Looking at today’s reading from Saint Mark’s Gospel, there are four aspects of Jesus’ approach to people which might challenge his followers in the 21st Century: engagement, accessibility, positivity, life-affirmation and integrity.
Saint Mark Chapter 5 Verse 21 says, “When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea”. Jesus has crossed the lake in order to escape from the crowds and has arrived at the other side to find another crowd awaited him. He might have declared that he needed time for quietness and reflection, but instead there is an engagement with people in the reality of their lives.There is no attempt to avoid difficult questions. Jairus, one of the leaders of the synagogue approaches him, Jairus daughter is seriously ill. Jesus’ response in Verse 24 is that, “he went with him. And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him.”
How different Jesus’ approach is that from the approach of the church which shies away from difficult questions and which often only engages to protect its own interests. Church leaders will be quick to speak out on education, but silent on economics. How would Jesus have been perceived if he had spoken only on matters that were in accord with his own interests?
Jesus doesn’t just engage with those who approach him, he makes himself accessible to those who would have been shunned. Verse 25 tells us that “there was a woman who had been suffering from haemorrhages for twelve years, who in Verse 28 says, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” There were Jewish rules that would have insisted that the woman was ritually “unclean”, that there should be no contact with her and that she should have no contact with others. There was a deep misogyny in religious rules that was deeply oppressive to women, it is an exclusiveness that Jesus ignores in being accessible to the woman. He realizes that someone has touched him and the woman is terrified about having breached the conventions of her time in such a way. Verse 33 tells us, “the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth”. The people listening would have been scandalised by her words, how dare she behave in such a way. Jesus will have none of the misogynistic attitudes of the time, he has no regard for exclusiveness, he is there for everyone. He turns to the woman and says, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”
Are attitudes of exclusiveness confined to the past? Look at how many churches still treat women. Look at how most churches treat gay and lesbian people. To suggest that churches are accessible to all would be absurd, accessible if one accepts attitudes that Jesus would have explicitly rejected. Exclusiveness is not about following Jesus, it is about keeping the organisation together, creating a situation where people find solidarity in defining themselves against others, it is about power and influence and dominance; it is not about the accessibility that Jesus showed.
Engagement, accessibility, the fourth aspect of Jesus’ approach is affirmation, Jesus is life-affirming. People come from Jairus’ house in Verse 35 and say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” Jesus will not accept negativity and nihilism, he responds in Verse 36, “Do not fear, only believe.” The grief at Jairus’ house is a show. Verse 38 says Jesus saw “a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly”. The noise and the cries of the people were of no use to Jairus and his family who would have wanted only quietness and privacy at such a moment. Children in Jesus’ time were barely noticed by those in the adult world; Jesus’ treatment of children was contrary to the norms of the time. The wailing and weeping was by those who would not have known the child and may hardly have known Jairus; it was a display for others to see. Jesus is life affirming, he ignores those who relish death and sorrow, he puts them out of the house, then, in Verse 41, he says to the girl, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!”
Are churches life-affirming? Or are they instead places where people dwell on bad news? Church leaders spent centuries promising hellfire and damnation to those who disagreed with them, they built an organisation on fear and apprehension, they focused on criticising others, passing judgment on those who dared to differ. Where were the life-affirming attitudes shown by Jesus in church campaigns against everything from jazz music to the way in which people dressed? Weren’t the people who criticised and judged others the very people who would have done the same thing to Jesus? Life-affirming is not an attitude one would associate with the history of the church.
The fourth attitude encountered in the reading is that of integrity. In Verse 43, it says, “He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.” Jesus wants people to listen to what he is teaching them, he wants people to absorb his message, he does not want people who are only impressed by sensational events. He knows that people who are impressed by one sensational moment will quickly be looking for the next such moment. Jesus doesn’t want people who are only there for thrills or gossip.
Jesus speaks and acts with perfect integrity and he looks for a similar integrity among his followers – people who live by the words as well as speaking them. Do people see that integrity among churches? Do people see that integrity in those who claim to follow Jesus?
Engagement, accessibility, affirmation of life, and integrity: each of them are shown by Jesus.