“If I but touch His clothes, I will be made well.”

The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 8), Year B.

When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, “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.” So he went with him.

And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’” He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, 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.”

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.” He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. Then 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. He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.

Mark 5:21-43

Everyone likes to believe that they are middle-class. Over the years, Pew Research has conducted surveys asking what class people believe they are in, and their actual yearly income. Turns out, about 89% of Americans believe that they are middle-class, 10% believe that they are lower-class, and only 1% believe they are upper-class.[1] In reality, only about 52% of Americans are actually middle-class, while 29% are lower-class, and 19% are upper-class.[2] So why the discrepancy? It is telling of peculiar quirk of American culture: everyone wants to be middle-class. But why? Why do we all want to believe we are middle-class? Why not shoot for the stars and pretend that  we are all rich? (Globally speaking, we don’t even need to pretend all that much.) Is it because we are so in touch with the Epistle reading today that we have internalized Paul’s quote: “The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.” in which case we can call it a day here and get some coffee?

Somehow, I doubt it.

Though it is impossible to say for sure, I imagine this discrepancy of perception from reality has much to do with what we would like to believe about our society. If everyone is middle-class, that means that everyone fulfills that hard-working, go-getting American spirit. As for the rich, well they just got lucky or were incredibly talented. And the poor? Well, since we have a fair society that grants equal opportunity to all, if they are poor, it must be because of their poor choices. We like to believe that as a nation we were founded by honest, hard-working, people. Though in reality we were founded mostly on the one hand by religious zealots, venture capitalists, and aristocrats from the old world, and on the other hand, poor immigrants who had nothing left to lose. We would like to believe that we are living in the same economic landscape from just a few decades ago, when the middle-class figure was closer to 62% in the 70s, and was estimated to be closer to 70% in the 50s and 60s. Though more fundamental than all of these, we would like to believe that we live in a society that grants opportunity to all, one that sees no class distinction and has no outcasts.

It is this wanting to believe that we live in a classless society that makes today’s Gospel reading seem so foreign to us. When we hear about the hemorrhaging woman reaching out to touch Jesus, our minds quickly jump to “ritual purity” laws [Leviticus 15:19-22], and how audacious it is that Jesus was willing to let himself take on her ritual uncleanliness to heal her and make a point to the whole crowd how foolish and backward their society is for out casting someone simply for being sick. Isn’t it nice to live in a modern society, where we don’t have such absurd “purity” laws, and we would never let a person be cast out of society and driven into poverty simply because of an illness?

While it is true that as Mark presents it, the story of the hemorrhaging woman and the raising of Jairus’ daughter is meant for us to reflect on Jesus superseding ritual purity laws, this story is equally about class and crossing the boundaries between all the characters. Mark does deliberately describe the length of the illness and the age of the girl to be twelve years, a theologically significant number, and an indication of restored womanhood to both. The fact that Jesus touches a woman who is bleeding and a dead body, both of which would transfer impurity by biblical standards, is another clue that Mark wants us to reflect on that particular cultural element in this story. But in his own way, Mark is making the same mistake we often do when hearing this story, looking down on the characters for their obsession with ritual purity and not as readily recognizing the class elements as well. Mark after all is Greek, with some understanding of Jewish practice and law but not a complete understanding. He after all wants to show how his Greek and now Greek-Christian community is so much past these backward people and their obsession with purity.

However, when this event occurred, it’s doubtful that Jesus, the woman, Jairus, or the crowd had purity laws on their minds at all. Scholarship and the historical evidence suggest that the very rigorous interpretation of purity laws that we have in mind while hearing this story, were probably not practiced in typical village life,[3] and were likely not practiced at all during Jesus’ lifetime.[4] So what was at play? This is still a scandalous story. As the story is told, sexism and classism are the main features, considering that though alluded to, ritual purity laws are not explicitly mentioned.

Let’s start with who gets named. Jesus and Jairus. Two men, Jairus being a wealthy and respected local official, and Jesus, a respected and popular religious figure. Interestingly these two powerful men are almost totally passive in this story if we think about the action. The hemorrhaging woman is the one who touches Jesus. He notices and gives a blessing, but even He acknowledges that He was a passive player in the healing saying, “…your faith has made you well…” Jesus is the means by which the woman encounters the power of God, but He explains that it was her faith that made her well. When Jesus raises Jairus’ daughter, He touches her but tells her to “get up”. Jesus is again the means by which the girl encounters the power of God, but at His instruction, she is the one who gets up. It is an odd story because Jesus is remarkably passive, usually He is the one doing things, but this time it is the two unnamed women who are the central figures in this story. From a different narrative view, this story is about two women’s encounter with Jesus, rather than simply Jesus going around healing people.

The other crucial element is the class differences between all the characters. Jairus and his daughter are obviously upper-class, while the hemorrhaging woman has been driven into poverty due to her illness. Everyone is caught up in Jairus’ drama, a wealthy family experiencing tragedy. The professional mourners are present, the crowd is swarming, no one even sees the woman touch Jesus, no one even cared until He asked and she confessed. What is most scandalous in this story  is that Jesus give equal, if not preferential, time and treatment to the woman as He does to Jairus and his daughter. If this scene were to play out on main street today I’m sure we would react the same way as it played out then. “How could she be so bold as to reach out and touch Him?”

We would like to believe that we don’t see class, sex, race, or social rank in our society; that we live in a fundamentally fair system based on merit. But we all know in our hearts that as a society we haven’t made it that far yet. We all want to believe that we are all in the middle-class because it seems to be the ideal balance. The wealthy don’t want to be seen as greedy, or their accomplishments as totally un-earned, and the poor we would prefer not to see at all, as they powerfully prove failings of our society. We have to acknowledge the lies we tell ourselves because they prevent us from seeing the reality, from seeing people. But in giving up our illusions we see the good news in this story: that while we have not yet gotten past our self-imposed distinctions, God sees us all for our true worth.

When Jesus is met by Jairus, He does not see a wealthy man, a temple official, but a desperate father who loves his daughter. When Jesus sees the hemorrhaging woman, he doesn’t see an impure, poor outcast, he calls her “daughter”, re-affirming that she is part of God’s family, just as much as Jairus’ daughter. When the messenger comes and tells Jairus that there his daughter died, that he should no longer “trouble the teacher”, Jesus shows that death is not the last word, that God’s grace is abundant for all people, both women are restored. Whether rich, poor, beloved, or outcast, Jesus is there to answer the suffering of all people, to restore all people to God’s family. He shows that He always has time, always has patience, and always seeks to restore all people. In this story Jesus invites us all to come to Him and be restored. That no suffering is too great or too small for Him to heal us of. We are also invited to witness the reality of our society and have greater empathy for all people. We are called to see people as more than their ability to participate in an economy. We are invited to see that suffering is subjective, but more importantly to see the poor, the sick, and the suffering not as a problem to be solved, a policy to benefit or hurt, or not seen at all, but as beloved sons and daughters of God.

[1] https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2015/12/09/the-american-middle-class-is-losing-ground/

[2] https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/07/23/are-you-in-the-american-middle-class/

[3] The New Oxford Annotated Bible 4th ed., 1801

[4] Amy-Jill Levine, The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), 173-177.

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