Some Thoughts on Mark 5:21-43
I have a confession to make, and its one that an Anglican priest should, perhaps, not be making.
Namely, I tend to be very skeptical when I hear about miracles from other Christians. In fact, when I hear stories about Christians being healed, I often think of TV preachers and faith healers who pretend to cast the Holy Spirit about so that people might be “slain in the Spirit.”
It really is a three-ring circus, and I don’t believe any of it. However, my skepticism puts me in danger as a Christian, and if you are like me, then you are in danger as well. You see, Jesus is a miracle worker, and we should seek him expecting miracles to happen.
So before we dig into a few miracles stories from Mark’s gospel, let’s consider some of the ways that we can misunderstand the miracles stories in scripture. When we misunderstand them, then we don’t take them seriously, and we need to take them seriously. This is God’s Word to us.
First, we may read the miracle stories and think they portray Jesus as something like a genie in a bottle…. that Jesus comes into the world and into our lives – primarily to grant our wishes.
But, of course, if we read scripture responsibly, then we can’t possibly draw this conclusion.
For instance, in the gospel of Mark, Jesus begins his ministry with this declaration – “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mk. 1:15).
REPENT! This word comes from the greek, “met-an-o-eh’-o,” and it means literally, change your mind;” “turn around;” “be transformed.” In the gospel of Jesus, our desires are the problem. Our ambitions are skewed. Our loves are disordered. We don’t want what is good for us. The world around us has gone mad, and we are mad with it. So if we are turned off by the image of Jesus as a genie in a bottle, then our intuitions are right. Jesus does not come into the world to grant our wishes. He comes to confront us and to teach us to seek first the kingdom of God.
Second, we can also go astray if we read the miracle stories and misunderstand what they are really saying about faith. We must always remember that the word faith does not and cannot refer to a power that exists within ourselves. Faith cannot be conjured up like the force in star wars. It is not a means for acquiring what we want in life. I’ll say more about this in a moment.
But for now, let me simply say that if we read these stories and think that people facing sickness, poverty, oppression, and other terrible circumstances are responsible for their own suffering because they lack faith, then we are way off track. Faith is not a power summoned from within, and the bible does not portray it this way. Faith is simply a posture that connects us to Jesus Christ.
The danger in misunderstanding faith – thinking it is our own power to employ – is that if we do so, then we are likely to give up and stop looking for help in Jesus Christ, the one who really can heal us. You see, Jesus really is a miracle worker. His miracles demonstrate that the power of God is working in and through him. And Faith – rightly understood – opens us up and brings us into the realm of his power and glory.
So let’s look at Mark 5:21-46 and see what it has to say about the power of Jesus to heal. The first thing to notice in our gospel reading this morning is that we have two stories in one.
The main story has to do with a leader in the synagogue named Jairus and his 12 year old daughter who dies and is brought back to life. But the story of Jairus’ daughter is actually wrapped around another story – the story of a hemorrhaging woman who touches Jesus’ garment and is also healed.
So here is how the whole story goes: Jesus has just returned from across the sea. After casting out a demon, he is approached by a leader from the synagogue named Jairus. Jairus begs Jesus to come to his house and heal his young daughter who’s on the verge of death.
And as Jesus goes with Jairus, a crowd follows him, and in the crowd a woman afflicted by constant bleeding, sneaks up behind him and touches his garment.
Immediately, she is healed. But as she tries to sneak off undetected Jesus says, “who touched me?” And the woman goes to Jesus in “fear and trembling…falling down before him and telling the whole truth. So Jesus says to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace and be healed of your disease” (5:33-34_
And then the story returns to Jairus. While Jesus was still speaking to the woman he had just healed, news came that Jairus’ daughter had died and that any attempt to have Jesus heal her was in vain. At this news, Jesus says to Jairus, “do not fear, only believe” (5:36). And he takes Peter, James, and John and follows Jairus home where they find a group of people already in mourning. Jesus goes into the house and simply says, “Talitha cumi,” which means “Little girl, I say to you, arise” (5:41) And of course, the little girl rises from dead and and is healed.
So what should we make of these two simple stories? Let me make just a few comments.
First, we learn something about the importance of humility. I suggested above that we should never think of Jesus as a kind of Genie in a bottle. He doesn’t come to grant our wishes or even to heal us on our own terms. Jesus is Lord, and our healing always involves our submission to his power and his authority.
We see this reality at work in both healings from our text today. You may have noticed in vs. 23 that when Jairus approached Jesus, he “fell at his feet and begged him” (5:22-23) for help. Here we have an image of a man broken and pleading, so there there really isn’t any question about where the power lies. The power resides in Jesus Christ. Jairus approaches with humility.
Likewise, Mark tells us that the bleeding woman approached Jesus quietly – not wanting even to be noticed… but trusting that He had the power to heal.
