Contagion

Holy hands, unholy world
Mark 5:21-43
In 1976, a particularly nasty contagion took the lives of 151 people in Sudan and another 280 in Zaire. The disease recurred in Sudan and took the lives of another 22 people. It lay dormant for 15 years, then took 97 lives in Gabon and 254 lives in Zaire from 1994-1997. The virus took two years off. From 2000-2004 Central African countries lost 484 more people to this disease. Two more years without deaths. We are up to 1,288. From 2007-2012, another 291 people died: 1,579 in all. The most severe outbreak of all occurred in December 2013, leading to 11,385 deaths in Africa and beyond. Last week there were another 20 confirmed cases of the disease in Sierra Leone and Guinea.

In all, about 13,000 people have died from one of four strains of the Ebola virus. The most deadly strain — Ebola Zaire — has a 90% death rate. It is a hemorrhagic disease, transmitted by blood, saliva, milk, semen, urine, vomit.

It is a horrible disease. I am not going to explain it. We live in a seriously messed up world.

Let’s pray.

* * *

I invite you to turn to the book of Mark, chapter 5, verse 21. Jesus is in the early part of his ministry, teaching in and around the large lake in the north of Israel which is called the Sea of Tiberius, of the Sea of Galilee. It is about a.d. 30. He had been on the eastern side of the lake and was returning to the western shore, perhaps near the town of Gennesaret or Capernaum.

521And when Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered about him, and he was beside the sea. 22Then came one of the rulers of the synagogue, Jairus by name, and seeing him, he fell at his feet 23and implored him earnestly, saying, My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well and live.

A great crowd surrounds Jesus, who is in danger of becoming a celebrity. He is in the midst of a large number of people who have heard of his teaching, his exorcisms and his healings — they are interested in seeing what he will do next.

In any case, if a man or woman was ritually unclean they would not easily be able to participate in the life of the community or synagogue. In the case of this woman, her malady probably also made it impossible for her to marry.

No wonder she had seen so many physicians. Now she’s ready to try something else — anything else:

27She had heard the reports about Jesus and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his garment. 28For she said, If I touch even his garments, I will be made well.

She has heard that this rabbi Jesus can heal, and so she had come into this crowd, even though she knew that they would be shrink back from her if they knew she was unclean. If they were touched by an unclean person, they would become unclean for the rest of the day. If she sat on a chair, it became unclean. She was never welcome in a crowd of religious people.

So the idea that the rabbi will touch her to heal her is crazy. It would make him unclean, and he is never going to be willing to do that.

She decides she’s not going to ask — she’s going to touch his garment from the anonymity of the crowd. He’ll never even know.

I want you to notice something.

This is the very definition of a non-emergency. This woman has a chronic condition — a miserable problem that has made her sick for more than a decade, but nothing is going to change in the next hour or week. There is no urgency in her situation.

But she has heard Jesus is around and says to herself “If I touch even his garments, I will be made well.” A silly thought, which she would never have spoken aloud. And so, anonymous within the crowd, she reaches out and touches the fringe of his clothes.

29And immediately the flow of blood dried up, and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease.

Hmmm.

She had lived with this for twelve years and she knew she was healed. She probably was ready to slip back into the crowd and live the life she had missed.

Unlike Jairus, she had not presented herself to Jesus, though she was like Jairus in thinking that Jesus might be her solution. She was ready to slip away.

But Jesus was certainly aware of her:

30And Jesus, perceiving in himself that power had gone out from him, immediately turned about in the crowd and said, Who touched my garments? 31And his disciples said to him, You see the crowd pressing around you, and yet you say, Who touched me? 32And he looked around to see who had done it.

Now there’s this crowd, pressing in on Jesus. There is no way to know who touched him. His own disciples think he is pretty silly for even asking. (Luke says it was Peter that said this and knowing Peter, we are not surprised.)

33But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling and fell down before him and told him the whole truth. 34And he said to her, Daughter, your [belief] has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.

The whole crowd stops and the woman comes (like Jairus) and falls at Jesus’ feet. She tells him what she did and he tells her what has happened.

Jesus is making sure that she understands that this was not an act of magic, this was an act of belief. “Your faith has made you well,” that is, literally, your belief has made you well, since it was her belief that . . . reaching out . . . and touching . . . the fringe of his garment would heal her.

And it did!

And Jesus says “Go in peace, be healed,” because the disease which had caused the hemorrhage had been healed.

But all of this interaction had taken time, and Jairus had been standing there in anguish.

The woman’s medical condition was not an emergency, and this inquiry and discussion was not necessary — it could have easily been put off till later.

The little girl was dying and Jesus had needed to hurry. None of the gospels says Jairus was impatient, but I would have been frantic. “Come on Jesus, my daughter needs you, come on, please, please. . . .”

Too late.

35While he was still speaking, there came from the ruler’s house some who said, Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the Teacher any further?

It’s over.

It’s over. Your daughter is dead.

There’s nothing the Teacher can do for her now.

Let it go.

Just like Jesus had interrupted to ask who had touched him, he interrupts the messengers and speaks directly to Jairus:

36But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the ruler of the synagogue, Do not fear, only believe.

