The Spirit of the Law Said…
The Gospel lesson in Mark 5: 21-43 takes the form of what we call an inclusio. We start off with one story and suddenly there is another story stuck right in the middle. One story is about a man with power and influence and status. The other about a woman with no power, who had struggled to live for 12 years. Both are people who have nothing to lose. They are desperate and because of that they feel they must risk it all.
By the end of both of their stories Jesus has become even more of a person who is pushing the boundaries of what faith should look like. He has broken even more of the rules of the Torah. In this case, the rules that deal with being clean or unclean.
In the Torah, there are very specific rules about being ritually clean. Only someone – a man- who was ritually clean could come to the synagogue, read from the Torah and teach.
In Jewish towns, there were huge stone bathing tubs called mikvahs where the people would come for ritual bathing to become ritually clean. They were separate for men and women. Men went before festivals and before they went to the synagogue. Women went after their time of seclusion for their menstrual period was done to become clean to do the work they had to do in the community. They also went here after they had done the work of preparing a body for burial. This was a woman’s job.
After the storm on the lake Jesus is now back on the Jewish side where he is immediately surrounded by the crowd. The leader of the synagogue comes and throws himself down at Jesus feet, begging for his help. Right now. No waiting. This is a man with status in the community, he is respected for his learning and his own teaching. But he throws himself at Jesus feet, begging, because he has no other hope. Nothing else can be done? Sure, he’s abasing himself before an itinerant rabbi with only a bunch of fishermen and unlikely characters as followers, but what else does he have to lose?
Jesus agrees and they’re on the way to his house. As they travel with the crowd a woman who has suffered for 12 years slips into the press of people and touches Jesus clothing. Not him just, but his clothing. She is immediately healed and Jesus feels power going from him.
As a Jewish man, Jesus has every right to be upset with this woman who has come out of nowhere and without he knowledge or permission has touched him and received the benefit of his healing power. He could have had her stoned to death and in her condition, it would have been done without hesitation.
She was a woman alone, without a man to speak for her (which was culturally forbidden), unclean, according to the Torah – she should not have been out in the crowd as anyone who bumped against her was now unclean – and she touched a rabbi, thereby making him unclean.
But Jesus, when he hears her story, her desperation and despair, understands that she risked all of that simply to be free of this condition which had robbed her of her life for 12 years. He simply tells her, “Your faith has made you well. Go in peace and be healed.”
This couldn’t have taken more than a few seconds but suddenly there is a message from Jairus house – don’t bother, the girl is dead. Jesus keeps moving forward saying, “Just believe.” When he gets to the house he takes the child’s parents and his disciples inside, goes to the girl and reaches out takes her hand, and says, “Little girl, get up.”
She gets up and Jesus tells those with her to get her some food.
Notice something? After being touched by the woman with the hemorrhage, Jesus was ritually unclean. He should not have touched anyone. He should have gone and washed himself in the mikvah. But he doesn’t. There’s no time. Then when he was told that the little girl is dead, he doesn’t stop and say, “Let’s not bother then,” but he goes to the house and touches the girl’s hand. She is now dead, so he should not be touching a corpse, but he does anyway.
In this story, this inclusion, two people were brought back to life. The little girl was free from death. She was restored to life and to her place in the community. And so was the woman who dared to touch. She had lost everything, her health, any wealth she may have had, her place in her family and her community. Her life was gone, too. One touch, once chance taken and her life was restored. She was also free. She had a place, in her family in her community. She was no longer a beggar hiding in the shadows, keeping away from everyone. She was someone. Both now knew freedom.
Jesus could have turned away from both these situations because of what they would have meant for him. But he didn’t. He chose to go with Jairus and freely healed the woman who reached out.
To this point, Jesus hasn’t broken the rules all that much. The Temple officials don’t have him on their radar yet. But with actions like these, their interest will build. It seems as though Jesus is ignoring the Torah.
And then he tells the group with him not to speak of any of it. Up to now, Jesus has been mainly a teacher. He’s just beginning his ministry. He has preached many lessons and told many parables. He has healed a few people – a leper, a paralytic, a man with a withered hand, and just before this story, on the Decapolis side of the lake, he healed the Gerasene demoniac (drove the man’s demons into a herd of pigs who rushed over a cliff and were drowned). This last act, got a request from the people who lived there for him to leave them alone, please.
As we know, Jesus is just beginning the work that will ultimately lead to his death. Each healing, each miracle, each teaching will bring more and more attention, which will culminate with his arrest and crucifixion.
Jesus knows this. But he cannot let it stop him. God’s love and grace and mercy, God’s intent to do a new thing must be proclaimed in whatever way possible. If, as in this case, it’s about setting aside laws that caused people to lose their place and almost their humanity in terms of how others saw them, then he chose to show people a new way. God’s way. God’s love and mercy and grace, in response to faith born of desperation.
Jesus is still teaching this lesson today. He’s teaching us. He’s showing us that this new thing that God is doing is the actual fulfillment of the Law, the spirit of the Law not the letter of it. He is reminding us of what he said to the lawyer who asked what the greatest commandment was. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart strength and mind and you neighbor as yourself. On these two hang ALL the Law and the prophets.
This was the lesson he was teaching in these two healings. The words of the Law said no. The Spirit of the Law said yes.
This is the lesson we are called to learn and to practice. Our love for others – ALL others –must be as boundless, as extravagant, as unconditional as the love God has for each one of us.
And when we have truly learned this lesson, when our souls and hearts are filled with that type of love, we will each of us be as free as that little girl brought back from death, as free as that unnamed woman who suffered for so long. We will be free to live and love and serve, just as our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ called us to do.