A Loving Touch

A Loving Touch

Thirteenth Sunday of the Year. Fr Fergus Kerr tells us that Christians should not be ashamed of material things, or of asking for them.

It’s the robust earthy physicality of Mark’s story that calls for reflection. Back on ‘the other side’, the west bank of the Sea of Galilee, Jesus has a big crowd, swarming round him, literally ‘gathered on top of him’. Jairus, a synagogue officer, ‘sees’ Jesus, ‘throws himself at his feet’, dramatically, ‘begs him over and over’ to come and ‘lay his hands on his little daughter’, who is ‘near the end’.

As he goes off with Jairus, the crowd follows Jesus, ‘pressing on him’, jostling him so that the haemorrhaging woman sees her chance to ‘come up behind him in the crowd and touch his garment’. She thinks nobody will notice. ‘At once she knows in her body she is healed’. Jesus, however, ‘at once knowing in himself that his power had gone out of him, turns round in the crowd’: ‘Who touched my garments?’

When they reach the synagogue officer’s house, Jesus ‘sees an uproar’, ‘people weeping and crying aloud’, professional mourners, no doubt. When he tells them the girl is not dead but sleeping they jeer at him. Going into the house, and ‘taking hold of the hand of the child’, he speaks to her in Aramaic, ‘Little girl, I say to you, get up’. At once she gets up and walks — and goes on walking, the Greek verb suggests. And now the bystanders are all ‘overcome with amazement’, more literally they are ‘shocked out of their minds’. Jesus orders them not to tell anyone and to give the girl something to eat.

The first reading is meant to focus our thoughts on the main theme in the Gospel reading. The five verses extracted from the forty that make up the first two chapters of the Wisdom of Solomon are meant, presumably, to emphasize that, since God wants nobody to die, here we have Jesus healing the woman for whom many doctors did nothing, and then bringing the twelve year old girl back to life.

The vital clue, however, is surely the references to touching, to the woman who touches Jesus, and to himself taking the little girl by the hand. The woman was ritually unclean, such that everything she touched became unclean. As for the child, touching a corpse was even worse. Jesus, however, is not contaminated.

On the contrary, the spotlight is on Jesus ignoring these purity laws, setting aside such primitive taboos about bleeding women and dead bodies. In these down to earth, practical miracles Jesus graphically overcomes these ancient, almost instinctive and natural fears, that keep people from keeping company with one another. Jesus challenges his followers to identify and disown any such rituals by which we are accustomed to avoid being contaminated, as we fear, by outsiders and outcastes. Jesus challenges us all to face up to whatever sinister prejudices and irrational beliefs there are which set us apart from our fellow human beings.

The second reading is just as down to earth. Paul commends the Corinthians for their ‘gracious work’ — though the selection of only five verses obscures the main theme of the chapter, which is that Paul, crude and embarrassing as this may seem, is asking them for money! Here, some twenty or thirty years since the Gospel of the resurrection of Jesus was first proclaimed, Paul is celebrating the immense generosity of the churches in Macedonia, in order to provoke the congregation at Corinth to emulate them.

Despite their problems, their ‘severe test of affliction’, they have given according to their means, even beyond their means, begging to be allowed to do so, in order that they might share in ‘the relief of the saints’. By ‘the saints’, in this context, Paul means the original Christian community in Jerusalem. As we know also, from his Letter to the Romans, he was deeply concerned that Christians ‘ought to minister also in material things’, as well as demonstrate unity in faith, knowledge, earnestness and love, and suchlike.

Thus, despite ‘their extreme poverty’, the tiny new congregations that Paul was so instrumental in founding ‘have overflowed in a wealth of liberality’. From the outset, excellence in faith, utterance, knowledge, earnestness and love for him, has been matched by generosity in sending financial aid to the beleaguered Jerusalem community. Solidarity, in this practical down to earth way, has been asked of Christian communities from the beginning.

From the beginning, that is to say, the congregations that Paul founded throughout the eastern Mediterranean established a network of common faith that extended to vital tangible support of one another. While appealing for money from the pulpit needs to be informed, and conducted with tact and intelligence, this direct and uninhibited call for material solidarity has always been a central element in Christian life.

Even more radically, Christ’s touching, and letting himself be touched, by people who were regarded, in that culture, as ‘untouchable’, calls his disciples to face up to the ways in which people, and even whole categories of people, are accustomed to avoid one another, in today’s culture — fearful, as we all are, not always unreasonably, of being ‘contaminated’, one way or another. A bleeding woman and a dead child may still be powerfully evocative symbols of deep-seated irrationalities in our own society. Would that we always had the faith of the woman that there was some one in the crowd: ‘If I touch even his garment, I shall be made well’ — someone in whose hands there might be healing and life.

Readings: Wisdom 1:13-15,2:23-24 | 2 Cor 8:7,9,13-15 | Mark 5:21-43

fr. Fergus Kerr is a member of the Dominican community in Edinburgh, where he teaches theology. He is the editor of New Blackfriars, the theological and philosophical review of the English Dominicans.