Pursuing the Faithful One: Reflections on the Fifth Week of Pentecost

The Gospel Text for the fifth week of Pentecost, Mark 5:21-43 (CEB)

21 Jesus crossed the lake again, and on the other side a large crowd gathered around him on the shore. 22 Jairus, one of the synagogue leaders, came forward. When he saw Jesus, he fell at his feet 23 and pleaded with him, “My daughter is about to die. Please, come and place your hands on her so that she can be healed and live.” 24 So Jesus went with him.

A swarm of people were following Jesus, crowding in on him. 25 A woman was there who had been bleeding for twelve years. 26 She had suffered a lot under the care of many doctors, and had spent everything she had without getting any better. In fact, she had gotten worse.27 Because she had heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his clothes. 28 She was thinking, If I can just touch his clothes, I’ll be healed. 29 Her bleeding stopped immediately, and she sensed in her body that her illness had been healed.

30 At that very moment, Jesus recognized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?”

31 His disciples said to him, “Don’t you see the crowd pressing against you? Yet you ask, ‘Who touched me?’” 32 But Jesus looked around carefully to see who had done it.

33 The woman, full of fear and trembling, came forward. Knowing what had happened to her, she fell down in front of Jesus and told him the whole truth. 34 He responded, “Daughter, your faith has healed you; go in peace, healed from your disease.”

35 While Jesus was still speaking with her, messengers came from the synagogue leader’s house, saying to Jairus, “Your daughter has died. Why bother the teacher any longer?”

36 But Jesus overheard their report and said to the synagogue leader, “Don’t be afraid; just keep trusting.” 37 He didn’t allow anyone to follow him except Peter, James, and John, James’ brother. 38 They came to the synagogue leader’s house, and he saw a commotion, with people crying and wailing loudly. 39 He went in and said to them, “What’s all this commotion and crying about? The child isn’t dead. She’s only sleeping.” 40 They laughed at him, but he threw them all out. Then, taking the child’s parents and his disciples with him, he went to the room where the child was. 41 Taking her hand, he said to her, “Talitha koum,” which means, “Young woman, get up.” 42 Suddenly the young woman got up and began to walk around. She was twelve years old. They were shocked! 43 He gave them strict orders that no one should know what had happened. Then he told them to give her something to eat.

In the previous text for the fourth week of Pentecost we found that, true to Mark, the identity of Jesus and the nature of the kingdom is in view. Jesus, as the Messiah and liberating King, calls his disciples to ‘faith’ – to recognition of who he is and faithfulness to his kingdom. Jesus does this because, even as the forces of evil gather, even in the presence of disbelief and disobedience, even in the presence of faithlessness, from the moment of his testing in the wilderness and baptism – Jesus, himself, stands as the Faithful One. In the text for the fifth week we find the stories of two separate people, Jairus and a very sick woman, who, believing that he can bring healing in their respective circumstances, come in pursuit of the Jesus the Faithful One.

Kingdom Happens!

What we find in these stories is what scholars sometimes call a ‘Markan sandwich’. What this means is that one story (the woman with chronic bleeding) is wrapped up inside another (the story of Jairus and his daughter). What this means is that these stories exist in what Ricoeur calls “intertextuality” (157)* – that these stories are meant to be read together and each gains meaning from the other. Actually we find a sense of intertextuality among all the stories and parables of Mark’s Gospel. We find that we are being moved ever closer to the great reveal with Peter in chapter 8, or what is really better put ‘the great confession’ of Christ’s identity as the Son of God (what has been in actuality something of an open secret, what has been called the Messianic secret).

An important reminder we need to keep before ourselves is that neither Mark nor the other Gospels are for the purpose of simply teaching a life ethic (though there IS an ethic involved), or for ‘life application’, or so that we can become the best people we can be. The thing is, we can have ethics and life application and be people who do good things without Jesus. We don’t need the Gospels for this. In fact, if this is all we are aiming for we might as well just pick up some Dr. Phil or other self help literature. And this will certainly be far less intrusive than what the Gospels are aiming for.