And when the woman is healed and Jesus confronts her, she too “falls down before him in fear and trembling.” …….Again, there is no question about where the power lies in this story.
Jesus is not under anyone’s command here. He is the Holy One of God, and those who approach Him in faith – are changed by him. They are made whole.
What we see with both Jairus and the bleeding woman is that humility is a posture, which allows them entrance into the realm of Christ’s Kingdom, where his power and grace are abundant. This is completely consistent with Jesus’ teaching found in Matthew 5, which we call the beatitudes.
The Beatitudes are meant to illuminate the character of those who will populate the Kingdom of God. People of this character submit to God’s sovereignty and find themselves open to his power and blessing. Here is s sampling. You can find the rest in Matthew 5.
- “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
- “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”
- “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”
- “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”
So a posture of humility opens us to the blessing and healing of God. A proud person won’t see a miracle if it is right in front of his face. In a little essay titled “Miracles,” C.S. Lewis wrote this:
“The Miracles in fact are a retelling in small letters of the very same story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see,” C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock, “Miracles, pg. 29.
The irony, of course, is that we have to make ourselves small to see them. Miracles are for the humble.
The Nature of Faith
And now a few thoughts about faith. In the stories of Jairus and the bleeding woman, faith is key. After the woman is healed of her hemorrhage, we read in vs. 34 that Jesus calls he “daughter” and says, “your faith has made you well.” And when Jairus learns of his daughter’s death, Jesus says in vs. 36, “do not fear, but only believe.”
Faith is a necessary ingredient in both stories, but it makes no sense to read them and come to the conclusion that the ones who are healed are in control. Faith does not work this way.
The word faith in these stories simply describes the act of trusting in Jesus; faith is letting go of power. Like humility, Faith is a posture. I’d like to read a quotation that I used in our time of catechesis, since it describes the nature of faith well. Graeme Goldsworthy says that,
“Biblical faith can be illustrated by considering the faith we would need when about to drive a vehicle across a rickety-looking bridge. We would not ask, ‘Have I got enough faith?’ Rather the appropriate question is, ‘Can this bridge take the load?’ Once we can answer in the affirmative, the question about faith vanishes. Faith is just there because of what we perceive about its object. When faith is lacking the antidote is not introspective self-examination but contemplation of the object of our faith: Jesus the Lord, our sufficient Saviour” (pg. 70-71)
So true faith, for a Christian, means paying attention to Jesus and concluding that he is who he claims to be.
On God’s Holiness
Let me wrap this up with one last observation…. both stories teach us something of God’s holiness as it relates to our impurity and sin. You see, It has long been said that God’s holiness is such that nothing sinful or unclean may come into contact with it. God’s holiness is like a great fire – nothing unholy can stand the presence of a Holy and righteous God.
Accordingly, the Jews had all kinds of purity laws regulating nearly every aspect of life. They were so afraid of God’s holiness that they insisted on extreme caution among God’s people. Some of it looks very arbitrary to us, but we must remember that one intention behind the law was to protect people from God’s terrifying holiness.
For example, in Number 19:1-21 we learn that no one was allowed contact with a dead body nor could they be in the proximity of a dead body without being considered impure. Only after going through a series of ritual sacrifices and waiting for seven days, could a person be considered clean again.
In the story of Jairus’ daughter, Jesus – the Holy One of God – came into contact with a corpse, and not only was Jesus not defiled; the corpse was made whole. Likewise, in Leviticus 15 we learn that a bleeding woman was considered impure and was forbidden contact with anyone during her menstrual cycle….lest she make them impure as well. At the end of her menstrual cycle, a series of ritual sacrifices could restore a woman to fellowship.
You see… the woman who touched Jesus’ garment was permanently impure. In the words of one commentator, she was “walking pollution” – cut off from fellowship with others and excluded from Jewish religious life entirely. Such a woman could not stand in the presence of a Holy God, but in our story, Jesus is not defiled. He is the holy one of God, and merely touching him made her clean and whole.
And here is the point: in the person of Jesus Christ, the Holy and Righteous God becomes “approachable even by those in a state of impurity,” and of course, that includes all of us.
You see Mark’s gospel portrays “Jesus as the approachable holy one of God,” and in this portrayal, “a new relation between the holy and the profane is emerging.”
Jesus is Holy, but when the sick and unclean approach Him, they are not destroyed and He is not angered. Jesus came into the world to make whole what was unclean and impure. This is very good news because it is just as true for us as it was for the people of Mark’s gospel.
All we need is humility, which is really nothing more than a realistic sense of who we are and who He is. Humility will always mean letting go of our pretensions to power and control. It will mean putting our faith where our faith should be – in the one who made us and has the power to make us whole.