SERMON: The healing of two women

SERMON: The healing of two women

A sermon preached at St. Mary’s (Iffley, Rose Hill and Donnington) by Hilary Pearson on 30th June 2024

Our Gospel reading today is another of the ‘Markan sandwiches’ which Clare introduced us to recently.  The ‘bread’ is the two stages of the story of the healing of the daughter of a local synagogue official.  The ‘filling’ is the healing of the woman who had suffered a haemorrhage for many years.  These stories, in the same sandwich form, are also found, with slight variations, in Matthew 9: 18-26 and Luke 8:40-56.  We will look in detail at the two stories in Mark to see what message they have for us today.

There are similarities and differences between the facts of the two stories.  Starting with the event the story is told about: both are healings.  We should note that, of all the Evangelists, Mark devotes the largest percentage of his Gospel to miracles and healings.  These show the power of Jesus and point to the establishment of the Kingdom of God, a very important concept in this Gospel which begins by quoting a prophecy of Isaiah about the immanent coming of God’s kingdom.  In both cases, the miraculous nature of the healing is clear, although different.  The girl, Jairus’ daughter, has died from her illness before Jesus reaches the house: he raises her from the dead.  The woman had suffered for a long time and had not had a medical cure despite spending all she had on doctors.  She is healed immediately when she touches Jesus’ cloak.

The healings are sought in very different ways.  Jairus flings himself down at Jesus’ feet, begging him to come and heal his daughter.  This is done in front of a large crowd, presumably many of them locals who would know the president of their local synagogue, and so is a very public act.  By contrast, the woman did not dare to approach Jesus, she secretly touched his outer garment.  When he realised this had happened and asked who had done it, it was some time before the woman admitted she was responsible and told him the whole truth.  She presumably had hoped that her action would remain secret, concealed by the jostling of the crowd.  There was a good reason for this, as we are about to see.

Both were taking a risk in seeking Jesus’ help.  Jairus was a leader of the local synagogue, a man of standing in the community.  Mark has already told us of conflict between Jesus and the Jewish religious establishment in Galilee and it is likely that this news had circulated to the synagogue leaders in the area: “Beware of a dangerous heretic preacher who is openly breaking the Law”.  Jairus surely risked his position and his good name in the area by begging this person for help, even worse by prostrating himself at Jesus’ feet. 

The woman, on the other hand, potentially risked anger, even violence.  This is because her bleeding made her unclean under Jewish law, and anything or anybody she touched also automatically became unclean.  Leviticus chapter 15 deals with physical unclean discharges; the first part with males, the second with women and menstruation.  For seven days the woman is unclean, and anyone who touches her is unclean until evening. Anything she sits or lies on during her period is unclean, and anyone touching it has to wash his clothes, bathe and remain unclean until evening.  The chapter goes on to say that, if the bleeding continues beyond the period of menstruation, these rules continue to apply until the end of eight days after the bleeding finally stops.  The woman would know that this meant she was forbidden to mix with people in circumstances where they could come into contact with her – including this large crowd. And she knew that by touching even the edge of Jesus’ outer garment would make him unclean for the rest of the day.  No wonder she was terrified of confessing what she had done – she would have expected Jesus, and also men in the crowd who had contact with her, to be angry with her because she had knowingly contaminated them.

Touch is another thing where there are similarities and differences between the two stories.  In the “bread” of the sandwich, the touching is done by Jesus.  He takes the girl’s hand and tells her to get up.  In the “filling”, the touching is done by the woman.  However, in both cases, the touching seems to be essential to the healing.  The woman’s faith that Jesus could heal her was dependent on touching him, even though she knew that by doing so she made him unclean under the Law of Moses.  Jairus asks Jesus to come and ‘lay hands on’ his daughter.  When Jesus arrives at the house, he touches the girl even though he is being told she is dead – touching a dead body also resulted in uncleanness under Mosaic law.

Perhaps the main similarity between the stories is that they both involve females.  Jairus’ daughter was at the edge between childhood and the adult world – a Jewish girl could be betrothed after the age of 12.  We do not know the age of the woman, but the length of time she had suffered and that she had the means to consult many doctors would indicate she was of mature years.  There was, however, a big difference between these two women.  Jairus’ daughter was clearly much loved and cherished.  The older woman, on the other hand, must have lived a lonely and isolated life during the twelve years of her disease; an outcast from society because she was unclean and would make anyone in close contact with her unclean.