Here Stanley Hauerwas comments helpfully regarding the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus; that the Sermon’s purpose is not mere ethic but Jesus, and that ‘what is taught should not be isolated and abstracted from the teacher’. Ricoeur comments similarly on Mark’s Gospel,

“What progressively happens in the Gospel is the recognition of Jesus as the Christ. We can say in this regard that the Gospel is not a simple account of the life, teaching, work, death, and resurrection of Jesus, but the communicating of an act of confession, a communication by means of which the reader in turn is rendered capable of performing the recognition that occurs in the text.” (162, emphasis in bold mine)

and

“…the kingdom of God is not what the parables [and stories] tell about, but what happens in parables [as well as stories].” (165)

In the coming of Jesus the Kingdom of God is happening … right now, right where you are, whatever you are doing, no matter how mundane … the Kingdom of God is happening, is inaugurated, in the person of Christ!

Repentence and Kingdom Orientation

From the beginning, Jesus comes proclaiming the kingdom of God. But Jesus and the kingdom are disruptive; they are interruptions to the status quo. As such, in proclaiming the kingdom Jesus calls upon his hearers to repentance and a kingdom orientation. Jesus and the inauguration of the kingdom calls into question all that we have previously believed about what the kingdom should be like, it moves us into a crisis of understanding or belief, and lastly into a second knowing or ‘faith’ on the other side as we stake our hope in the kingdom.

As one read the text(s), what Ricoeur calls the reader’s ‘productive imagination’ (160) is exercised by the surplus of meaning in the metaphor and narrative. We do not simply learn about the kingdom through a three point lecture, but we jump into and are actively shaped by something that is already on the ground. This ‘jumping in’ into the kingdom of God can be thought of as a conversion of the imagination. Such a conversion is not a one off thing, but gradual and continual and even slow. In this, interruptions to our routine, agendas, or life plans become occasions for us to die to ourselves and convert our imaginations toward a kingdom orientation even more.

It is this sort of repentance and imagination that enables us to see Jesus as the liberating King and to see where the kingdom is happening – where Jesus is and to follow him into wherever that may be. This, I think, is the kind of faith that Mark has been talking about all along. And we should well note that in the pages of Mark (as well as the other Gospels) that those who seem to ‘get’ Jesus almost intuitively are the ones that are outcast, oppressed, sick, diseased, grief stricken – ie, the suffering (like the woman and father in this story). Suffering it seems has the capacity to function as a hermeneutic of the kingdom enabling us to pursue the cruciform way of Christ.

We do well to take heed here, because our relative affluence may help us to be able to get all our theological ducks in a row and have all manner of debates, but it may also blind us from Jesus and the ‘happening-ness’ of his kingdom. Theology is a great thing and I, for one, embrace my identity as a theologian. But we should also be willing to call ourselves into question. We should also realize that our theologies serve as lenses that can help us see clearly as well as obscure. We do well also see that the story of our liberating King is also the story of a suffering King, a story of downward mobility for the sake of others. If we are going to follow Jesus we must follow him down. This is the cruciform way! Its simply amazing how threatening this is to many people.

Kingdom Intertextuality

A repeat of the previous Ricoeur quote may help us to understand the purpose of these intertextually related stories for us,

“What progressively happens in the Gospel [of Mark] is the recognition of Jesus as the Christ. We can say in this regard that the Gospel is not a simple account of the life, teaching, work, death, and resurrection of Jesus, but the communicating of an act of confession, a communication by means of which the reader in turn is rendered capable of performing the recognition that occurs in the text.” (162)

Mark here presents us with the story of two people, one a woman with a chronic illness and the other a man with a sick child (I can’t help but identify with these stories) who seem to, even if only intuitively, recognize Jesus. These stories are intertwined – one wrapped up in the other and meant to be read together. But there is another level of intertextuality at work in Mark’s Gospel. Not only are these stories intertwined but both together are wrapped in the Jesus story and the story of the inaugurated kingdom.

What we find I think, is that we are not simply called to recognize Jesus and the kingdom simply on our own. We, ourselves exist in an ‘intertextual’ relationship with each other. We follow Jesus into the kingdom and repentance not simply as individuals but as an interrelated community whose ‘texts’ and stories are interdependent. Not only this but our intertwined stories of suffering, like Jairus and the woman, are wrapped up in the story of the kingdom and Jesus the liberating King in what we might call a kingdom shaped, cruciform intertextuality. May we seek the way of the kingdom, may we pursue the Faithful One together.

*All page number attributions are from Paul Ricoeur’s essay ‘The Bible and Imagination,’ in Figuring the Sacred.

Prayer for the fifth week of Pentecost

Almighty God, you have built your Church upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone: Grant us so to be joined together in unity of spirit by their teaching, that we may be made a holy temple acceptable to you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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