Sunday, January 28, 2024

Sermon: "What Jairus Learned," Mark 5:21-43 (January 28, 2024)

Today’s scripture reading is a long one, but it’s difficult to separate the one healing account from the other. Mark has given us a story sandwich, with two accounts of miraculous healings woven together into a single unit. Most Bible translations title this passage something like, “Jesus Raises a Dead Girl and Heals a Sick Woman,” or “Jairus’ Daughter and the Woman Who Touched Jesus’ Cloak”. Since most people naturally assume that our focus should be on the objects of Jesus’ miracles, it makes this passage difficult to summarize in a few words. It also raises the ire of many a feminist biblical scholar: why doesn’t Mark bother to name these two women at the center of this story? As a feminist myself, as well as a woman in ministry, I can appreciate this frustration, born out of centuries of women being relegated to the background of both history and religion.

But while that’s usually a valid concern worth paying attention to in scripture, I’m not necessarily convinced that’s what’s happening in this particular instance. After all, many of Jesus’ healings in Mark’s gospel are performed on behalf of unnamed men and women alike (believe me; you can only say “the man with leprosy” so many ways in a sermon). What if, at least in this case, the unnamed characters are unnamed because, in fact, they AREN’T intended to be the focal point? What if, instead, it’s the NAMED character that we should be paying attention to? The one person, aside from Jesus and his disciples, who’s present in every part of this story sandwich? What if this isn’t a story about “Jesus Raising a Dead Girl and Healing a Sick Woman” after all, but is, in fact a story about “What Jairus Learned”? Just in case, maybe we should go back to the beginning and reexperience the story from his perspective.

Jairus may not have expected to be the center of a scripture story any more than we expect him to be. He didn’t set out to learn anything, either; he was just looking for a way to make his sick daughter well. Mark tells us that he was a synagogue leader, which would explain why he was seeking out the rabbi with a reputation for healing. The Greek word translated here as “synagogue leader” describes a person that holds a governing role in the synagogue – similar to our Ruling Elders. Jairus would have been a man of faith who was more involved in the life of the synagogue than most people. This also means (and this will become relevant shortly) that he would have certainly known the basics about what it means to be an observant Jew. Like, for example, the things that make a person ritually unclean.

Not being observant Jews ourselves, however, we might need a refresher on what this means. Many of us are generally familiar with ritual purity laws – the idea that, in certain circumstances, a Jewish person must set themselves apart from society and God’s presence until some time passed and until they were able to go through a ritual washing. Many of the Jewish laws having to do with ritual purity are actually an early sanitation code, minimizing the spread of germs long before the science of microbiology was understood. But there’s also a second, equally important purpose of these laws. They clearly delineate for the people what’s holy and what’s unholy, what’s sacred and what’s profane. They separate the things that make us human – things like reproduction and death – from that which is divine.

The intention of these laws isn’t to imply that the things making us human are sinful, but there was an understanding that the human and divine realms needed to stay separated in order to maintain a proper relationship with God. The Jewish people of Jesus’ time observed these laws carefully (as many still do to this day) so as to avoid unintentionally cutting themselves off from God by defiling holy places with the “limitedness” of their humanity. As author and theology professor Jennifer M. Rosner puts it, “if the Israelites did not deal with [ritual impurity] properly, it could lead one into unholiness and drive away God’s presence.”[1]

So, when Jairus saw Jesus returning from gentile territory, he might have been a bit alarmed. Presumably, Jesus got his power to heal from God. Gentiles don’t observe purity laws, and if Jesus had become ritually unclean while he was among them, he might not be able to heal Jairus’ daughter. But Jairus also didn’t have a lot of options left, so in parental desperation, he went to Jesus and begged him to “place [his] hands on her so that she [could] be healed and live.”

As the two men make their way towards Jairus’ home, Jesus suddenly stops in his tracks and asks aloud, “Who touched my clothes?” When a woman steps forward to explain, Jairus’ heart must have sunk. Regardless of what had happened in gentile territory, there was no question that Jesus was ritually unclean now. And they didn’t have time to wait for Jesus to undergo the necessary ritual cleansing. All was lost!

