Stories Matter

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost  |  Mark 5:21-43

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts related to the Sunday reading from the Revised Common Lectionary. A study in practical theology.

Stories matter. One might argue that it is telling stories, more than opposable thumbs or raw intelligence, that makes us human.

An encyclopedia or some other repository of scientific knowledge may inform us, give us the tools to examine the biology of a flower or to create the structure of a bridge, but we would lack the notions of why we would want to do such things in the first place.

Stories tell us who we are. More importantly, stories tell us who we ought to be, who we want to be.

A galaxy on the edgeTake the book of Genesis. The whole of Judeo-Christian scripture begins, fittingly, with two stories, one right after the other. It is as though someone took Isaac Asimov and Ursula Le Guin, put them where they could witness everything from the bang that started our watches ticking to the emergence billions of years later of human beings on the plains of Africa, then asked each of them to sum up the meaning of what they had seen in a short story.

The Asimov version, Genesis 1:1 – 2:4, tells us that the universe unfolded over time, in an orderly fashion, and that life emerged and evolved into ever more complex forms over that time. It’s a pretty good summary, one that still matches up well to the timeline scientific investigation gives us—so long as one realizes that a day in a story may last a long time.

The Ursula Le Guin story, beginning in Genesis 2:4, focuses on relationship and choices. (That is no surprise for anyone who ever enjoyed her Earthsea novels.) Hearing this story, we realize that we are connected to everything that is, that all living creatures are dependent on one another, that with great ability comes great responsibility, that our choices follow us like shadows, that mortality is the price of living, and that our children and our work are what remain.

Le Guin always does manage to pack a lot into a story. That’s the wonder of symbolism and metaphor—one can say a great deal with a few words.DragonFinal

There are also two interwoven stories in Mark 5:21-43. It is what scholars describe with the sophisticated term of ‘sandwich’—one story contained within another one. Mark uses the technique a number of times, but that should not surprise us. Many other writers have interwoven stories which seem unrelated until we reflect on them.

Desperate to get help for his dying daughter, a man named Jairus is urgently guiding Jesus through the crowds to where his daughter is waiting when Jesus stops. He is distracted it seems because someone else in the crowd has managed to tap into the power that Jairus wants. A woman is healed, and Jesus stops to engage her in conversation, all while Jairus’ daughter lies dying. It is a fascinating study in love and faith and expectations.

Jairus is waiting upon the Lord, and it seems that the Lord dawdles.

In the end, Jesus accomplishes both things, of course, healing the unnamed woman and the girl. Though the girl had died in the meantime, Jesus brings her back to life. It was never an either-or proposition for Jesus, nor was the timing of his response limited by the expectations of the people in the house of Jairus.

There is no explanation, though. We only get the story, marvelous as it is. That is one of the most common complaints about scripture—so many stories, so few explanations, and even those explanations as exist are often just parables or metaphors. The Church certainly has managed to come up with plenty of explanations and rules in the centuries since Jesus walked along the street with Jairus, but those were made later by men. (A few women as well, but most of the explaining and rule making was done by men. I hope it is clear that the result is not a compliment to men.)

The best stories, the ones with the most meaning and usefulness, get told over and over. The stories change in the telling, sometimes helping us to think of an old tale in new ways. Rather than join with the crowds of folk who have and will happily tell us what we should get from the story, I’d like just to tell it again.

Here is the story of Jairus and the woman in the street, as retold in my novel I,John. The story is retold from the point of view of the disciple John, of course. I hope you enjoy something of the different perspective.

