Talitha Koum | Proper 8

Mark 5:21-43

21 Jesus crossed the lake again, and on the other side a large crowd gathered around him on the shore. 22 Jairus, one of the synagogue leaders, came forward. When he saw Jesus, he fell at his feet 23 and pleaded with him, “My daughter is about to die. Please, come and place your hands on her so that she can be healed and live.” 24 So Jesus went with him.

A swarm of people were following Jesus, crowding in on him. 25 A woman was there who had been bleeding for twelve years. 26 She had suffered a lot under the care of many doctors, and had spent everything she had without getting any better. In fact, she had gotten worse. 27 Because she had heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his clothes. 28 She was thinking, If I can just touch his clothes, I’ll be healed. 29 Her bleeding stopped immediately, and she sensed in her body that her illness had been healed.

30 At that very moment, Jesus recognized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?”

31 His disciples said to him, “Don’t you see the crowd pressing against you? Yet you ask, ‘Who touched me?'” 32 But Jesus looked around carefully to see who had done it.

33 The woman, full of fear and trembling, came forward. Knowing what had happened to her, she fell down in front of Jesus and told him the whole truth. 34 He responded, “Daughter, your faith has healed you; go in peace, healed from your disease.”

35 While Jesus was still speaking with her, messengers came from the synagogue leader’s house, saying to Jairus, “Your daughter has died. Why bother the teacher any longer?”

36 But Jesus overheard their report and said to the synagogue leader, “Don’t be afraid; just keep trusting.” 37 He didn’t allow anyone to follow him except Peter, James, and John, James’ brother. 38 They came to the synagogue leader’s house, and he saw a commotion, with people crying and wailing loudly. 39 He went in and said to them, “What’s all this commotion and crying about? The child isn’t dead. She’s only sleeping.” 40 They laughed at him, but he threw them all out. Then, taking the child’s parents and his disciples with him, he went to the room where the child was. 41 Taking her hand, he said to her, “Talitha koum,” which means, “Young woman, get up.” 42 Suddenly the young woman got up and began to walk around. She was 12 years old. They were shocked! 43 He gave them strict orders that no one should know what had happened. Then he told them to give her something to eat. (CEB)

Talitha Koum | ταλιθα κουμ

In part, this text from Mark is one of several stories that tell us something of Jesus as king. You might remember some discussion I had in a previous sermon about the word Messiah. The word means anointed, and kings of Israel were invested to the office of king through anointing. So, when we talk about Jesus as the Messiah—or the Greek word Christ—kingship is always included. Mark 5:21-43 reveals that Jesus is king over life and Law, both of which are related to human community.

Here, we have a story, and a story-within-a-story. A leader of the local synagogue, Jairus, came to Jesus, fell at his feet, and told him that his little daughter was near death. Jairus begged Jesus to come lay hands on her so she could be healed and live. So, Jesus went. Thus far in Mark’s Gospel, the Jewish leaders had felt Jesus out and turned against him. They were curious enough to gather in his house at Capernaum and witness his offering of forgiveness and healing to a paralyzed man (2:5-12). They judged him when they saw him eating with known sinners (2:16). They accused him of breaking the Sabbath Law in a couple of places (2:24, 3:2-6). Then, they organized against him by sending for legal experts from Jerusalem to make accusations that Jesus was possessed by Beelzebub and evil spirits.

So, the fact that a leader of the synagogue fell at Jesus’ feet and begged him to heal his daughter is surprising because the rest of the Jewish leadership seems to have aligned themselves against Jesus and actively tried to destroy his reputation. But Jairus was a desperate man. The Greek word he used for his child is the diminutive of daughter that was often a term of endearment. Jairus was a desperate father asking Jesus to come heal his little girl.

But as these events were unfolding, a woman who’d been bleeding for twelve years thought that if she could just touch Jesus’ clothes, she’d be made well. Verse 25, alone, tells us a lot about this woman’s predicament. If she had bled for twelve years, then she had been ritually unclean for twelve years. If she had been ritually unclean for twelve years, then she was a woman who existed on the fringes of society and probably had very little physical contact with anyone in that span.

Leviticus 15:25-28 says, “Whenever a woman has a bloody discharge for a long time, which is not during her menstrual period, or whenever she has a discharge beyond her menstrual period, the duration of her unclean discharge will be like the period of her menstruation; she will be unclean. Any bed she lies on during the discharge should be treated like the bed she uses during her menstruation; and any object she sits on will be unclean, as during her menstruation. Anyone who touches these things will be unclean. They must wash their clothes, bathe in water, and will be unclean until evening. When the woman is cleansed of her discharge, she will count off seven days; after that, she will be clean again” (Lev. 15:25-28 CEB). This is part of the law that governed this stuff for women in Jewish society. (It actually begins back in verse 19).

You can imagine how alone this woman was. Because of her ailment, anyone she touched would be considered unclean. Anything she touched that someone else touched would be considered unclean. Honestly, it sounds like a game of cooties gone horribly wrong.

Not only was she an outcast, she was poor. All the money she’d managed to earn, she’s spent it trying to get well. (Apparently, they didn’t have universal healthcare back then, either). But she’d only gotten worse under the care of many doctors. (Physicians back then didn’t have the training that ours do today).

This woman, too, is desperate. She’d heard about Jesus and the healings that had taken place all over Galilee. She might even have thought there was something mystical or magical about him. She’d probably heard that Jesus had been laying hands on people for those healings, and she thought that, if she could only touch his clothes some of that magic might rub off on her and heal her. And, in her mind, she probably thought that she’d have to sneak it because she’d lived for twelve years as someone that most people in her community would not touch.

