2 Cor 8:7-end, Mark 5:21-end
Preached at Christ Church cathedral, Oxford, 2009
Mark’s Jesus strides out of the wilderness into ministry saturated with holiness and pulsing with power. Holiness is out-of-bounds power, a total cleanser on a mission to ‘wash the dirt’–that is to say, any and every kind of dysfunction–‘right down the drain.’ Given who we are, what we are, and where we are, we human beings need to traffic with out-of-bounds power to flourish in life. Mark’s Gospel warns, like it or not, out-of-bounds power is the environment in which we live and move and have our being. And so the evangelist tells stories to give us a clue as to what we might expect from it, to drop hints as to how we might go about getting the Good out of it.
Consistently and repeatedly, Mark’s episodes drive home the obvious point that out-of-bounds power so outclasses creatures that it is impossible for them to control it. Disease-and-madness producing demons recognize its approach as their eviction notice: ‘We know who You are, Jesus of Nazareth. You are the Holy One of God!’ They may try plea-bargaining. Like the Gerasene demoniac’s Legion, they may be reduced to begging: ‘Don’t make us homeless! Give us sheltered housing! We’ll vacate the humans if You let us possess these pigs!’ Out-of-bounds power concedes only to outwit: the pigs stampede off the cliff into the end-time abyss, into the mouth of hell, right back home where demons belong!
More strikingly, Mark represents out-of-bounds power as something that Jesus Himself is unable to control, at least in His human nature. In today’s story, the bleeding woman believes, and is right to believe, that she can ‘catch’ it by contact. Jesus perceives power flowing out of Him, but–like static electricity–the transfer is triggered without His prior knowledge or consent.
Second, relative to human standards of propriety, out-of-bounds power is rude. It can almost be counted upon to misfit human priorities and sense of timing. In today’s story, Jairus wants Jesus to come and prevent the worst from happening: ‘heal my little daughter before she dies’. ‘Ain’t no hurry!’ In the bible, out-of-bounds power regularly fails to respond to our human sense of urgency. Even merely created powers can sometimes prevent disasters (e.g., cautious driving averts the traffic accident that causes paraplegia) that they would be unable to turn around. Occasionally, out-of-bounds power does come through with ‘nick of time’ rescues and ‘skin of the teeth’ escapes. Remember the Exodus: how Israeli’s were pressed up against the sea and Pharaoh’s horses and chariots were advancing from behind, almost breathing down Israeli necks before God parts the waters to allow Israel to pass over and then floods the path when the Egyptians follow in pursuit.
More often than not out-of-bounds power forgoes prevention in favor of reversal. In today’s story, Jesus interrupts his walk to Jairus’ house to have a conversation with the bleeding woman who touched Him. During the delay, Jairus’ daughter dies with the result that Jesus arrives after it is already too late. This is a rehearsal for the passion narrative at Gospel’s end, when Jesus is not ‘escaped’ from the cross by hosts of descending angels; out-of-bounds power does not excuse Him from drinking His cup of wormwood and gall. From the perspective of out-of-bounds power, why bother to prevent what it can more than make good on? Why rush in to keep someone from dying, when–after a few minutes, the proverbial three days, or the closing age–out-of-bounds power can so easily–‘speak the Word only’–make us rise? (Of course, from our side, there could be an answer to that question!)
Out-of-bounds power is unique and has its own etiquette. Because out-of-bounds power is out-of-bounds, it cannot be counted upon to meet, but it is sure to exceed our expectations. Jairus believes that Jesus can keep his daughter from dying. But what Jesus actually does is raise her from the dead. The bleeding woman is confident of a cure for her bodily ailment. But Jesus is not content to barge through crowds letting His out-of-bounds power scatter effects where it may. With Jesus, out-of-bounds power is in service of a personal transaction. Jesus demands to know, ‘who touched me?’, not to scold but to extend a Kingdom-welcome: ‘daughter, your faith has saved you!’ Hemorrhaging shows that she is not self-contained, make her ritually unclean because she symbolizes a leaky society in danger of losing vitality and definition. Levitical rules have ostracized her from polite society, classified her as ‘untouchable’ for twelve years. Jesus is determined to make explicit what her bodily cure symbolizes: she is God’s own daughter, a legitimate heir to covenant promises. Like passport control to returning travellers, Jesus proclaims, ‘Welcome home! Welcome to the Reign of God!’
Out-of-bounds power is humanly uncontrollable. But Mark shows how, because out-of-bounds power is personal, it can be approached in more and less promising ways. The stories immediately before and after today’s reading illustrate bad strategies. When Jesus crosses the lake to Gentile territory, exorcizes Legion demons from the raging madman, and rehouses them in a herd of pigs, the locals request–politely but firmly–that Jesus get out of town. Jesus is an alien saturated with alien power. He has already upset the applecart. Who knows what He will do next? High time for Him to take His out-of-bounds power and go back where He belongs.
When Jesus does go home, acquaintances and neighbors react with jealous resentment. Jesus is a local boy, but out-of-bounds power now makes Him out of the ordinary, and so ‘alienates’ Him from His roots. Locals move to cut Jesus back down to size. But this means pretending His out-of-bounds power isn’t really there and and so deprives them of its benefits.
By contrast, Jairus and the bleeding woman come to Jesus because they believe that Jesus has wonder-working power, and because they hope that they will be able to connect with its wholesome effects. Their contrasting strategies reflect their different social positions. Jairus is a well-respected ruler of the synagogue, who reasonably believes that he can win access to Jesus’ out-of-bounds power through personal networking. Unlike most religious establishment characters in the Gospels, his faith is genuine and his request humble, because he thinks Jesus’ out-of-bounds power puts Jesus higher on the spiritual totem pole than ordinary-but-faithful, faithful-but-ordinary synagogue rulers. Jesus responds to Jairus’ straight-forward sincerity, but challenges him to believe even more. By contrast, the bleeding woman is wily. She has no social connections that could win her an audience, but she is confident that she can steal a cure by touching him in the hustle-bustle crowd. Jesus surprizes her with the news that healing was hers for the asking, that wholesome social networks are to be grounded in Him.
Today’s morals from Mark’s stories are many: first, that out-of-bounds power is for life, but it will not prevent our deaths because resurrection is in our future. Out-of-bounds power is alien to our nature, but not alienating because it is personally possessed by a member of the human family. Because out-of-bounds power is personal and for us, it strikes a balance between the stability our sanity requires and extravagant interruptions that do better for us than we can ask or imagine. That’s why we should approach with confidence, whether with humble petition or wily indirection; that’s why we should accept Jesus’ invitation to become the media of its manifestation, modern witnesses to out-of-bounds power making itself at home with human beings.