Jesus has just said to the woman “your belief has made you well,” and now he says “Do not fear, only believe.” There was a temptation to fear that it had been left until it was too late and now this unplanned interruption had dashed his last hope. “Do not fear, only believe.”

Now Jesus gets rid of the crowd (and most of the disciples):

37And he allowed no one to follow him except Peter and James and John the brother of James. 38They came to the house of the ruler of the synagogue, and Jesus saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly.

This was part of the drama of death in this culture. (We have our own drama, of course — the cultural rituals which allow us to process the death of those who are close to us — Jews in Jesus’ time would have thought it odd that we publish lists of the dead person’s relatives and little summaries of their lives.) In any case, everyone around the house was just wailing when Jairus, Jesus, James, John and Peter came up.

It is a scene of distress, because this little girl has died:

39And when [Jesus] had entered, he said to them, Why are you making a commotion and weeping? The child is not dead but sleeping. 40And they laughed at him.

So as Jesus comes in, he tells everyone that they are overreacting. They are acting like she is dead, but he says she is just “sleeping.”

If you take the text seriously, either she is in a coma, or Jesus is speaking metaphorically. You don’t wake up from death, but you wake up from sleep.

They knew the difference between sleep and death, of course, and the messengers had come to tell that she was dead, and the passage in Luke is even clearer, that they knew she was dead. This little girl is medically dead, and Jesus is speaking metaphorically.

You don’t wake up from death, but you wake up from sleep. And this time death is like sleep.

[Now] he put them all outside and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him and went in where the child was. 41Taking her by the hand he said to her, Talitha cumi, which means, Little girl, I say to you, arise.

Jesus takes her by the hand (a Jew who touched a dead body would be unclean for seven days, Numbers 19), and speaks to her “Talitha cumi.” These aren’t magic words, they are simply words in Aramaic, Jesus’ normal language, and Mark translates them for us: “Little girl, get up.”

42And immediately the girl got up and began walking (for she was twelve years of age), and they were immediately overcome with amazement.

She gets up! What seemed like death to everyone before now seems more like sleep, because she woke up, and she got up when Jesus touched her and spoke to her. (It is interesting that she is twelve years old and the woman had been hemorrhaging for twelve years, but I don’t know if that really means anything.)

And Jesus continues to have concern for her:

43 And he strictly charged them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.

So he tells her mother and father to feed her and not to tell what had happened.

In the context of Mark these two miracles show that Jesus is the Messiah of Israel. If we were going through the book of Mark, I would want to talk about this instruction that the parents were not to tell about the healing. Briefly, though, this seems to be borne out of a concern that his Jewish audiences might misunderstand his mission. The story is preserved for all of us to read, but at the time, to know that Jesus was raising the dead would mislead some people about what kind of Messiah he was.

I think it’s encouraging that Jesus told them to feed her.

* * *

The bleeding woman had had no hope, since for twelve years no one had been able to help her.

Jairus had no hope, because the worst had happened and his little girl had died.

If we had not read the Old Testament, it would be easy to read this story as showing only that Jesus was compassionate towards people who were hopeless. But we know our Hebrew Bibles too well for that.

Both the woman and the little girl were unclean – not in a moral sense — but in a ritual, almost medical, sense. No religious Jew would purposefully touch either of them, and if any contact occurred, he would have become unclean and have to go through a purification process.

That’s the way the world works, of course. If you are a nurse treating an Ebola patient and you get their blood on you, if they throw up on you, if you are stuck with the needle from their injection, if the infected blood gets in your blood stream . . . .

Then you will be infected.

It never works the other way.

The medical workers wear scrubs, and surgical gloves, which are taped to the scrubs. Over that they wear a Chemturion suit — a space suit to keep the virus out. Over the gloves of the space suit, they wear latex gloves. All to keep the virus out.

If the infected blood gets in your blood stream you will be infected.

But Jesus — pure, clean, holy Jesus — was touched by the unclean woman, and Jesus reached out his own hand to the little girl’s corpse.

But he is not made unclean, he is not infected. They are made clean, . . . and healthy . . . and whole.

Notice that they are not simply “declared” clean or “declared” well, or “declared” alive. Jesus comes to them in their desperate states and recognizing that they are unclean and sick and dead, he heals what is wrong.

This messed up world has no hope to be made clean. The virus is not 90% deadly, it is 100% deadly.

This messed up world has no hope to be made clean.

No hope but Jesus.

Today, there are many desperate people here who need Jesus’ healing hands:

some, like Jairus, fear the mockery of their peers;

some, like the woman, are afraid that the religious crowd will soon discover that they are unclean;

some, like the little girl, are just dead.

Today a great number of people are interested in seeing just what Jesus will do next:

some, like Jairus, are desperate with concern;

some, like the woman, are isolated by calamity;

some, like the little girl , are unaware of any hope.

And Jesus reaches out to all of us —

the unholy,

the unclean

and the unwell,

and he invites us all to be healed and to rise up.

One last thing.

If you are among the redeemed of the Lord, then you are the Lord’s hand reaching out to those who need his holiness.

Be the ones who reach out to the unholy, the unclean, and the unwell.

Don’t fear. Believe.

The holiness of Jesus is contagious. 

Let us pray . . . .

—July 5, 2015

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