The Book of Ecclesiastes says that there is an appropriate time for every matter: there is a time to mourn and a time to laugh. When I was growing up, my sister and I used to drive our parents to distraction by our inappropriate laughter at the worst of times. Concerts, school programs, church, even funerals brought out our nervous giggles. At my wedding, my mother told my sister that she had to sit in the back of the church and not look at me for fear of making me laugh.
The Gospel of Mark tells a story that gets the time for tears and the time for laughter all mixed up.
Two Tales, Told Together
It is a tale within a tale. It is a kind of narrative sandwich made out of two stories woven together. It begins with a desperate father, a leader of the synagogue, pleading with Jesus to come heal his critically ill daughter. It is no laughing matter. The story is then interrupted by Jesus' encounter with a woman who has been ill for 12 years with chronic bleeding. In the midst of a hundred grasping hands, Jesus feels a powerful connection with one hand. The woman believes that if she but touches his cloak she will be healed. With everybody's elbows out, Jesus asks, "Who touched me?" And in effect, the disciples respond, "You have got to be kidding! What do you mean who touched you? Everybody's got their hands on you." They don't laugh out loud, but they don't take him seriously either. In spite of their disbelieving comments, Jesus heals the faithful woman.
Some mourners come from the home to tell the father that his daughter has died; now there is no point in having Jesus come to heal her. When Jesus tells the crowd that she is not dead but sleeping, they laugh at him. Right there in front of everybody, the mourners laugh in his face.
These mourners are not the first to scoff at what God is doing. Remember how old Abraham and Sarah, each in turn, laughed when they heard God promise that they would bear a son and become the forbearers of a great multitude? They had to laugh because the promise was impossible from a human point of view.
These mourners don't take Jesus seriously, either. Why should they? They know about death. Death is an all too frequent and unwelcome intruder in the homes of the old and the young. This little girl is dead. What can Jesus do about death? With God all things are possible. And God is about to prove them dead wrong.
In spite of the ridicule, Jesus goes to the house and restores the little girl to life. The top and bottom of the narrative sandwich is the story of the little girl; the inside is the story of the healing of the bleeding woman who has tried every cure but found no relief until she meets Jesus.
At first glance, we might think that these two stories are unrelated until Mark adds at the end of the passage a kind of afterthought: Oh, yes, by the way, the little girl was 12 years old. Suddenly, we sense something more is going on here than two stories simply sandwiched together. The woman had been sick for 12 years. So, we begin to look for other connections. Jesus addresses the woman as "daughter." You might say that Jesus plunders the realm of the afflicted and even the realm of the dead to restore these two women to abundant life. Two needy outsiders become daughters of God.
Both the woman and the father of the little girl take Jesus seriously. Both believe that Jesus can restore their lives. Both kneel before him. The number 12 stands as a kind of sign that there is abundant life in Jesus. This interwoven story clues us in that Jesus is on the loose in the world with divine power to restore life -- abundant life for everyone. At the end, those who doubted and those who laughed are left in speechless amazement.
Stories of Healing Grace
Mark awakens us to the abundant healing grace of God in Jesus. In Jesus, there is hope, life and community for all. Meanwhile, we tend to let the Gospel out in dribs and drabs. We are stingy with what God so lavishly gives. We worry about who deserves our help, our food, our time, our money and our attention. We carefully calculate the conditions under which we will stoop to forgive someone.
Many congregations across the country open their doors to provide shelter for homeless families. Our congregation hosts up to four families each week for four weeks during the year. When we began, there were skeptics who worried about the safety of the guests and hosts, potential damage to the property, having enough volunteers, and a host of other concerns. Some doubted if it would make any difference or just perpetuate chronic social problems. I suspect some even laughed at the idea. "Are you kidding? Our church?" Members of the hospitality team stepped forward to welcome our guests, spend time with them, prepare supper, eat together and provide transportation to work or classes. One week our elementary children and their families brought dinner. God's grace has a way of slipping in, taking us by surprise and changing us and our attitudes. The last time we hosted two families, both mothers found jobs the week they were with us. We celebrated with them the healing and empowering grace of God.
When we experience the abundance of God's grace, we can't help but take Jesus seriously. In Jesus, God has a way of transforming our dismissive laugher into tears of joy, our skepticism into speechless amazement. The Gospel is full of promises that become our own when we take Jesus seriously:
What? These promises can't be true. Lord, you have got to be kidding. Then we realize Jesus isn't kidding at all.
This article was first published on Day1.org.
Editor's Note: ON Scripture - The Bible is a series of Christian scripture commentaries produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks. Each week pastors from around the country will approach the lectionary text of the week through the lens of current events, providing a religious voice that is both pastoral and prophetic.