June 28, 2009
( 2 Cor. 8, 7-15; Mark 5, 21-43)
Over the last two weeks I’ve been reading a book by Barack Obama, the President of the U.S. It’s called ‘Dreams from my Father’ and it’s a personal memoir of his early life until his marriage, and of the lives of his parents and grandparents.
Barack Obama has been hailed as the first black president of the U.S. – but that’s not strictly accurate. He was the child of a white American mother and a black Kenyan father. His father left them and went back to Kenya when Barack was very young, and he was brought up by his mother and her parents, and, for a while, his mother’s second husband who was Indonesian. Because Barack looked black, he didn’t entirely fit into the white society of his parents and grandparents; but because of how he was brought up, he didn’t fit into black society either. The book charts his quest to reconcile his divided inheritance, via the history of his liberal mother and grandparents, and his experience at school in Hawaii, through a relatively privileged life in Indonesia, and work as a community organiser in the run-down South Side black area of Chicago, and finally to his meeting with his father’s relatives and his Kenyan half-brothers and sisters in the families ancestral Luo homeland. That meeting, and his experience as a lawyer, finally brought him to a resolution of his internal conflict.
‘Dreams from my Father’ is about the search for individual wholeness and personal authenticity in a society from whose full benefits people were excluded because of race or colour or gender or poverty. It is about how those who are excluded can find wholeness of life without resorting to violence, or being poisoned by hatred for the dominant group. Obama came to believe that the law, for all its faults and failings, was a long-running conversation in which a nation argues with its conscience, asking itself questions about what constitutes its community, and how that community can be reconciled with freedom. He came ultimately to the faith that as long as those questions continue to be asked, then what binds people together might somehow ultimately prevail. That became the faith by which he lives, and which motivated his move into politics.
That long-running conversation between law and conscience, those questions about what constitutes community are discussion which the church also has – or should have; and today’s Gospel is a major contribution to those discussions.
On the face of it, this passage of Mark contains the interwoven stories of two of Jesus’ miracles. These two provide the climax to a section of miracles in chapters 4 & 5 of the Gospel; each miracle is more astounding than the previous one, concluding with the healing of an illness that was beyond the help of human medicine, and the raising of a dead child. Corresponding to the rise in the miraculous is a rise in faith of those who seek Jesus’ help – from the demoniac who has no faith, to the woman with a haemorrhage, who has faith in Jesus’ power, but dare not show it, and, finally, Jairus, who proclaims openly his faith that only Jesus can save his daughter from death.
But more importantly for us today, these stories are also about prejudice and exclusion. In the Jewish society of Jesus’ time, all adult women were in a state of ritual impurity for half of the month. The ritual laws of Leviticus ch.15, said they were unclean from the time their monthly period started until 7 days after it ended. During that time they themselves were unclean, everything and everyone they touched became unclean, and they were excluded from places of worship and from normal social life and interaction. This was justified by the religious authorities as a result of God’s curse on Eve for her part in the Fall – but it meant that a normal biological process, essential for the continuance of the race, was considered to be disgusting to God, and that women were permanently second-class citizens.
For the woman in Mark’s story, the situation was much worse. She bled constantly, so she was in a permanent state of ritual impurity, permanently isolated from family life and all community activity. That was why she crept secretly to touch Jesus’ clothes. When her action was discovered she expected Jesus to react with disgust – for by law he also had become polluted and would need to be isolated until he had completed ritual purification.
But Jesus called her ‘daughter’, including her within his family and community. He praised her faith, which he said had made her well and told her to “Go in peace’, healed of her disease, freed from the curse which had isolated her.
The small daughter of Jairus had just reached the stage of her life when this ‘curse’ of being a woman would begin to affect her. She was 12 years old, the age of puberty, the age at which she could be married. She was considered an adult, and because of this any respectable Jewish male should not have touched her, in case he became ritually unclean. By the time Jesus reached her house, she had died; dead bodies also polluted those who touched them ( which was why the women prepared bodies for burial). Jesus however, ignored this taboo also, took her hand and raised her up. He spoke to her in her own language. ‘Talitha cum’ means literally “Little lamb, rise up”. My Mum always called little children ‘Lambkin’, so thiese words to me are a powerful expression of gentleness and family concern. Christ’s concern did not end with her healing; he immediately asked those present to find her something to eat, making practical provision for her continuing health.
