“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.” –Maya Angelou
Our lives are meant to be the stories of God-with-us. To experience the fulfillment of these stories,these relationships, and to be able to share them generously with others in the realm of God’s love, is the substance of salvation. Our stories are interwoven with the stories of all God’s children in what Dr. King called the “inescapable network of mutuality” woven into a “single garment of destiny.” The gospel reading for July 1st, Mark 5:21-43, gives further expression to this, where there is a “story within the story!”
Jesus is returning from a healing trip to the “other side (vv. 1-19),” where he has crossed rigidly defined boundaries in order to heal; in this case, liberating a man whose humanity has been badly distorted by the demonic order, and interrupting the local economy to boot! He has no sooner arrived back on the “right side of the tracks” than a man named Jairus brings an urgent plea. Jairus is a leader in the synagogue, a man with status and thus a significant level of power, but he finds himself quite powerless in the face of death as it is claiming his young daughter. “Come,” he begs Jesus, “lay your hands on her, that she might be made well and live.” Whose heart does not break in such a circumstance? Without equivocation, Jesus goes with the anguished parent, a large crowd following. If you have read to the end of the story, you are aware that Jesus will not only confront the power of death but something that is related to it, unbelief. The mission concludes in a hopeful and life-giving way. We’ll come back to that.
But first, the “story within the story” rises up quite unexpectedly, breaking into the already established narrative. There appears a woman who has had a “gushing of blood” for twelve years (her unnamed status and marginal location are starkly contrasted with Jairus). She has endured suffering (pathos) under many purported “healers,” exhausting her meager resources and receiving no benefit; instead, things have grown worse. Having heard the good news about Jesus, she dares to reach out to him. “If ever I should be touching his clothes, I shall be whole,” the woman says to herself. She comes up behind Jesus in the crowd, and reaching out, touches his garment.
Matthew and Luke’s versions indicate that what she touches is not just his clothing but the tzitzit, the knotted fringes on Jesus’ prayer shawl, with 613 little knots corresponding to the 613 commandments in the Hebrew Scriptures. Her symbolic point of contact is the Word of God. And she draws on the author-ity of Jesus, who interprets these commands in ways that free the spirit rather than stifling it. “Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she had been healed of her disease.(NRSV)” The touch itself changes her condition! It is worth noting that “disease” can also be translated as “scourge” or “plague,” vivid terms that beckon us to explore deep dimensions of healing and transformation. And the impact of what is happening affects more than the woman herself: “And immediately Jesus knew in himself that power had gone forth from him!” He turns, and so does the story.
(a) Power is released,so that it can be received. This is not power that is stockpiled, denied, negotiated, or used coercively. It is power that is given willingly, so that it might be claimed without condition. In this story, a woman who has endured the indignities of dismissal and exploitation receives the healing power of the truest physician, and is cured without charge.*
(b) The woman is recognized, and her story is reverenced. As she emerges from obscurity we are given painful description of the forces that she has labored under. She has been bleeding for twelve years! An exhausting sense of physical depletion permeates the scene. Then, when one realizes that according to scriptural command (Leviticus 15:25ff) she has been segregated, isolated, labeled “unclean” for a dozen years, the crushing weight of the injustice becomes even more apparent. She has had no relief, and has been afforded no voice. The designation of perpetual impurity confers shame (the term pathos is achingly appropriate). Furthermore, Mark says that she has suffered under all available healers, required to spend all that she had (another exhaustion), yet “worse came.” She has not been someone reckoned worthy of the best care. Yet in the face of this, she enables us to see her. Strengthened by the news of Jesus, we see her risk the ridicule of the crowd, who have all been taught that she makes them unclean by her touch (a vicious benignity!). But she trusts this new authority, in close quarters, to draw close to Jesus. And she receives the care, the love, the generous power that comes without cost. Indeed, she holds a vastly different position in God’s realm, one with honor and dignity, and she is realizing it.
(c) I want us to behold the saving nature of the relationship. Jesus honors their connection, and the new “flow” which is life-giving rather than debilitating. Not only does Jesus stop when his body and hers touch (when they share in God’s life-giving power which Jesus has no need to conserve), but he turns and asks, “Who touched my garments? And he does this not because she is in trouble because he really wants to know “who”–he wants to know her! Salvation involves knowing and being known. She tells Jesus “the whole truth.” The previously untold story is shared, recognized for all its remarkable gift. Her courage, her strength, her trust, her hope, her freedom, her beauty–all gift. Her connection with Jesus enables her to know, to claim, to celebrate the whole truth about her life. And the whole truth about his! Note the mutuality. The good news in her life, “Immediately, the fountain of blood dried up, and in her body she knew she was cured of the scourge,” is intertwined with Jesus’ own experience: “And immediately Jesus, knowing in himself that power had gone forth out of him, asked, “Who . . .” The relationship facilitates a knowing of self that in sharing blesses the other. The new future is a shared one.
(d) Her “faith” carries a power with strong social implications. I imagine this woman of great dignity reaching out to the hem of Jesus’ tallet, her finger touching the knot that corresponds with the command contained in Leviticus 15:25ff. Like Jesus with the “leper” in Mark 1:40-45, the touch itself redefines social reality! Consider the healing power witnessed to in her very self! And the power she carries forth into the greater community, her relationship with Jesus helping to liberate the lives of so many others! Jesus says, “Daughter, your faith has made you whole.” He doesn’t point to God’s power at work in him, but to God’s power at work in her. New scripture is being composed.
It is the “story within the story.” Because Jesus’ honoring of this daughter’s life has interrupted (shockingly) the existing priorities. And it has made him late. Too late, according to those who have expected him elsewhere. But the two daughters, the twelve year old and the one who has been crushed for the entirety of the tender one’s life, are deeply connected to one another, as is their “rising.” Death’s claim is overcome in both settings. The power for healing and new life is available to both, but the order radically different. God’s reign proclaims a new social order. To fail to acknowledge it is described as “unbelief.” This is territory for careful reflection. Ponder the implications for our nation’s ongoing struggle over accessible health care. That’ll be for the next post.
* Myers, Ched. Binding the Strong Man. Orbis: Maryknoll, 1990, pp. 200-203.