Sometimes when we see something disgusting we say, “Yuck!” Parents may tell their children, “Don’t touch it!” There are some yucky things in the world that we try to avoid. For reasons we don’t fully understand, the ancient Hebrews felt the same about certain things. Some animals, foods, diseases, body fluids, and dead things made the people say, “Yuck! Don’t touch them!” Such things were “unclean” or “impure”. If you touched them you became unclean. If you had one of the diseases, you were unclean, and then anything or anyone that you touched became unclean. Being unclean was the opposite of being holy. Being unclean meant that you couldn’t come to the temple to worship God. Anything unclean was unfit or unworthy to be in the presence of God. If you were unclean, you had to go through a rite of purification or cleansing in order to be welcomed back into society and into the presence of God.
The use of the word “unclean” can be misleading. It doesn’t mean “dirty” like children get when they play or if we do physical labor, but more like something we try to avoid. Being unclean refers to the relationship between people or things and God. It is like when someone tells another person, “Don’t touch me!” There is something about the relationship that is estranged. Unclean things and people were estranged from God and from each other. They weren’t supposed to touch each other.
In some ways that ancient view of unclean things is like our saying, “One bad apple spoils the whole bunch.” Contact with one of those unclean things made you an unclean person. There is some truth to this. If we come into contact with someone who has a contagious disease, unless we are protected, we are likely to end up with the same sickness. If we hang around with the wrong group of people, they may have a bad influence on us. There are some good reasons to stay away from certain people and things.
Jesus mixes everything up. Jesus doesn’t become unclean by contact with the unclean people. They don’t bring him down to their level. Jesus’ holiness transforms their uncleanness. The bleeding is stopped and the woman is healed. The corpse comes back to life and the young girl gets out of bed. With people in situations where others said, “Stay away” to, Jesus never says “stay away!” Instead, he offers his healing touch. Jesus’ holiness transforms the people’s uncleanness. Jesus raises them up to his level and makes them worthy to be in the presence of God. Jesus, as the one good, holy apple, can make all the bad apples become good.
Sometimes our lives may seem full of “yucks.” We may even think that we are terrible, rotten, yucky people. Jesus doesn’t think so. To him, there are no yucky people. With Jesus, there is something about touching or being touched that makes us clean and holy and beautiful. In our gospel story, Mark mentions touching seven times. The crowd “pressed” around Jesus. The woman believed his touch would heal and so she touched his garment. Jesus asked twice who had touched him. Finally, after the father asked Jesus to lay hands on her, Jesus took the little girl by the hand and raised her.
Commentator Sister Mary McGlone describes today’s gospel story as a “miracle archway.” The two pillars are the father’s request and the healing of his little daughter. The pinnacle is the healing of the woman. In the space between the pillars and under the pinnacle is meaningless touch. The kind that happens when a large group becomes a crowd and tries to move. Their attention is fixed on one thing and whoever they bump into is of no consequence. That is how the disciples saw their walk with Jesus – they were on the way with him to the official’s house and they wanted to stay close to Jesus and see what would happen. The jostling of the crowd had no consequence, so much that they did not even notice the woman who had suffered for 12 years, the entire lifetime of the sick little girl they were on the way to see.
The woman has clearly heard about Jesus, and that sparked some hope in her after years of discouragement. She had such faith that she believed that if she just touched his cloak his healing power would save her. And she was right, just coming into contact with his garment healed her illness. But for Jesus that was not enough. He wasn’t some sort of anonymous miracle worker, he wanted to have a personal relationship with people. When he felt the healing power flow out from him, he wanted to know who it was that had touched him. The woman, who had broken social taboos by touching someone when she was unclean, summoned up the courage and came forward.
For that moment they entered into a personal relationship, made especially powerful by the fact that Jesus calls her “daughter.” This is extraordinary because it is the only time in Mark’s Gospel that Jesus calls anyone “daughter.” He has called others mother, sister, brother. He addressed a paralytic as “child.” But never before or after does he address someone as his daughter or son. Was it her extraordinary hope and faith, perhaps her audacity, that enabled her to receive healing directly from him in such an unprecedented way? Jesus returns her courage and faith by calling her daughter, affirming that she has received life from him.
Jairus, the official of the synagogue also demonstrates an extraordinary measure of hope and faith. We can understand the fear and despair of a father who has a child who is critically ill, perhaps dying. As we know from our previous gospel readings, the Pharisees and Sadducees were set against Jesus, always trying to set traps so they could falsely accuse him of breaking the laws. Yet this official of the synagogue defies the religious authorities and makes a direct plea to Jesus to save his daughter.
This gospel story calls us to trust in the grace and power of God. Grace is everywhere, even where we least expect it. God is Emmanuel, which means God with us. God is with us, for us, and among us. And God is especially present to those who are suffering in any way. Because of that, there are new miracles taking place everyday all around us. Miracles of conversion and repentance and new beginnings. Miracles of hope, of courage and of faith.
Jesus has the same message for any of us for whom hope is dead, for anyone who has given up on the possibility of a new beginning. The people in our gospel were mourning the death of a child, but Jesus said to them, “The child is not dead, but asleep.” And then he told her, “Little girl, arise!” He tells us the same thing – arise! Arise from our despair, from our hatred, from our blindness to the truth, from our prejudices and from our fears. Because God’s grace can win over hate. We see it time and time again. Today we are encouraged to put our trust in God’s healing touch and to be alert to share that healing touch by welcoming, listening, healing and forgiving. Amen