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Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Talitha koumi — healing and equality 2 (B13O)

The story of the woman with the hemorrhage uses the literary device of an inclusio, that is, the entire story falls within the context of another story, that of the daughter of Jairus. This convinces us that the stories are to be considered together as having a single purpose, or upholding the same truth. 

What are the details? The little girl is the daughter of Jairus, an official of the synagogue (at Capernaum?). So we are talking about someone of some status in the hinterlands of Galilee, someone who is "in" in the Jewish hierarchy, which is at once political and religious. We know nothing more about the man than that he came to Jesus in faith and asked him to heal his little girl who is sick. As Jesus is making his way to the man's house, he is touched by the woman afflicted with a hemorrhage. Not particularly fond of the rich and powerful, Mark describes her as having been the victim of quacks for twelve years, who not only have impoverished her but left her worse than she was before she started seeing them. Her faith possesses her; she feels that she doesn't even need Jesus's attention to be healed, just to touch the hem of his garment. With the crowd of mourners pressing around him on the way to Jairus's house, you would think that the stealthy approach of this woman would go unnoticed, but a different Spirit engages Jesus, and he knows that power has flowed through him to heal her. 

What are we to make of her twelve years of suffering? She obviously is in the story to symbolize everyone who has been victimized by the legalities of the clean-unclean polarity, which is controlled by the religious establishment. She has spent everything to be healed, nothing has worked, she has gotten worse. In contrast to Jairus, she has no status. She is a woman, she has an issue of blood which renders her unclean, and she has had this affliction for twelve years. Furthermore, her touching of Jesus, on his way to the house of Jairus, effectively makes him unclean as well. There is a lot of brokenness in this story, isn't there? A lot that needs healing.

And it's not all physical. The breach between the woman and the community would be complete when her resources were exhausted. She could be driven out and might have to fend for herself. The synagogue official's need to keep kosher, which is understood in the story though not explicit, will be invaded by Jesus who comes as guest into his home after being touched by the allegedly unclean woman. But Jesus tells her, "your faith has healed you." And she is healed. She is both no longer afflicted with the hemorrhage and no longer needs to be kept at a distance from those who are part of the "kosher" community.  The healing of God's dominion, brought in the person of Jesus when she touched the hem of his garment, heals both rifts. But it has even more startling work to do. Oh, the twelve years! What do you think? Is it a generation, and so representing all generations? Is it the twelve tribes, and so she comes to symbolize the fracturing of Israel itself? Is it just meant to be a mystical number, twelve years, as if to say, "she had been bleeding as long as she could remember"? I don't know. Some of all of that might be in there, and there's probably a lot more.

But the little girl is twelve years old, the age of puberty, the age at which a betrothal might take place. Taken with the older woman, they become a symbol of all women in the story of Jesus in Mark's gospel, women whose menstrual blood rendered them ritually impure every month. Again, Jesus throws all that aside. But this little girl has a bigger problem than being twelve: she's dead. "Why bother the rabbi any more," the messengers tell Jairus. But Jesus is not put off. "She's just asleep. Have a little faith." And he raises her from the dead. Is it any surprise that the verb there (egerein) is the same one that all three synoptics use to describe the resurrection of Jesus? She gets up and starts walking around, and Jesus tells them to get her something to eat. Maybe for himself too? Eating is a big deal for the man. And it's a nexus of many of the purity rituals for Judaism. Jesus has shown them what purity is all about: it's about living in the dominion of the living God, the one who has nothing to do with death, for whom death is not only not an obstacle, but doesn't even exist. I suspect that  and food washing took on a new meaning in that house that day, that the blessing of the bread and
wine and the meal they ate with Talitha or whatever her name was was a meal they did not forget, whatever other meals might have become a part of their routine.

Isn't it wonderful that these three readings come together today, somewhat arbitrarily (in the sense that the second reading is just part of a more-or-less consecutive lection from 2 Corinthians over these several weeks), and shed such wonderful light on each other? Jesus, the self-gift of God poured out into creation and incarnate as a human being, brings life and health to two other people, healing both their bodies and their community as a result. He shows that God has nothing to with death, and that the equality of the Exodus economy means that women are not to be marginalized on account of their woman-ness (would that it were true even today, in the church, at least in this part of the church!). 

I struggle with the concept that God has nothing to do with death, but there it is, for my reflection, right in the book of Wisdom. It's not a 21st century theological concept, it dates from the end of the pre-Common Era. What does it mean for us, the living? How possible is it that, when we become filled with divine spirit and are moved to do so, that death will have no dominion in this world at all, visibl, perceptibly to believer and non-believer alike?

This weekend, hearing the words Talitha koumi spoken four times by our gospel readers, my heart will remember Taylor Sullivan, a three-year-old in our parish who drowned in the family pool nine years ago this week, whose memory is tied for me forever to this gospel. I will remember the nine killed in Charleston at the AME church last week. I'll remember the children killed in Sandy Hook, in Norway a few years ago, and victims of ISIS and Boko Haram and U.S. drone strikes in Iraq, Palestine, and Syria. I hope that the Christian preachers have the courage to tell their families and ours, broken and grieving as they are, that hope for mending will arise from those words of the Lord again. As terrible as the encounter with death is, our faith is that, from the moment of our baptism, death had no power over us. Even for the unbaptized, the loving God who created everything holds us all in deathless love. I pray that the Word of God shatters the grief of those families, in God's time, and replaces it with a profound Easter joy, and that one day they will eat and drink together again, that little Taylor herself, with the nine, and the children of Sandy Hook and all the lost others, will bring them something to eat from the Messiah's table.