Reflection: Gender Equality in Jesus’ healings

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
27th of June, 2021

2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27
Mark 5:21-43

This week, in the latest episode of the soap opera that is the life of King David, we have the beautiful lament that David sings over Saul and Jonathan. This includes the lines: ‘Jonathan lies slain upon your high places. I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women’ which, while it might not say anything positive about relationships between women and men in Ancient Israel, says a lot about the nature of biblical friendship. I would love to reflect on David and Jonathan today, but I am going to leave that Reflection in my back pocket for a week without interesting lectionary readings, and this morning I am instead going to focus on the gospel reading.

This liturgical year, as we make our way through the Gospel According to Mark, we are prompted to ask two questions. The first question, raised by the stories told of Jesus from the time he enters Galilee proclaiming the good news of God, until he travels with his disciples to Caesarea Philippi, is: ‘Who is this man Jesus?’ The answer, eventually articulated by Peter, is that Jesus is the Messiah. This leads to the second question: ‘What sort of Messiah is Jesus?’ To that the answer is ‘one who must suffer and die’.

The stories we hear today, of the healings of Jairus’ daughter and the haemorrhaging woman, prompt that first question. Who is this person who can heal the sick and raise the dead? The answer is, of course, the Messiah, the king, the one with authority over life. But the healings not only suggest that Jesus is the Messiah; they also begin to answer that second questions about what sort of Messiah Jesus is.

Mark frequently shows us the Messiah as not just a healer, but as an equal opportunity healer. Women as well as men, children as well as adults, and Gentiles as well as Jews are healed. Today’s gospel story of two healings shows this equality in action. Jairus, a leader of the synagogue, falls at Jesus’ feet and repeatedly begs him to come and lay his hands on Jairus’ daughter, who is dying. Jesus goes with Jairus, but on the way a woman who has been suffering from uncontrolled bleeding for twelve years touches Jesus’ cloak and is instantly healed. Jesus, aware that power has left him, asks who touched him. In fear, the woman comes forward and tells him the story. Jesus tells her to go in peace; her faith has made her well. While he’s speaking, people come to Jairus to tell him that his daughter has died. But Jesus continues to the house and tells the mourners that the girl is not dead, only asleep. He then takes her by the hand and tells her to rise, and she obeys. And Jesus then orders her parents not to talk about this, and to give her something to eat.

These two stories are an example of what biblical scholars, with their very academic vocabulary, call a Markan sandwich. The stories that are sandwiched together share key words: the twelve years of the woman’s bleeding and of the girl’s life; the daughter of Jairus and the woman addressed as ‘Daughter’ by Jesus; the faith of the woman that made her well and the demand of Jairus by Jesus that he believe; and the fact that both healings occur instantly. All this shared language is to indicate that it is no mere accident of timing that has the healing of the haemorrhaging woman interrupt the story of the healing of Jairus’ daughter. Mark has placed the two stories together so that they can illuminate each other.

The first person to be healed in this story is a nameless woman. She has been bleeding for twelve years so she may have considered herself and been considered by others to have been ritually impure for all those years, with no one able to touch her. She may once have been rich, but Mark tells us that she has spent all she had on useless doctors. She feels unable to approach Jesus directly, but instead tries to secretly touch his cloak. When she is discovered, she is afraid. In the society in which this woman lives, she is an outcast – unclean, poor, vulnerable.

Drawing of Jesus standing, surrounded by people gazing at him, while one woman bends down to touch the hem of his robe.

‘The Healing of the Woman with an Issue of Blood’ by William Blake (1757-1827)

The second person to be healed is the daughter of Jairus. Unlike the woman, Jairus has a recognised role in the community. He approaches Jesus openly, although humbly, kneeling and begging Jesus for help. The ‘commotion of people’ mourning outside his house may have included professional mourners, and if so that would indicate that Jairus is well off. The woman and Jairus are united in their faith in Jesus, but they’re divided by their gender and class. Jairus is an important man. The unnamed woman is a marginalised woman.

The story begins with Jairus’ request. If Jesus were sensible, he would hurry to Jairus’ house and cure his daughter, a child of privilege. And indeed, Jesus does set off with Jairus. But he is then sidetracked by the need of a low-status woman. Jesus not only cures her of her bleeding, he welcomes her into his family. Jesus gives priority to the marginalised woman over the privileged man. This story shows us Jesus as a Messiah who welcomes the marginalised into his family as loved daughters.

Biblical scholars routinely contrast the unnamed woman with Jairus, but the story is actually about two women who need healing. You may have noticed my tendency to talk about the way that Jesus treated women, the way he welcomed them as equals in a patriarchal society. That is not just because gender equality is a personal obsession of mine; it is because this equality is a characteristic of the new community that Jesus created, the body of Christ. Last week I said that in a 1990 report the Uniting Church said that we believe that ‘the practice of the Uniting Church in Australia in ordaining both women and men to the ministry of the Word is fully in accordance with the gospel of Jesus Christ,’[1] and it is because of stories like today’s that the Church can make that argument.

Jairus’ daughter has a family and some status as the daughter of her father, but like the woman bleeding she is nameless. And, again like the haemorrhaging woman, she may be considered impure. Jesus may be defiling himself by touching her dead body. The haemorrhaging woman has been unable to bear children for twelve years; the twelve-year girl has never borne a child and, if dead, will never be able to. The two women are connected in their need of Jesus and in their marginal status, and Jesus crosses the boundaries between men and women and the pure and impure to touch them and heal them.

Jesus allows the woman to touch him; he welcomes her touch as an indication of her faith. Her touch does not make Jesus unclean; rather Jesus’ power makes her well. She is rewarded with health that will continue throughout her life, an invitation to peace and wellbeing that goes beyond physical health, and a place in the family of Jesus as a daughter. Jesus’ breaking of boundaries gives an isolated and nameless woman a place in the community. The twelve-year-old girl is also restored to full life. It may be that by quoting Jesus’ words in Aramaic, ‘Talitha cum’, Mark indicates the affection implicit in Jesus’ healing of her. This girl is already a daughter, a daughter of the parents who love her and of Israel, and Jesus’ healing enables her to reclaim this status.

Today the Gospel according to Mark tells us the story of two daughters, brought into full life by a man who is not afraid to cross boundaries. The community that Christ creates, the church to which we all belong through baptism, is a place of welcome and healing in which men and women and rich and poor are equals and in which no one is unclean. It is a community in which those who are most deserving of attention, those who most need to be welcomed, are often those who are least visible, those who are most isolated. We, with all our own flaws and failings, have been welcomed into the church as the beloved daughters and sons of God. So, imitating Jesus, we are called to welcome others, particularly the marginalised and vulnerable. That is what makes the church the church – the way we welcome all of God’s children. May God help us to keep our hearts and our doors open. Amen.

[1] Why Does the Uniting Church in Australia Ordain Women to the Ministry of the Word?

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