On the surface, these stories are about the healing of physical disease. But the language used means there is also an underlying theme, about salvation and resurrection. The Greek words used for “healing” and “made well” can also mean “saved”; the word Jesus used for “she is sleeping” was used by the early Christian community to speak of those who had died before the expected resurrection to eternal life; the command to the little girl to “Rise up” uses the word also used to speak of resurrection. And, perhaps, the command to give the little girl something to eat has echoes of the community meal of Christians, and is a command to include her in the Eucharist. Jesus is showing concern for the spiritual health of women and children as well as their physical health.
In his actions towards these women, Jesus overturned centuries of prejudice and exclusion, to declare women full and equal members of the community of the saved – just as by his actions he had included other unclean people – lepers, demoniacs, sinners and Gentiles. He greets them and accepts them with warmth and concern; he is not just going through the motions. It was a radical change in religious practice.
But, sadly, it did not take very long for the Christian community to forget his example and reverse his practice. From early on, women were made to sit separately from men during worship, and forbidden to take communion during their monthly period; and, of course, they were not allowed to take a significant role in worship by reading, or singing, or leading prayers. After the ‘pollution’ of childbirth they had to be ‘cleansed’ before being readmitted to church and society: the ceremony for “The Churching of Women” was still included in the Prayer Book in use when I was growing up, and in my mother’s and grandmother’s generation, no-one would associate with a woman after childbirth before she had been “churched”.
Jesus included; the Church excluded, preferring the laws of Leviticus to the example of her Lord. During the debates about the ordination of women, opponents still used the laws of Leviticus to argue that women priests would pollute the sanctuary and the sacrament if they presided at communion during certain times of the month, or when they were pregnant. There have been people over the last twenty-five years who would not hear me preach or receive communion from my hands because of my gender. The same irrational fear of normal biological processes lies behind the present objections to women bishops, though those who object may try to conceal it; but the fact that most of them will not allow themselves to be touched by hands that have ordained women show that the fear of being made unclean by secondary contact is far from past.
Jeffrey John, Dean of St Albans, in his book “The Meaning in the Miracles” remarks: “this healing shows Jesus throwing aside the irrational fears and inhibitions of his own culture, touching the supposedly untouchable, and welcoming her as God’s beloved child. The cruel, irrational taboo about menstruation, with all its dark, destructive implications for women down the centuries, was cancelled in one warm and loving word. Alas, it has taken the Church twenty centuries to notice”.
The forename of the President of the United States, Barack, means ‘blessed’ in both Arabic and Hebrew. The teaching of Jesus proclaims that those whom secular society despises – the poor, the humble, the sad, and those who are persecuted – are ‘blessed’. His actions proclaimed that those whom other religious leaders regarded as unclean and impure were full and equal members of the community of the saved, full members of God’s family.
It took twenty centuries for most of the Church to hear his words about women. It took eighteen centuries for the Western church to hear his words and apply them to people of colour and the natives of Africa, Asia, Australasia and America. It is perhaps only in this 21st century that the community Jesus proclaimed may become a reality in the civil societies of America and Europe: Barack Obama’s election is a sign of hope, but we still have some way to go.
But still the Church avoids the clear lead of Jesus in his words and actions, and returns to the taboos of Leviticus to refuse some Christians full participation in the life of the Christian community and positions of leadership. How long will it take before discrimination against Christians on the basis of their sexuality is seen to be as irrational as fear of pollution by menstruating women?
Jesus said to the woman who was healed simply by touching his cloak: “Your faith has made you whole, Your faith has brought you salvation.” In the Kingdom of Heaven, race, gender, colour, sexuality are all irrelevant. It is faith in Christ alone which makes us whole.