The significance of the fact that both healings are of women becomes clearer when we look at the status and treatment of women in that society.  Jewish male writers of the period state that women are inferior under the Law of Moses and therefore should be submissive, their only legitimate roles being wives and mothers.  They are also portrayed as weak, easily led astray (the old ‘curse of Eve’, blaming a woman for the Fall) and leading men astray (the Fall again).  Later Jewish practice, which could go back as far as the first century, had a Jewish man pray three benedictions each day; in one of them he thanked God that he was not born a woman.  The Greek and Roman society of the time was also misogynistic. 

We need to keep this background in mind when we look at Jesus’ interaction with women throughout the Gospels, including these two stories.  Contrary to the patriarchal and  misogynistic attitude of society, we see that he treated women as people with equal worth to men in the eyes of God.  After the healing he addresses the older woman as ‘daughter’ and the younger one as ‘my child’.  He did not condemn the woman for making him ritually unclean by her act; instead, he commended her for her faith. 

I find it particularly touching that, after the girl comes to life and gets up, he tells her parents to give her something to eat – a practical and caring gesture and one which seems good proof that this story came originally from an eye witness.  There is a great deal of scholarly debate about who wrote this Gospel and the sources of the stories; one school thinks Mark was close to Peter.  We are told that Peter was present, so this information could have come from him.  I also like to think that Jairus became a Christian and that he could have told this story – I think a parent is more likely to remember being told to feed the child, who presumably had not eaten whilst so ill.

There is one more similarity, which may not have struck you but very probably jumped out for the original audience for this Gospel – the number twelve.  Jairus’ daughter is aged twelve, the woman has suffered for twelve years.  Mark’s Gospel is so carefully structured, but also concise, that I do not think the presence of this number in both the ‘bread’ and the ‘filling’ of this Markan sandwich is a coincidence. 

The number twelve appears many times in the Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments.  This starts with the twelve tribes of Israel, coming from the twelve sons of Jacob.  The number of the tribes results in many related items of twelve, representing the tribes.  For example, twelve spies were sent by Moses to explore Canaan, the promised land.  After the people led by Joshua crossed the Jordan on dry ground, he erected twelve stones at the place in the river bed where the priests carrying the Ark had stood while the people crossed. When Elijah challenged the priests of Baal, he built an altar of twelve stones for the sacrifice which was burned by fire from God.  The ephod, breastplate of the High Priest, was studded with twelve different precious stones.

Twelve continues to be of significance in the New Testament.  Jesus chose twelve apostles and, after the Resurrection, the remaining eleven felt it necessary to replace Judas.  The Book of Revelation has many examples of the number twelve in its description of the Holy City, denoting its perfection and divinity. The city has twelve gates guarded by twelve angels, with the names of the twelve tribes and twelve apostles inscribed on them. It is built on twelve foundations and measures 12,000 stadia (one stadium was about 200 yards) in length, breadth, and height. The Tree of Life in the city yields twelve kinds of fruits.

These uses of twelve in the Bible indicate that it is a number symbolizing completeness and divine authority.  It can also be seen as a sign of perfection, and hence as an indication of God’s kingdom.  I think Mark is signalling by the use of twelve in these two stories that they show the presence of the kingdom of God in these healing miracles.  They also show something about that kingdom; a much-loved girl and a lonely, isolated woman both equally receive God’s healing love.

What can we learn from eating this Markan “sandwich”?   The most important lesson is that the kingdom of God is among us, even though this is very hard to see among the misery, suffering and horrors in the world that we learn of every day.  It is there wherever the poor are fed, the naked clothed, the homeless housed, the sick cured, the grieving comforted.  It is there whenever one human being reaches out to another who is in pain, lonely or hungry. 

We are the agents of this kingdom.  To quote Teresa of Avila; “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”

So, let us remember in this coming week as we spend time with our family and friends, give a neighbour a helping hand, chat to a stranger at the bus stop, buy a copy of the ‘Big Issue’, donate to a charity, that we are the body of Christ – the only body he now has on earth.  We will soon pray ‘Your kingdom come’; then we must go out and act to do Christ’s work in making that kingdom a reality, in this place and at this time.  This is the theme of today’s Collect, which I will repeat:

Almighty and everlasting God,

by whose Spirit the whole body of the Church

is governed and sanctified:

hear our prayer which we offer for all your faithful people,

that in their vocation and ministry

they may serve you in holiness and truth

to the glory of your name;

through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ,

who is alive and reigns with you,

in the unity of the Holy Spirit,

one God, now and for ever.