John

The streets were crowded with people and animals. A donkey’s hoof brushed my foot, and I was still holding to the animal for balance when I heard a man calling to Jesus. The man pushed his way through the crowd, and he somehow managed to kneel in front of Jesus. The people nearby pulled back a bit, seeing such a spectacle as this man kneeling in the street.
They knew him, this man. I had seen him in the synagogue myself, and here he was kneeling in the dirt in front of Jesus and begging him to come and to touch his daughter.
“She is sick, master,” he was saying. “You must come, you can save her. You have the healing touch.”
Jesus was looking at him. For a moment I wondered whether Jesus even heard what the man was saying. Then Jesus reached out and touched him on the shoulder, and Jesus leaned forward to tell the man something. I never learned what he said, but the man smiled and stood and began to beckon for Jesus to come after him.
The crowd parted somewhat, curiosity driving the ones who knew nothing about Jesus. This man they knew from the synagogue ran in front of Jesus, urging him along. The noise from the crowd was mixed with the dust from the street. It was difficult to see any distance ahead or to know where we were headed, except that we were following a man whose daughter was unwell.
Suddenly, Jesus stopped. A woman lay in the street, blood dripping down her cheek.
“Woman,” said Jesus. “How long have you lain there bleeding?”
She looked around, dust on her face along with the blood.
“I do not know, my lord,” she said. “The crowd has walked around me.”
“Who has touched this woman?” Jesus asked. I realized that there was no knowing who had touched anyone in this great crowd.
“How can she tell, there are so many?” I asked. Jesus turned and looked into my eyes for a moment, then turned away again. I felt like I had missed something obvious, that I should pay better attention.
“Then I will touch you,” he said to the woman, and he bent down and reached a hand to her face. He pulled her up from the ground, and she fell against him, holding him. I could see her face over his shoulder. The blood was gone.
“Come, my Lord,” said the man. “There is little time. My daughter may die if we do not reach her.” He was pulling at the arm of Jesus’ robe, wanting the woman out of the way. Peter was looking harshly at the man, though I knew that Peter understood about the sick child and the urgency. He just never wanted anyone shoving or pulling at Jesus, as though he could not take care of himself.
I heard raised voices and some curses from further down the street. Since we were on a small hill I could see over the heads of the people between to see that another man came pushing his way up the street, garnering the resentment of the crowds as he came. When he reached us he knelt in the street, his head down, and said, “My Lord.”
The man pulling Jesus’s arm stopped for a moment, then began to turn toward the kneeling servant. I could see that the man knew the voice, and I realized what the meaning of it must be. At least I was not so dense as to miss that.
“Your daughter, my lord.” He stopped. “She is dead.”
The man was still standing and holding to Jesus. The woman in Jesus’ arms looked at the messenger and understood as well. She pulled back, her hand on Jesus’ other arm. The servant looked up at his master and around at the rest of us, saying nothing. Then, a moment later he added, “I am sorry.”
The street seemed quieter, people realizing that something was happening, some of them recognizing Jesus, some recognizing the man himself or this woman. There were tears now on the man’s face, though he said nothing, his eyes sharing the sorrow before his mind had grasped it.
Jesus touched the woman’s head, a sort of caress or blessing, and then he in turn took the man by the arm.
“Come,” he said, as much to us as to this man. “Let us go up to your house together.”
The servant rose, and turning back led us in a procession through the crowd. Somewhere we heard the wailing of women who had already heard the whispers of grief. We walked as in a funeral line.
I have always hated funerals.
After some time we reached the house, a good one set back from the crowded marketplace. Family and neighbors were gathered around it, the women weeping. They surged forward when they saw the girl’s father, crying and saying that she was gone.
Jesus paused then, before entering the house. He took hold of the man’s arm the same way that the man had formerly held him in the market.
“Why are you crying?” he asked them. We all stopped and looked at him. I stole a glance at the crowd who were trying to work out whether this man was an idiot. Finally, the old women seemed to assume it was simply that Jesus did not know.
“The girl, his daughter, is dead,” they began to tell him. Jesus set his face, and I looked around to find Peter.
“She is only sleeping,” Jesus said. The words froze me in place, for I knew that they were not true. The crowd paused for a moment, and the father began to stare at Jesus. Then the crowd turned and began to jeer and to insult him, asking whether he were blind or simple. The father himself said nothing, only watched Jesus’ face.
Jesus pushed those in front of the doorway aside, which surprised them. It surprised me. I looked back down the street, wondering where we might run when they found some loose paving stones to throw at us. Peter stood staring, his mouth open, his expression lending no credence to Jesus.
“Out of the house, all of you, mourners and trespassers,” Jesus was saying. “Out.”
Shocked, the visitors looked to the father who, still staring at Jesus, slowly nodded to them. They began to leave, though I could not tell whether it was by Jesus’ authority or by the respect they had for this leader of the synagogue. Taking the man by the shoulder, Jesus looked around at Peter, my brother James, and myself, and indicated that we were to follow them.
We entered the house, suddenly far too quiet except for the sound of a couple of women crying, genuinely, upstairs.
“Take us to her,” Jesus told the father. He nodded once more and began walking up the stairs to the sleeping rooms. It was a spacious house, and cool, and these upper rooms could be opened to receive what breezes came blowing across the roofline of the town.
The girl lay on her bed, and it did appear as though she were sleeping. Beside the girl her mother sat crying, tears covering her face. Genuine grief does not care about appearances. Perhaps nothing genuine does. Another woman stood weeping in the room, though I never knew whether she was a servant or family. The mother looked at us, then at her husband who took her by the hand and lifted her from the chair. Jesus stood at the girl’s feet. Suddenly I realized that he, too, was crying, the quiet tears falling across his cheeks.
I thought that Jesus must have been wrong, and that he now saw as we did that the girl was dead. I was mistaken once again.
“Little girl,” he said. “Wake up.”
For a moment, all of us stopped breathing. I heard it, the quick catch of breath in our throats, all of us for a moment wondering what would happen and whether the girl was, indeed, only sleeping. Then, in the next moment, all of us realized that she was not, that she was dead, that this was perhaps the worst and most shameful moment of our lives. I started to feel the enormity of our imposition on their grief.
Peter’s eyes widened as he watched the girl. I turned back to see.
The girl caught her breath, much as we had, and we could hear the sound of air surging through her lungs and from her mouth. Jesus reached across and held her hand.
“Little girl, get up now,” he said. “Time to wake.”
She held his hand and sat up on the edge of her bed, looking around the room at her parents and the woman, whom she knew, and the four of us, whom she did not. Her mother was the first to recover, leaving her husband’s arms and nearly jumping into the bed with the girl.
“You are alive,” the mother was saying over and over, and the father began to say the same thing. Peter began muttering a curse, though only I heard him, and then he caught himself.
“Lord, you have done it,” he said.
Jesus was only watching the girl. “She is hungry,” he said. “Get her something to eat.”
“Yes. You must eat,” said the father, as though it was obvious that the child would be hungry. Then he turned and began thanking Jesus, who simply pushed the man along with his daughter and wife toward the stairs. They went on ahead of us, shouting and calling for food, soon for a feast. At the bottom of the stairs Jesus watched them a moment, then he turned away from the front of the house and went out into their garden. A gate led us out into the street, where the others were waiting for us. Without a word, Jesus turned and started walking away, as though the woman had never lain in the street and the girl had never risen from her bed. He did not speak of it.
I never saw any of them again, except at the end, when Jesus was dying. That day I saw at a distance a man standing with a woman and a girl. I wondered whether it was this family, come to show their respect, or thanks, or pity. I have never known for sure.

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