If you are old enough to remember The Two Ronnies, the BBC light entertainment programme (1971-1987), you may recall how Ronnie Corbett, the smaller one, had a spot in the show where he sat in a Mastermind-like chair to tell a funny story, only to keep deviating several time to tell other stories along the way before, finally, finishing the original tale.
St Mark uses a similar technique sometimes in his Gospel, as in today’s text, where he starts one story but before finishing it tells another before, finally, finishing the first one. It’s a literary technique he uses to heighten the hearers’ suspense as well as to alert them to how one story informs the other.
The first story today deals with the sick daughter of a high-ranking synagogue official. He asks Jesus to lay his hands on her “to make her better and save her life”. Then Mark breaks away from this with a story about a woman who has been suffering irregular menstrual bleeding for as long as the child is old. Not only is she broke from the cost of ineffective treatments, she lives in a culture where her condition – as prescribed in the Book of Leviticus – renders her ritually “unclean” and thus unable to take part in any communal activities (cf Leviticus 15). Her condition makes her a social leper. But she believes that if she can even just touch Jesus’ clothing she will be healed. When she is, Jesus points out that her healing was not from the physical contact with his clothing but from the faith with which she approached him. The first story then concludes with Jesus touching the little girl, taking her by the hand and restoring her to health.
So what are the links St Mark wants us to see between the two events?
Both healing stories involve women who are central characters. They both have physical ailments. The number 12 links the two events – the mature woman suffered for 12 years and the child is 12 years old. Both are freed to become bearers of life: the woman can now have children and the girl, at the appropriate age, can get married and have children. The girl is healed because of the faith of her parents (the child does not speak) while the woman is healed by her own faith, thus highlighting faith in Jesus as the reason for both women being saved. And both are healed by touch – Jesus lays his hands on the child while the woman touches him.
It’s worth noting here that because the older woman’s complaint was gynaecological, not only was she deemed ‘unclean’ but anyone who touched her or came into contact with her would automatically be deemed to be ritually unclean’ or ‘impure’ as well. And the same Jewish Law also forbade a person to touch a dead body, as Jesus touched the girl. In both healings, Jesus defied the Law, making him ritually unclean, in order to save two people. It’s another powerful instance in the Gospels of how Jesus puts the needs of suffering people before custom or law. Might this be a challenge for us to do the same?
Both healings challenge us to recognise, as in the story last Sunday of the disciples caught up in a violent storm, that Jesus has the authority of God over nature, evil spirits, sickness and even death itself. There is no force or power greater than his. Can we believe this?
With both stories featuring healings by touch, we are reminded of just how important touch is in our lives also. Neonatologists tell us that if a new born child does not experience loving human touch frequently, the baby’s health will begin to suffer, and that the complete deprivation of touch can be fatal for an infant.
And think of how not be able to touch someone in the last 15 months – only guidelines now, we hear – caused much suffering to many. Grandparents missed touching or hugging their grandchildren; family members could not visit or embrace grandparents in care homes; and friends in distress could not be given a loving hug to comfort them.
‘Touch’ in all its positive forms is a crucial part of our being human. In today’s Gospel stories we have two instances where the need to touch was an important facet of Jesus’ healing ministry. We experience the healing touch of God by means of our faith in Jesus, as it was for the child and the woman. His words to the synagogue official ‘Do not be afraid; only have faith’ are meant to touch us as well—and to enable us to reach out and touch others in a healing way.
Holy Name, Jesmond
27 June 2021