But to Jairus’ bemusement (and perhaps dismay), Jesus didn’t seem to share his anxiety. He didn’t chastise the woman at all. In fact, he called her “daughter” and proclaimed that she was healed! How strange! Not only had the woman’s ritual impurity apparently NOT cut Jesus off from holiness, but it was so easy for him that he didn’t even realize it was happening! Something unusual was going on.

As Jairus pondered this bizarre turn of events, a messenger came from his house to deliver the worst news imaginable: there was no further need for the rabbi because Jairus’ daughter had died. His puzzlement gave way to despair: maybe Jesus could escape ritual impurity while traveling among the gentiles, and maybe the woman’s touch somehow hadn’t rendered him unclean, but this was different. Healing is one thing, but God is life and death is death. Mortality is the most profane of ALL things. Even the most faithful rabbi couldn’t summon enough divine power to overcome this terrible manifestation of his daughter’s humanity. And when Jesus took her lifeless hand in his, that sealed it. She was gone. Jairus felt God’s absence keenly – as if HE were the unclean one.

All of a sudden, without warning, Jesus commands his daughter to stand up – and she does! This man, who had walked among gentiles, encountered a hemorrhaging woman, and touched a corpse, was somehow still able to connect with God’s holiness enough to bring his dead daughter back to life. It went against everything that Jairus thought he knew about ritual purity. It should have been impossible – but it wasn’t.

So, what DID Jairus learn? Before anyone asks, no, he didn’t learn that the purity laws are wrong or pointless. There’s still a profound need for human beings to recognize that we are not God. That will ALWAYS be true. But with his own eyes, he watched as Jesus’ holiness spread to multiple “unclean” people instead of their human impurities repelling it, as he’d expected.[2] What Jairus learned is that nothing we do can ever stop God from showing us mercy and love, no matter how “human” we insist on being.

The truth is, it’s our sin alone that God despises, not anything about our humanity. On the contrary, God JOINED us in our humanity, experiencing and embracing every part – starting with our physical bodies. God took on a body that felt pain and illness and even death, just like ours do. Jesus frequently interrupted his teachings – caring for peoples’ minds and souls – in order to tend to the people’s physical needs. Our bodies are important – indeed, even sacred– to God.

This was what Jairus learned. So, what does that mean, for him and for us, going forward? Perhaps the greatest takeaway of this text is contained in that very last sentence: “Give her something to eat.” Once we realize that God cares as much about our bodies as our minds and souls, it becomes apparent that we must do the same. We are stewards of something incredibly beautiful that God has joyfully created and loves deeply: ourselves. And as stewards, it’s our responsibility to take the best possible care of that which God has entrusted to us.

We may not always love our bodies, and they might not always do the things that we want them to do the way we want them to, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have worth. These human bodies allow us to interact with and tend to God’s creation. They allow us to embrace one another, to stand up for those seeking justice, to sit with those who mourn; they allow us to both encounter and embody divine love in a way that wouldn’t otherwise be possible.

So, when Jesus tells Jairus to give his daughter something to eat, he’s doing more than confirming that yes, she’s really alive. Jesus is giving him a charge: do not treat humanness as something to be despised. Do not treat bodies as something holding you back from God. Feed them. Clothe them. Heal them. Care for them. Not just your own, but those entrusted to others, as well. Recognize each and every one as a gift deserving of both honor and respect.

Scripture doesn’t tell us what Jairus does next with this new knowledge, but we could speculate. Maybe he begins to take better care of his health. Maybe he starts to see sharing a meal with his family as a sacred event. Maybe he begins to pay closer attention to those whose needs AREN’T being met. Maybe he starts to tell others at the synagogue about his new perspective. And maybe he begins to teach by example – giving more of his own resources to meet others’ basic needs, offering comfort to those in pain, sitting with those close to death. I don’t expect that he suddenly started to ignore the purity laws entirely; after all, Jesus didn’t come to destroy the Law, but to fulfill it. But maybe Jairus realized that becoming ritually unclean to help someone else is a sacrifice worth making. Maybe, he started to see how those moments when he’s most entrenched in his humanness are also the times that God’s love is able to shine most brilliantly.

Maybe that’s what Jairus did. What will you do? Amen.


[2] Ibid.

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