Our Gospel today presents us with a "story-within-a-story." First, there is an encounter between Jesus and a man named Jairus. But before that story concludes, another encounter takes place. The second encounter between Jesus and a nameless woman runs its course. Then finally we return for the conclusion of the story of Jairus. All three of the Synoptic writers give us their version of these encounters, so we should know that something significant is about to be told.
The story begins as a synagogue official bursts through the crowd and throws himself at Jesus' feet, interrupting the moment. Jairus neither worships, nor comes to dispute or argue theology, but he does fall at the feet of Jesus in a very respectful gesture. His agenda is simple and very urgent: his little daughter seems to be at the point of death and he feels utterly powerless. Jairus has nothing to lose, yet his request is by no means hopeless or despairing. He simply requests: "Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live." He seems to know that if Jesus lays his hands on the girl, then she will live. Here is a man of faith; and faith, as we are told over and over in the Gospels, makes miracles.
Mark tells us, "So Jesus went with him." Jesus not only responds immediately, but has reversed roles - Jairus leads, Jesus follows, and they hurry to his home. Here Jesus is exemplifying what he talks about so often: that the leader must become the follower, just as the first must become the last, the master must become the servant, and the teacher must become the learner. There must be no clinging to status nor lording it over others. So Jesus follows Jairus. But just when we are being drawn deeply into this story, there is a sudden interruption.
"There was a woman," the Gospel tells us. She too interrupts Jesus, but not in the same way that Jairus did. She was simply there. She was a woman - and therefore socially insignificant; but she is there, and therefore physically unavoidable. This woman has a similar strategy to Jairus. He knows that if Jesus were to come to his home, his daughter would live; this woman believed that if she only touched his clothes, then she would be well. This faith alone is enough to drive her into action.
Her story is both interesting and pathetic. She had suffered under the care of many physicians, spent all her money, and yet was worse off than when she started - a familiar story, even in today's society. It appears that she is a socially isolated and, perhaps, even an abandoned woman. This woman had nowhere else to go: neither to family, nor to savings, nor to medicine. But she had heard about Jesus, and so she was simply there.
Unlike Jairus, this woman has no name; but more importantly she has no life. Being ritually unclean for twelve years has separated her from people. She is socially dead if not physically dead. To be avoided by everyone is to be rendered utterly isolated. Social death can be almost as real as physical death. Whoever is socially dead might almost, as well, be physically dead, because life can be unbearable in social isolation.
This "dead" woman's faith will restore her to life. In an instant she becomes a public witness to her faith and her courage is acknowledged and rewarded by Jesus, who calls her "my daughter," tells her that indeed her faith has made a miracle, and sends her off in peace - no more fear or trembling, no more worry about being among the living dead, no more guilt about trying to find a way through the religious rules that held her bound tightly. She was free: finally, totally free.
No sooner has the woman been sent on her way than the first, unfinished story picks up again and moves toward its climax. Jairus is suddenly confronted by a delegation of people from his home, reporting that his daughter has died. Curiously, however, Jesus rather pointedly ignores the remark and offers words of encouragement: "Do not fear, only believe." Jairus has just seen belief-in-action, and its power to heal and overcome fear. But Mark says nothing about his reaction; all we know is that along with Jesus and his three closest disciples Jairus hurries back home. Only this time Jesus leads and Jairus follows.
By the time they arrive at Jairus' home, the weeping and wailing had already begun. Jesus declares that the girl was simply sleeping. Going directly to the girl, but accompanied now by her mother as well as her father and the three disciples, Jesus immediately makes physical contact: taking her by the hand, he speaks to her - not words of command or authority, but gentle words of encouragement: exactly the language a gentle, loving parent would use to awaken a child from a deep sleep.
We know the rest of the story. "Immediately the little girl got up," and we are struck by the speed with which things happen, and with the responsiveness of Jesus. Mark adds that she was twelve years old, neatly linking her with the story of the sick woman, who had been afflicted for twelve years and was socially dead. In both cases not only are these two persons restored to physical health, but their social identity as adult women has also been restored.
The story ends with two important statements by Jesus. First, He warns the people not to broadcast this event. Oftentimes, people attracted by the miraculous do not necessarily have the faith that Jesus is seeking. And secondly, He tells the family to give the girl something to eat - emphasizing that she is a real, physical person, not just an illusion; and also involving the family and the entire community in her rehabilitation.
This last point is critically important. We need to understand that Jesus has come to involve everyone in the work of the Kingdom, of his mission. Later in Mark's Gospel we find the story of the feeding of the five thousand, and Jesus' command to his disciples: "You give them something to eat. " In this week's story, after raising the little girl, Jesus says the very same thing. This suggests two things to us: first, that the girl's family, the disciples and all those present have the capacity to make a difference in particular situations of need; and, second, we also are not without some resources of our own, some nourishment, if only we dig deep and share.
Whether we are facing situations of physical hunger, or even the eucharistic famine that affects so many Christian communities today, we must not simply pray for miracles, but remember that, in the face of the great need of our sisters and brothers, we can and we must "give them something to eat ourselves."
Faith without action is pointless.