Friday, July 22, 2011

Between Worlds

While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” (Mark 5.35-36)

A Day in the Life

In today’s Gospel (Mark 5.21-43), the writer tries his hand at narrative crosscutting. He gets one story going, interjects another, and finishes the first. Inasmuch as its events are sequential, the passage is linear. Yet Mark uses this technique to give us a day-in-the-life-of-Jesus snapshot to indicate there’s always a lot going on when and wherever He ministers. These 24 hours are especially eventful, and a sense of the distances Jesus and the disciples cover helps us gather how frenetic their days often were. Jesus spends the afternoon prior to today’s stories teaching on the Sea of Galilee’s western shore. Since He and most of the disciples are natives of this area, it’s where they feel most at home. The huge turnout to hear Jesus swamps the beach and a boat deck serves as His makeshift pulpit. When He finishes His lesson—the farming parables many of our preachers have discussed lately—the crowd doesn’t disperse. Jesus instructs the disciples to sail across the lake. At its widest, the Sea of Galilee spans a mere eight miles. But, as we quickly learn, it’s called a “sea” because conditions are frequently tempestuous and its opposite shore might as well be an ocean away.

A nasty squall kicks up overnight. The disciples panic and rouse Jesus from much-needed rest. After the foul weather lifts at His command, He chides them for allowing fear to overwhelm their faith in His guidance and protection. They land safely on Galilee’s eastern side, home to a predominately Gentile population steeped in Greek culture. The instant Jesus steps ashore, a naked madman tormented by evil spirits rushes toward Him, begging Jesus not to hurt him. As with the storm, Jesus speaks to the man’s chaos. The forces plaguing him plead with Jesus to drive them into a nearby drove of 2000 pigs—possibly more than He and the disciples have seen at one time, perhaps the first they’ve ever seen. The swine charge into the lake and drown. The locals are less impressed to find the madman clothed and in his right mind than furious over losing so many valuable animals. They order Jesus to leave. In roughly 15 hours’ time, He’s back where He started, on His turf, engulfed by another throng. Today’s reading picks up the story here.

Collision of Three Lives

The home crowd has learned how Jesus moves indicates what He wants to do. If He wants to teach, He picks a spot and they come to Him. If He wants to work miracles, He goes to them. Though rumors of His whereabouts travel swiftly either way, how He moves determines the type of crowd He attracts. Word of Jesus moving their way brings out people who don’t normally, or can’t possibly, attend His sermons—as happens with Jairus, a synagogue leader with a deathly ill 12-year-old daughter, and a woman bankrupted and housebound by a 12-year battle with menstrual hemorrhaging.

While Jesus is a popular favorite, the religious set views Him suspiciously. Based on Luke’s chronology, His own synagogue in Nazareth recently ran Him out of town, which no doubt set local tongues wagging. So Jairus takes a big risk when he seeks Jesus’s help. As does the woman whose “unclean” condition places her under house arrest. If seen in public, she’ll be excommunicated from her synagogue for endangering her village. Thus, we have the collision of three lives—a defamed Rabbi, desperate father, and determined lady—each of them bravely defying prejudice and taboo.

When Jairus finds Jesus, there’s no problem getting to Him. By alerting us to his status, Mark invites us to envision the crowd stepping aside for him and eavesdropping on his conversation. Some may gasp when Jairus falls before Jesus, begging Him to come to his house and heal his daughter. Others may be shocked when Jesus lets him beg repeatedly before agreeing to go. As He and Jairus set out, the crowd at their heels, Mark shifts to the woman.

Since it’s best she not to be recognized, the woman has to reach Jesus without benefit of social courtesy or personal kindness. In fact, she’s so wary of drawing attention she puts all her faith in touching Jesus’s clothes. Weak though she is, she pushes through the crowd until she’s able to graze His cloak. He senses power leaving Him and, to her horror, stops to ask who touched Him. A minor brouhaha ensues, with no one coming forward and the disciples’ asserting all He felt was random jostling. Jesus won’t budge. He scans the crowd. Only He and the woman know what He means. When their eyes meet, He’ll see she did it. In the face of backlash for ignoring religious law, she comes out to Him. “Knowing what had happened to her, [she] came in fear and trembling, fell down before Him, and told Him the whole truth. He said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease,’” Mark 5.33-34 says. Next we’re told stopping to call out the woman costs Jairus’s daughter’s life.

“While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, ‘Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the Teacher any further?’” verse 35 reads. As devastating as this news is, it could have waited. That business about not bothering Jesus explains the rush to get to Jairus. With his house overcome with grief, arriving with a controversial Rabbi in tow is the last thing he needs. Jesus overhears the foolish advice and tells Jairus, “Do not fear, only believe.” (v36) He sends everyone but Peter, James, and John away and proceeds as planned. Walking into a scene pitched with hysterical mourning, He asks why everyone’s so upset. He’s nearly laughed out of the house when He tells them, “The child isn’t dead but sleeping.” (v39) Despite being enveloped by unbelief, Jesus honors the faith Jairus demonstrated by coming to Him and bringing Him home. He takes the little girl’s hand in His and commands her to wake up.

What We're Looking At

Mark (along with Matthew and Luke, as they embellish Mark) dovetails these two events with more in mind than literary flair or inserting a second plot to heighten the first’s suspense. Although we often detach the woman’s story from Jairus’s, both are better read and understood as all of a piece. Given what precedes it—Jesus’s parables about farmers who break traditional protocol, the back-and-forth crossing of the Sea of Galilee, the storm presaging the madman’s restoration, and the hostility it incites—as well as the background information on Jairus and the hemorrhaging lady, the narrative obtains parable-like force and dimension. We see what happens. But do we recognize what we’re looking at? Jesus, the disciples, Jairus, and the woman travel between worlds: from religion to faith, compliance to courage, comfort to dissonance, safety to risk. Changes they seek urge them to renounce caution and predictability. And in the process of moving between worlds, they’re asked to clear very high hurdles: life-threatening tumult, public humiliation, and ostensibly profound loss. In every case, Jesus answers its challenges with a variation of His word to Jairus: Do not fear. Only believe.

Settling for the world we know, conforming to its conventions and taboos, may alleviate fear. But it doesn’t create faith. For that, we choose to travel between worlds. We leave home shores, sailing stormy seas for places where mad people greet us, we see what we’ve always heard was foul and unhealthy looks like, and what we offer isn’t welcomed. Yet such journeys prepare us to enter chaotic, cynical environments where we must speak life in the face of derision and grief. We refuse to let what others think inhibit our desire to ask Jesus into our lives—even when we’re told not to bother Him. Though we live among people who view Him suspiciously, we bring Christ home and give Him charge of our house. We don’t succumb to religious insistence we’re social menaces to be kept from sight. We don’t forego faith and persistence when believers fearful of our touch make touching Jesus difficult. Nor do we permit social fall-out after our faith is found out to frighten us from publicly coming out as witnesses of Christ’s power. Do not fear. Only believe. It’s a mantra we travellers between worlds should tattoo on our hearts and minds.

O God, we pray our compulsion to find Christ, touch Christ, and witness Christ’s power will never diminish or relent. And we ask that You keep before us the reality that we’ll find everything we seek in Christ between worlds, where necessity makes faith flourish and miracles happen. Amen.

We travel between worlds because that’s how we find Christ and faith to touch Christ.

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