Only Believe

July 1, 2018/Mark 5:21-43


The only thing they had in common, other than their gender, was the passage of twelve years of living.  For the one, twelve years of life drawing to a close as illness pulled the shades on her hope for a future.  For the other, unnamed but clearly alone and poor and isolated, twelve years marking the length of her illness.  Nowadays, we wouldn’t make so much of what had bothered her, but that was a different time, with a different understanding of what it meant to be a woman with all of the intricacies of a female body.

She had suffered from hemorrhages, Mark tells us.  She had been bleeding, shedding the blood that denied her the ability to be whole, to nurture life, to live fully as a wife and mother, for twelve long years.  The Mishnah had an entire section devoted to the precautions a woman must take in regard to irregular bleeding.  The community had to be insulated from such a woman “as a matter of life and death.”[1]  For twelve years she had lived in isolation and hopelessness.

An adult woman; a young girl.  Both sick, facing a death of one sort or another.  One of no means; the other, growing up privileged and wealthy.

The girl’s privilege was because of her father’s position as a leader in the synagogue.  Jairus had no pride as he pushed his way through the crowd and fell on the ground at Jesus’ feet.  Pride wouldn’t make any difference now, he knew.  His daughter was dying, dying.  So he threw himself at Jesus, begging Jesus to lay his hands on his little daughter so that she would live.

Jesus went with him, but that’s when this other woman managed to push her way through the crowds, to get close enough to Jesus to reach a hand out and touch just the tip of a finger to his cloak.  She was not so bold as to ask Jesus to touch her – she did not dare to suggest that he defile himself by touching her.  Instead, she touched him.  “… being in a flow of blood for twelve years, and having endured many treatments from many doctors, and having spent all of her money on them and not having benefited at all but rather having gotten worse, [she] touched his garment.”[2]

And it worked!  Immediately, she could feel her body become whole.  The bleeding stopped, the constant discomfort left her – she was healed of her disease.  Her life, which had been a living death, was restored.[3]

But somehow, even in that press of people, with the crowds pushing and shoving to get closer, jostling each other and Jesus, somehow he knew.  He knew that she had touched him!  And he stopped.

I wonder if the crowds began pushing harder when Jesus paused, looking for the hand that had reached out to him.  I wonder if Jairus grasped Jesus’ arm, tugging him along, trying to rush him to his daughter’s side.  After all, this unimportant woman had lived with her problem for twelve years; what difference would another day make for her?  But Jairus’ daughter is dying, and the delay means it is too late.  Too late for healing, too late for hope, too late for life.

Forget it, Jairus, his friends tell him.  Your daughter is dead.  Forget it.  No need for the teacher to come now.

Untroubled by the girl’s death, Jesus tells Jairus, “Do not fear, only believe.”  Believe?

The question is what is a man to believe when his whole life has blown up in his face?  Believe that somehow life makes sense even in the face of a twelve-year-old’s death?  Believe that in some unimaginable way all will be well no matter what?  Believe in God?  Believe in Jesus?  Jairus doesn’t ask what he is to believe or how he is to believe and Jesus doesn’t tell him as they stand there in the road.  “Only believe” is all he says, meaning maybe only “Believe there’s nothing you have to be afraid of.”[4]

This time, Jesus reaches out a hand to touch someone who is “unclean.”  Just “as Jesus wasn’t defiled by the touch of the unclean woman, so he is not defiled by touching the little girl’s corpse.  Their touch does not communicate defilement; his touch communicates holiness and restoration to life.”[5]

“Daughter, your faith has made you well,” Jesus tells the woman.  “Do not fear; only believe,” he tells Jairus.

It’s that simple?  Have some faith, believe, and suddenly a chronic illness disappears, a dead girl walks around and begins to eat a pizza?

We all know that some people are healed and some are not.  Jairus’ “daughter was raised, but other children die.  A desperate woman plagued by years of illness was restored, but equally desperate men and women are not. … Pray as [we] may, [we all] know that all prayers are not answered as we pray them.”[6]

The story that Mark captures in these verses is not so much about a little girl and a middle-aged woman as it is about a father and a woman.  Strangers to each other, their paths intersect that day as Jesus makes his way through crowds of people along the Galilean shore.  Jairus knows only that his little daughter is dying; he trusts that Jesus might be able to save her.  The woman knows only that she has tried everything else; she hopes that Jesus might be able to heal her.  Both come to Jesus as a last ditch effort to restore them to fullness of life.  Jairus’ life will not be complete if his little daughter dies.  The woman’s life will not be complete as long as this illness prevents her from marrying, from bearing children herself, from living into her full potential.

Jairus reaches Jesus first, throws himself at Jesus’ feet, and begs him.  “My daughter is dying.  Come lay your hands on her.  Make her well.”  The woman reaches Jesus as he passes by, touching a finger to his garment, trusting she will be made well.  And what does Jairus say?  Does he push Jesus along, telling him to catch up with the mystery woman later?  Does he argue that there is no time for delay, that Jesus must come now, that every moment that passes brings his daughter closer to death?

According to Mark, Jairus says … nothing.  Jairus, who threw himself at Jesus’ feet, who begged him, repeatedly, says … nothing.  Even when he learns that his precious daughter has died, he says nothing.  But Jesus speaks – “Do not fear; only believe.”

Later, after taking the girl’s hand and raising her from her bed, after instructing them to give her something to eat, Jesus would leave that place and go into his hometown.  While there, Mark tells us, the people who had watched him grow into a man would scoff at his teaching.  “And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.  And he was amazed at their unbelief” (Mark 6:5-6).

Do not fear; only believe.  “To ask something of God is to edge into deeper relationship with God.”[7]  To pray is to trust in a holy healing that we cannot envision, that we may not even particularly want.  A holy healing that feeds our bodies and our souls with bread of heaven and cup of salvation.  Do not fear; only believe.  That God is ever present.  That God is ever loving.  That God reaches a hand out to touch us.

[1] M. Eugene Boring, The New Testament Library: Mark, 159

[2] Joel Marcus, Anchor Bible: Mark 1-8, 367

[3] Boring, 160

[4] Frederick Buechner, “Jairus’ Daughter,” Secrets in the Dark

[5] Boring, 162

[6] Michael L. Lindvall, Feasting on the Word B/3, 188, 190

[7] Ibid., 190

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