In this lectionary year, we are reading quite a bit from the Gospel of Mark. The three synoptic gospels are all anonymous works, dated before 100 AD. Mark is supposed to have been written first c. 66–74 AD, during the Jewish rebellion against Rome. In 13:14, Jesus hints about the impending fall of Jerusalem and the “abomination of desolation -- let the reader understand”. We understand this to refer to the destruction of the Temple in 70, which the gospeller might have witnessed. Despite the chaos of the war, the generation of Jesus’ contemporaries was still around and holding on to the 35-years-old memories of Easter. Some features of this gospel indicate that it may have been written in Rome (e.g., Latin terms left untranslated); if so, the author may have tried to systematize the witnesses’ recollection to fit specifically into apostle Peter’ teachings.
In any case, the writing style of Mark is considered to be rather unpolished, as compared to, for example, the Greek of Luke and Acts. Granted, the book was intended for mass consumption, rather than for the academic world, and thus favours action over discourse. The narrative is vivid, engaging, and skillfully arranged in mutually enhancing sequences of events and intercalations (i.e., one episode contained within the other). As such, the passage we read today encapsulates the healing of a woman with persistent bleeding within the story of the resurrection of a young girl, where the age of the girl even corresponds to the duration of the woman’s condition.
This is how the story goes. 12 years or so prior to Jesus’ arrival on the north shore of the lake Galilee, two women were young girls, on the cusp of becoming adults. One woman married the local synagogue ruler called Jairus, and gave birth to a baby girl, “talitha”. Capernaum was only a town of fishermen and peasants, but Jairus managed to ensure a life of relative comfort for his family. So as Talitha grew, she experienced little real hardship until she turned 12. Only a child by our standards, but in less than a year, her culture would regard her an adult, ready for matchmaking and marriage. She anticipated her coming of age with curiosity and eagerness; but one day, she became very ill. As she felt all her life, health, and dreams slip away, she wondered what she had done to have her life end here, before it truly began. Her mother wrestled with the same question, as she anticipated the loss of her child and her life as she knew it.
As for the other woman, I don’t know for sure what condition resulted in her seeking healing from Jesus 12 years later, when Talitha was dying; but I imagine it could have come about as follows. Maybe, she also married and became pregnant at the same time as Jairus’ wife did. Both women were then thrilled to know that the height of their social status was about to be secured. But, while Talitha’s mother had carried her to term, this second woman might have suffered a miscarriage, and then a series of others, until her cycles became entirely unpredictable. For that reason, she was considered unclean not only for the duration of her bleeding, as a healthy woman would be, but also for seven days following. Sometimes, before these extra 7 days of uncleanness would even elapse, she bled again. After a few years, her husband became frustrated not only with her inability to have a child, but that she made him, and everything else she touched in their home, unclean. He returned her to her father’s household, where she was allotted a small shack on the outskirts of the field, so that she would not pollute anything by her touch. There she dwelt; anemic, poor, and lonely.
So the 12 years before Jesus’ arrival in Capernaum were, for Jairus’ wife and daughter, the time of happiness and comfort in growing towards fulfillment, and for the bleeding woman -- the time of misery, and of steady movement further and further away from hope. Nonetheless, at the time of their encounter with Jesus, all three women were effectively dead: the girl in her body, her mother in her heart, and the bleeding woman in her social standing. Jairus was an influential man, but even he was powerless in the face of the loss of his daughter. Every one of us, women and men, can relate to the experience of these people, the feeling of not being fully alive - our very souls, bleeding.
Now, Talitha had someone who could openly approach Jesus to intercede for her. The older woman had to approach Jesus secretly, by herself. As she made her way through the crowd, she knew that if anyone recognized her and remembered her condition, they would all have to wash their clothing and remain unclean for seven days. Even this new Rabbi from whom she sought to gain healing, she was about to make ritually unclean as well; but as he was already heading to a house where, potentially, a dead body would be present by the time he arrived (another unclean object), she might have thought her touch wouldn’t change much. Or maybe she acted purely on impulse, instantly became scared, and then assured: “Your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed."
Today, we may struggle to read of the healings of Jesus because we do not see them happen amongst our own loved ones. So, we might prefer to think that “go in peace” may have been a customary valediction of Jesus’ time. And it was, but here we do get a sense that he truly meant it, both summarizing and at the same time affecting the woman’s experience of being given a lease on new life. As such, this story primarily foreshadows Jesus’ own resurrection, and thereby, our ultimate hope in eternal life.
Do you recall a time when you got to touch Jesus? Or relied on others to summon him for you? Or approached God secretly, for fear of sharing your burden lest people made you feel unclean? Well, Jesus never shamed anyone except for those who thought too highly of themselves. God invites us, indeed, always to reach out on behalf of ourselves and others. When touched by the woman, Jesus noticed that “his power had gone forth”. I don’t take this to mean that he thought he had nothing left for Talitha, but that he sensed God’s activity taking place within him. Do you ever notice something like this happening within you? By the grace of God, our touch has the power to impart dignity and wholeness on others, and thereby, achieve peace in our own lives. Amen.