten-pin bowling – no matter how hilarious the photos might look –

Of course, Brad Pitt probably is more interesting than me, though I reckon it’d be worth the price of a magazine to see photos of little Joanna bowling.  Anyway, the point I’m trying to make is that even in our so-called classless society there are people whose lives apparently matter, and other people whose lives don’t seem to matter very much.

We’re reading Mark, and already, into the fifth chapter, it’s clear that Mark is very interested in this basic division of who matters and who doesn’t matter.  It probably helps if you read it straight through at one sitting, rather than the few verses every Sunday, like we do in church.  In chapter four we would have read good news for Israel, as Jesus sets about his mission of healing and casting out demons – and then he crosses over into Gentile territory on the other side of the lake and exorcises the tormented demoniac of the Gerasenes – for some reason I can’t figure out, the lectionary skips over that bit – later on, Mark is going to make the same point with two almost identical stories about mass picnics – the feeding of the 5,000 celebrates life for Israel and the feeding of the 4,000 in Gentile territory announces that the good news isn’t just for Jewish folk.  Mark is about inclusiveness, the ultimate message of hope, in Jesus God is doing something new for anyone that has ears to hear and eyes to see.  The point is that human differences don’t matter to God.

Today Mark keeps making the same point, and he weaves together two different stories that kind of reinforce each other.  Women get God’s attention just as much as men.  You know, I hope that isn’t news to you, one of the ways our society has moved forwards over the last few decades is that gender has become less of an excuse to keep some people under the thumb of other people, but it’s still a live issue, and back in Jesus’ day it was unheard of.  I’ve heard it said that pious Jewish men used to get up every morning and thank God that they weren’t born Gentile or female.  Men mattered, women didn’t.  Women and girls were more or less assets, if they could have children, or liabilities, if they couldn’t.  I guess parents loved their little girl children, in today’s story it’s clear that Jairus does, but their value depended on how marriageable they were.

Today’s story is about two women at opposite ends of almost every spectrum.  One of them isn’t young – she has been haemorrhaging for 12 years, presumably suffering from a menstrual problem which, according to the purity laws in Leviticus, makes her unclean and untouchable.  In fact every menstruating woman was unclean and untouchable for a few days every month.  There was a basic contradiction, it seems, between holiness and femaleness.  If a man touches a menstruating woman, then that man will also become unclean and can’t take part in any religious or social activities until he has ritually cleansed himself.  So this woman whose menstrual flow won’t stop is an outcast, there is no place for her in this society or in its religion.  She mightn’t even have been physically very sick, in the first place, but everyone she’s looked to for help has just reinforced her exclusion and added to her burden of shame.  After 12 years of misery this no-longer young woman has no value for anybody.

The other woman – and at 12 years of age she is just at the age where her parents would have been starting to think about a husband for her – is of some value.  This little girl is just at the age where an advantageous marriage might cement some useful alliance for her already well-connected family.  Twelve years of promise hang in the balance – is this young woman going to enter into the years of marriage and childbearing or is it just a wistful might-have-been? 

The other remarkable thing Mark does in this story is to show us two people who are prepared to throw social conventions to the winds to get a result.  We might not expect Jairus, the leader of the local synagogue, to be very keen on being seen with this heretical rabble-rouser – but he comes because Jesus has got a reputation.  Jairus is clear on what really matters and what doesn’t. 

The truly remarkable action, though, is the action of the not-so-young woman.  Knowing full well that she wasn’t allowed to touch any man, let alone an unrelated rabbi, she pushes through the crowd and touches him.  Mark doesn’t even comment on the obvious consequence that this makes Jesus unclean – Jesus doesn’t seem to have worried too much about that sort of thing.  And we’re not told how the healing takes place, just that it does.  The male disciples who presumably are in control of who gets access to Jesus, try to minimise it – what do you mean, who touched you?  But she did touch him, and he knows it because it was no ordinary touch, it was the touch of somebody who needed something from him.  Notice how this is a two-fold healing?  As soon as she touches Jesus the bleeding stops, her faith that Jesus is the agent of God’s healing power, her reaching out to God is enough.  But the real problem for his woman isn’t the bleeding, it’s the fact that she’s isolated and shut out from everything that gives life and meaning – just to reach out and touch Jesus she has had to overcome the shame that would have been a constant part of her life – notice how even after she touches him she is ashamed and tries to hide herself - until Jesus sets her free by listening to her story, by accepting and inviting her into relationship with him – he calls her ‘daughter’ - by making this invisible woman visible again.  This example is very important for us – the healing that God wants to give to those who have been shamed and made to feel isolated does not just depend on their faith, but on our willingness to include them as part of a healing and transforming community.

There’s a touch of black humour when Jesus finally arrives at the house where, in the meantime, the little girl has apparently died.  The grieving and the funeral rites are already underway and so Jesus’ suggestion that things might not be as they seem is met with ridicule.  It’s a situation that sounds a desperately sad echo in every parent who has ever lost a child.  How do you believe in resurrection when the evidence to the contrary is right in front of you?  I can’t help thinking, as I read this story, of little Sofia Rodriguez- Urrutia Shu, brutally raped and murdered in our own city last week.  Like me, you might have found yourself thinking about the promise cut short in this little girl’s brief life – all that might have lain ahead of her.  And yet Jesus takes this little girl by the hand and tells her to get up – and the Greek word used here for ‘get up’ – egeiro - is the same verb that later on in the gospel is also going to be used for Jesus’ own resurrection – reminding us, I think, through this story that God’s care and the promise of new life applies even after humanly speaking the situation is beyond hope.  Whether this little girl gets up and eats, or like Sofia passes from us into new life with God, the message is fairly plain – resurrection is God’s loving intention for all human life.  Only have faith, Jesus tells Jairus and us too, and believe in God’s care for the last and the least of his little ones.

Who matters, and who doesn’t?  Mark’s giving us some good news.  You don’t have to belong to God’s chosen people.  You don’t have to be male.  You don’t have to be useful.  You don’t have to go through the right channels.  You don’t have to be a celebrity or one of the smart set.  God’s acceptance cuts through all that.  God’s acceptance creates a future where there doesn’t seem to be a future.  God’s acceptance transforms isolation and shame into new life in community.  Resurrection is God’s plan for human life.

Only have faith, and believe.