Reflection on Mark 5:21-43 by The Rev. Dr. Kate Hennessy
Mark’s Gospel begins with the words, ”The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”. And indeed, Mark takes no time with genealogies or birth stories but brings us immediately into the story of Jesus’ life and ministry, into this unfolding good news of God’s Kingdom in the person of Jesus, for the people of that time and for us who hear it today.
When we encounter Jesus in the Gospel this morning, he has been traveling. He has just returned from the territory of the Gentiles in the land of the Gerasenes. In the Gospel we heard last week, Mark tells us about the trip across the lake and the disciples’ fear of perishing in the storm. He tells of Jesus calming the storm and Jesus’ response to the disciples “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”
While in the land of the Geresenes, on the other side of the lake, Mark tells us that Jesus healed a man of a legion of demons, giving us another story of faith and fear. The man who was delivered of the demons was transformed by this encounter with Jesus and filled with faith. The people around him reacted in fear of Jesus and asked him, with some insistence, to go away from their place. So back across the sea he came, leaving in his wake both faith and fear.
This morning’s Gospel is closely connected in time and theme with these two. All three tell us the story of this Jesus, the Son of God who has broken into time to overcome evil and bring new life. The one who was foretold through history is making his way from Jerusalem and back in Mark’s Gospel, calling disciples, casting out demons, healing the sick, and overcoming death with life.
Two stories. Jairus. A leader in the community. Probably a man usually in control of the situation, in command of his resources. But not today. Today, he is desperate. His only child is near death. “Jesus, if you will come.” A woman bleeding for twelve years. Her condition had separated her from the community, devastated her resources, caused her endless suffering and struggle and now she too was desperate. “if I but touch his clothing.”
Fear, desperation, faith, longing for healing, for life to triumph over death….hoping against hope for a miracle. And Mark gives us not one but two miracles in this Gospel. Jairus’ daughter is restored to her physical life and the woman is given back her life as well as she is healed of her disease, restored to wholeness and community as Jesus says to her, “Daughter your faith has made you well, go in peace and be healed…” and he comforts Jairus on the way with “do not fear, only believe.”
What is the message we are to take from this? Is this what we are to think of as signs of true faith? Are we to pray for miracles? And if they happen, or don’t, what does this mean? We know that we have a different context for the way the world works than the way Mark’s hearers did. At some level this matters in the way we hear this Gospel. And yet in another, it really does not. Because for Mark, the message of the Good News is about what happened to people when they encountered Jesus. Inevitably they were transformed and set free. Mark’s message is about how Jesus came into history to manifest the transformative power of God’s love to liberate people from powers that oppress them. People encounter God in the person of Jesus and they are transformed. Perhaps this is the real miracle.
In her book, Home by Another Way, theologian Barbara Brown Taylor tells the following story about her seven year old granddaughter named Madeline who just happens to be Madeline had a birthday party one summer. There were four people gathered around the table to celebrate. There was Madeline, Madeline’s recently-divorced mother, grandmother Barbara and Barbara’s husband, Madeline’s grandfather. As the candles burned down on the cake, Madeline listened as everyone sang the birthday song. She then leaned over and blew out the candles, but she didn’t make a wish. Her mother asked her, “Aren’t you going to make a wish?” Her grandfather said, “You have to make a wish.” Madeline looked as if someone had just run over her cat.” I don’t know why I keep doing this,” Madeline said.” Doing what?” her grandmother asked.” This wishing thing,” she said. “Last year I wished my best friend wouldn’t move away but she did. This year I want to wish that my mommy and daddy will get back together…”“That’s not going to happen,” her mother chimed in. “I know it’s not going to happen,” Madeline said, “so why do I keep doing this?”
Taylor then says: “Since the issue was wishing, not praying, I left her alone that afternoon, but I know that sooner or later Madeline and I are going to have to talk about prayer. I do not want that child to lose heart. I want her to believe in a God who loves her and listens to her, but in that case I will need some explanation for why it does not always seem that way.” Barbara Brown Taylor writes: “One day, when Madeline asks me outright whether prayer really works, I am going to say, ‘Oh, sweetie, of course it does. It keeps our hearts chasing after God’s heart. It’s how we bother God, and it’s how God bothers us back. There’s nothing that works any better than that.”1
Which brings us around again to ask ourselves why Mark is telling us this story? Barbara Brown Taylor says, "They are not stories about how to get God to do what we want, which is just another way of trying to stay in control. Instead, they are stories about who God is, and how God acts, and what God is like. Mark wrote them down for one reason and one reason alone: 'This is no ordinary man,' he tells us every way he knows how. 'This man is the son of God. Believe it.'"
She had been bleeding for twelve years. In addition to all of the ways we can think of as far as how awful this would be, in her culture it made her an outcast, probably cutting her off from the daily ebb and flow of community life, silencing her voice to all but herself. Being able to come to Jesus and tell him her “whole truth” must have meant so much to her, that moment of connection, of relationship…that may indeed have been her real miracle moment.
For Jairus, though the waiting was not as long, we can be sure the feelings were no less intense. He was forced to endure the interruption as Jesus stops to deal with the woman. Then he is told it is too late, his daughter has died. But again, that moment of encounter…”do not fear, only believe.” Was that Jairus’ miracle? When he understood God’s power to transform was right there before him in the person of Jesus?
Jesus broke into history as the great both/and. He came to show us who God is and who and whose we are. God is God and we are not, thanks be to God, as Father Ken used to say. Prayer is not simply about going to God and asking for what we want and need, but it is about relationship with God, chasing after God’s heart and allowing God to chase ours in return. Anytime this happens, there is no doubt that miracles will occur.
1Taylor, Barbara Brown. Home by Another Way. Minneapolis: Cowley Publications, 1999.