August 9, 2009

Touching Faith

Mark 5: 21-43

This passage from Mark’s gospel is a little like a set of Russian dolls. It is made up of nesting stories, one contained within another, and both of them wrapped around the center, the most important part. In the Russian dolls, often called “matryoshka” for “mother,” it is often the case that each one is painted a little differently but at the same time, there are common elements all through. So it is with these stories.

The outer layer, the story of Jairus and his daughter, and the inner one, the story of the dying woman, have enough similarities to let us know that they are related, that they are pointing to the same reality. Both stories involve great faith; both stories contain a miracle, a touch that heals. The girl is twelve years old when she dies and the woman has been dying slowly for the same period of time.

These are major themes, no doubt, but there is an important subtext here, too. Both the little girl and the woman are unclean; they are untouchable. To have any contact with a strange woman, especially one who was bleeding, or with the dead, was to become contaminated oneself. This is outlined in portions of the Book of Leviticus, in what came to be known as the purity code. When the children of Israel were about to enter the Promised Land, these prohibitions helped shape them into their own nation. The code formed the structure that they needed in this time of transition. The penalties for violation were serious: separation from religious observance and participation, until the specified remedy had been satisfied. Really, what this meant was separation from community, a high price to pay. And since any form of contact could bring about contamination, intentional or accidental, those who were unclean were generally not allowed in the mainstream of society. They were isolated, kept at the margins.

There was a whole array of contaminating conditions in addition to death and bleeding, things like skin rashes, mildew on fabric or the walls of a house, childbirth, especially if the baby was a girl, some conditions associated with baldness, (yes its in here, you can look it up), even the use of two kinds of material in a single article of clothing -- cotton polyester???

Certainly from our twenty-first century perspective, the fear of contamination from these almost-normal conditions seems primitive and superstitious. But the codes served their purpose in their time, separating the people from those tribes already in their Promised land, so they could establish a pattern of life and worship that was centered on the one true God. Eventually, though, the rules became an end in themselves. The people lost sight of the purpose and got all caught up in the process of compliance and enforcement.

And you know, we ourselves are not immune from all this. Oh, perhaps we are a bit more sophisticated than the ancient people of the Bible, but underneath it is pretty much the same thing. We, too, can become preoccupied with keeping ourselves at a safe distance from those who threaten us, from those who seem unclean.

Now, of course, we do not necessarily say it that way, and we do not observe the purity codes of the Old Testament, at least not in their entirety. No, we have our own words, our own version of the code, and we go to great lengths to enforce it. Just ask those who work on behalf of persons who have AIDS. They know how society has isolated those with this terrible disease. Or ask those who are elderly and have no place to live except a standard-issue nursing home. They will understand the isolation of age and infirmity. Those who are poor and homeless, and maybe literally unclean because they have nowhere to wash, are outcasts in our society. Even with the election of our new president, race is still a sign of differentness among people. We may not practice the extreme segregation of the past, but separation and suspicion between races still exist in too many places. And those who have lost a job or lost a marriage may find that old friends and colleagues soon avoid them, almost as if these conditions were somehow catching.

But what does Jesus say? When confronted with the outcasts, the unclean, the hopeless cases, what does he do?

In the two gospel stories, it may appear that it is the faith of Jairus and the woman that creates the healing. And there is no question that they both demonstrate a powerful, moving faith, touching in its single-mindedness. Their stories show us two facets of such faith – the woman’s willingness to touch Jesus and the father’s willingness for Jesus to touch his daughter.

But at the heart of these two stories, nested within them, is the source of the healing, and that is the power of Jesus, a power borne of faith. In him, in his power, the two facets of faith come together, because he is the one who is willing both to be touched and to touch. In faith, he overrides the rules and regulations. He places himself on the other side of the prohibitions, with those who are other. He ignores the religious conventions of contamination and he does it deliberately and intentionally.

In the press of the crowd, after the woman touches him, it would be so easy to keep going, for him to let the woman go her way, healed but unacknowledged, and for he himself to continue on with none the wiser. But he does not do that. He shows the same deliberateness with the little girl. When he gets there, she is dead, dead enough for the family to have called the mourners. Surely there is no reasonable expectation for him to intervene. And yet he does. He goes into the presence of death, the ultimate condition of otherness, that which we fear the most, that which we seek to avoid at all costs. But Jesus does not avoid it. He is not afraid. He takes hold of the dead girl and raises her up, once again aligning himself with the outcast, showing us how he is that way, too, foreshadowing his own death and raising up.

What he is doing is fulfilling the law, opening the layers of interpretation and rules and regulations to reveal anew what is at the very center, which is God’s precious shining love, the powerful love of the One who has created life – all life – and has pronounced it good.

A child who is dead and a woman who might as well be: and contact with Jesus restores them both to life, to health, to community. Because his is a faith that conquers fear. His is a touching faith, a faith that reaches out in healing; a faith that restores relationship.

And where does all this touch us? Where does Jesus take hold of our lives? If we claim to have faith in Jesus Christ, must we also have the faith of Jesus Christ? How would it be to live this way? Perhaps it would mean acknowledging those who reach out to us, those on the margins who want to have contact with the Body of Christ; or it could mean taking the risk of a hands on approach with those that the world deems untouchable; or maybe it would lead us to form relationships with those who are different from us.

Is this easy? No. Is it necessary? Well, it seems that it is for Jesus Christ, and we are called to follow him, to be Christ-like. And to be that way, to be Christ-like, is to touch and to allow ourselves to be touched. It is to open our hearts to the great pain of the world, to the fear, the suffering, the isolation. Because nestled within the gospel, at the heart of all our stories, there is this central truth and it is the whole truth: In Christ, there is the power to heal the world’s hurt. In Christ, there is the faith that overcomes fear and suffering and isolation.

Those who are in Christ are called to this faith, this touching faith. This is the faith that will save the world. And it is the faith that will save us, even us.

(c) Martha C. Highsmith

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