There are times when belief in God truly is challenging. I’m talking about believing in a good, gracious, and righteous God when you’ve been mysteriously bleeding for twelve years, believing after you little girl is dead, believing after seeing neighbors rounded up for being Jewish or socialist or gypsy or handicapped or opposing Hitler, and learning they were shoved into ghettos and from there into boxcars and from there into ovens.
Believing in these situations is challenging because the situations seem to contradict God’s existence. If God exists and is good and gracious and righteous, how can these things happen? We can put up with a lot but there comes a breaking point. A point at which we reject that God, because we can no longer justify that God’s action or inaction. Jewish theologian and Shoah survivor Emmanuel Levinas argues that this so-called God is fake and arose because of our prevailing ways of knowing things and justifying their existence. In Western civilization, understanding traditionally means definitive explanation. I seek to know by explaining. I can explain you. (You ever been explained by someone who doesn’t know what the hell they’re talking about?) My goal is to be the one who is powerful enough to hold others to my explanations of them. God is a concept we can explain. This God becomes guarantor of the status quo. We use God to justify what happens, and we use our definitive explanations to justify God. That isn’t the God of the Bible. The God of Israel—of Judaism and Christianity—interrupts our attempts to explain others. God challenges the status quo and refuses to justify it or be justified by us. Ultimately, our social order with its explanations for everything will crumble and God will speak from its ruins.
That happens in the Gospel, today. I don’t think we can understand the story without understanding the social order of that world—the way that world knew by explaining. I’ve said before: that world functioned on a currency of honor and shame. We have shame today. Some people have no shame today. We don’t build our world around shame the way people in the first century did. Honor/shame was a zero-sum game. You were given honor by your station at birth, and acquired honor only by shaming someone else. Honor and shame attached to individuals, but more so to families. Within a family, men had the social role of obtaining and defending honor, women of carrying the shame.
Jairus had honor. As the leader of the synagogue he had honored his family, and his life would be spent trying to win honor for the synagogue and for his family. The nameless woman we meet on the road carries shame. We hear of no family, so there is no man to win honor for her. He flow of blood over the past twelve years heaped shame on her because she is polluted, cut off from the community, and therefore unable to access honor. Those are the rules of life. God’s name gets attached to the rules to explain whey they’re great rules.
Things change the day Jesus comes to town. That day, Jairus’ daughter is deathly ill. The possibility of her death and the news that Jesus is near motivate Jairus to throw away his social status. He hears Jesus may help, but Jesus is in all kinds of trouble and is an outsider and rule breaker. Jairus bows before Jesus, surrendering honor. Jairus risks nothing. There is no “risk.” He loses honor and acquires shame. He fails as a man in that world. (He doesn’t care; he wants his daughter to live. The social order we’ve constructed can’t help her.) The nameless woman, she risks something. She is polluted, and, I mean, we don’t know how Jesus works exactly, but if he’s holy and she’s polluted and she touches him without his permission, she could break him. “Thanks a lot, Susan; that was our only Jesus. Everything was fine, but you had to touch him, and now he’s broken.” So, she risks something. In a sense, her actions were shameless, and not in a good way. She is completely out of her gender role. (She doesn’t care; she wants to get better, and her social order is not going to do that.)
What’s Jesus’ response to this social order thrown awry? He doesn’t put everything back. He does not offer honor in place of shame so much as he offers life. Jesus doesn’t “do” honor versus shame. When the woman touches his clothes he stops to talk with her, and after the conversation calls her “daughter.” These look like Jesus giving her honor, but honor/shame is a zero-sum game. He would have to shame someone. And while he makes Jairus wait, which could be shameful, when news comes that the girl has died, Jesus says, “Do not be afraid. Only believe.” And he goes into the house into the girl’s room and touches her dead body on purpose—which pollutes him, and is shameless not in a good way. And then he raises her from the dead. So, he’s not shaming Jairus.
And the girl is dead. When Jesus says, “She is asleep,” he demands faith at the moment it is hardest to have it. That moment when belief in God truly is challenging. The question, “Do you believe in the resurrection of the dead,” ceases to be hypothetical, and now relates urgently to your flesh and blood, your whole world, lying dead before you. The God who would never allow this to happen has been shown not to exist (because this happened). When Jesus says, “She is asleep,” he is asking, “Are you ready to believe in a God at work even now when everything else has fallen apart?” That’s what Jesus says. He doesn’t offer honor; he offers life. She’s alive, and so is the nameless woman. Jesus doesn’t redistribute honor and shame; he stands on the ruins of our social order he offers life.
Our social order today uses guilt and innocence the way Mark’s society uses honor and shame. As a contemporary person I initially read this story wanting to know who bears legal blame. Is there malpractice by the physicians? Negligence on Jesus for stopping. Violation of personal space? Today, Jesus does not offer innocence in place of guilt. He offers life. Today, if we want a sense of what Jesus does, we should think in terms of guilt. Where are we clinging to guilt?
Where are we clinging to our own guilt? Maybe we’ve internalized this. It’s our identity. I am the guy who did that. I am the running list of my failures. And we all put up with a lot, but there comes a breaking point, a point at which we say “How can God be when I am my guilt? What God allows this?” The God who justifies and props up our guilt-based social system doesn’t exist, which is why he failed you. Jesus, the real God, is here now. Are you ready for him? Jesus does not offer innocence—the people you failed and hurt were failed and hurt. Jesus offers you life. Our guilt-based social order collapses on itself, and from its ruins Jesus offers you life with God. Your past is still there, and God is still with you and bigger than your past.
Where are we clinging to someone else’s guilt? Who has hurt me? That becomes part of our identity. If you’re like I am, you have a carefully constructed system of guilt with flow charts to help you know who is at fault for whatever is happening just now. And we can put up with a lot, but there comes a breaking point when others’ guilt consumes us and defines us, and we say, “How can God be when others’ guilt controls me? What God would allow this?” Well, the God who props up our social system never existed. The real one, Jesus, is here. Are you ready to follow? Jesus does not paper over the hurt. The cross is not a denial of what happened to you. From the ruins of our system of guilt, Jesus offers you life. Jesus offers you a path to walk with him where your life will not be controlled by the guilt of other people. Those things happened to you; they do not need to control you. (And it’s not like we get this right away. Jesus usually destroys my preconceptions at least five times before I get the hint. He’s very patient with me.)
Where is our society assigning guilt to people who are willing to accept it because real life has shown that the social order and its fake God are inadequate? Who today is explained definitively with a one-word label, by people who don’t know a thing about them? Who today, seeing their daughter or son in mortal danger, is willing to trade their innocence for their child’s life (as Jairus traded his honor for his daughter’s life)? Who today is disregarding the guilty sentence against them because they need health and safety (just as the unnamed woman disregarded her shame, because she needed health and community)? Who today says to her, “Daughter, you have saving faith!” Who today says, “I know this looks terrible; do not be afraid, only believe”? Who today stands on the ruins of a broken world, and says, “Your life is more important than the social order. Everyone’s life is more important than the social order”? That God is the real deal.