So, she came up behind him, winding her way through the jostling crowd. It’s almost funny to imagine this scene because every person she bumped into on her way to Jesus was made unclean. But she didn’t care. She was too desperate to care about their ritual purity. If she bumped into them, they’d be unclean until evening, but she knew that if she didn’t get to Jesus, she’d be unclean for the rest of her life.

When she touched his clothes her bleeding stopped, and she sensed in her body that she had been healed. Note also how Jesus sensed that healing power had gone out from him. Jesus felt himself hemorrhage power as the woman’s hemorrhage of blood ceased.

Then, everything stopped. Jesus turned around and asked, “Who touched my clothes?” (5:30 CEB). Again, the disciples reveal their lack of insight. They essentially said, Are you kidding? Who didn’t touch you? Don’t you see this crowd? But Jesus looked around carefully, searching for the person who had touched him.

You see, it wasn’t enough for Jesus to heal someone of a physical ailment. For one thing, there’s more to wholeness of health than physical healing. For another, Jesus wanted to know the person he had healed. He sought the relationship because loving relationships and caring community are what shape us into whole human beings. Jesus wouldn’t go another step until he found the person he healed.

Meanwhile, Jairus, whose little daughter was dying, didn’t say a word. He didn’t urge Jesus on. He waited. He waited while the woman, this unclean, poor, outcast, fell at the feet of Jesus just as he had moments ago, and confessed that she had touched him. She had made him, a holy man, unclean. She had bumped into all these people, making them unclean.

Part of me wonders about the fear and trembling that overcame her. It’s the same word used to describe how the disciples were overcome with fear after Jesus calmed the storm (Mark 4:41). I think it could have included several aspects. For one, her belief that Jesus could heal her with power that was obviously beyond the mortal realm had just been confirmed. She might have been afraid of Jesus because she’d just stolen that power from him. She might also have been afraid because she’d made Jesus and the whole crowd unclean. Remember, whoever she touches, and whoever touches what she touches… cooties gone wild.

She had no idea how Jesus would react. She knew how he should have reacted according to the law. He should have condemned her. He had every right to under the law. But I wonder if part of her fearful trembling was born of hope that Jesus would finally be the one to have compassion on her, that this healer who hadn’t yet been afraid to touch others might see her as more than a plague to be avoided. Can you imagine her relief and her joy when Jesus said, “Daughter, your faith has healed you; go in peace, healed form your disease,”? (Mark 5:34 CEB).

When Jesus called her “Daughter,” he claimed her as family. This is important. This is the relationship moment. Jesus restored both this woman to the community and the community to her. You see, neither was complete without the other. When Jesus told her to go in peace, healed from her disease, the word he used is different from the other instances of healed in this text. Those other instances also mean saved. But the one at the end of verse 34 means made whole. Her faith healed (σέσωκέν) her from her physical ailment, not magic as she may have suspected! Even more, now that Jesus has restored her to her community, she’s been healed—made whole (ὑγιὴς)—from the disease that had separated her from even the possibility of caring relationships.

Dr. Mike Rynkiewich told me he was reading a dissertation in which the author claimed that “the antidote for shame is not affirmation but connection.” Another scholar, Michael Lindvall, suggested that, beyond physical healing, it is “acceptance, intimacy, and touch” that have the power to “make us whole and give us peace… Our relationships—in the church, in friendships, and in marriage—are not just something extra added on to life for distraction and entertainment, as if we would be complete human beings in individual isolation. Relationship, ‘touch’ if you will, makes us human and whole. As the contemporary Scottish philosopher John Macmurray once phrased it, ‘I need “you” in order to be myself.’” (Feasting on the Word, Vol. B.3, 192).

On Thursday afternoon, I had a discussion with some younger pastors in the district about the meaning of church membership. The question was posed, “What’s the advantage of membership? What’s the point beyond saying you get to vote on stuff?” My answer pointed them to vows in the liturgy. Since we’ve received new members today, we might want to look more closely at the baptismal covenant. When we join a congregation, we’re connected to a covenant community where we promise to nurture one another and include each other in our care. We promise to live according to the example of Christ and to surround each other with a community of love and forgiveness. We love each other, care for each other, help each other, mourn with each other, worship with each other, and celebrate with each other. These covenant relationships are the things that make us whole.

While Jesus was still speaking to the woman, messengers came to Jairus telling him that his daughter was dead. Jesus told him, “Don’t be afraid. Just keep trusting” (Mark 5:36 CEB). Jesus went inside and tossed the crowd of mourners out. They had laughed at him when he said the girl was only sleeping. They’d seen death before, and this wasn’t sleep. They knew the girl had died. The mourners knew she had no future and no hope.

Jesus took the girl’s hand and said, “Talitha koum,” which means little girl, stand up. Immediately, the girl got up and started walking around. Knowing that death must take a lot out of a person, Jesus told her parents to give the girl something to eat.

In what way is Jesus king? In these stories, he’s king of life and law. Jesus shows over and again that he cares more about people and relationships than religious purity laws. When he took the girl’s hand, he would have been considered unclean from touching a dead body. But Jesus overcomes the law. Instead of being made unclean by touching those who are unclean, the touch of Jesus cleanses. Our touch, our contact with others in meaningful relationships can do the same.

When we enter into relationship with Jesus, and with each other as a covenant community, we’re restored to wholeness through those relationships. In these stories, Jesus teaches us that, as long as there are outcasts and people living on the fringes of society, our community isn’t whole. Those we might think of as they and them and those need us. And, whether we recognize it or not, we need them.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay