We continue to pray with Chapter 5 of Mark’s Gospel…
Having just concluded a long and technically beautiful passage, Mark presents us with another carefully constructed section of narrative. We are really drawn into the heart of these two stories for many reasons – technically, he weaves the two stories together, sandwiching one with the beginning and end of the other; emotionally, both the scenes are incredibly moving, and none of us could remain unaffected by the pain experienced by the protagonists; theologically, Mark continues to unfold Jesus’ true personality, power and authority; evangelically and personally, we are confronted with many issues around exclusion, law, acceptance and humility. This is a deeply challenging lectio passage.
Once again Jesus has crossed over the lake, and once again he is confronted by a large crowd. There is a question here which comes up, in one form or another, in all the gospels – why are these people seeking Jesus? What motivates them? Do they always find what they are looking for, hear what they expect to hear, accept the evidence which he offers them? The reason for asking these questions is very straightforward – I am part of this accompanying crowd, and so need to ask myself – why am I seeking this Jesus? It becomes the pivotal question in John’s Gospel:
“In all truth I tell you, you are looking for me not because you have seen the signs but because you had all the bread you wanted to eat”John 6:26
“Woman, why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?”John 20:15
And at the close of Matthew’s Gospel, the angel at the empty tomb has something similar to say to the women:
“There is no need for you to be afraid. I know you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified”Matthew 28:5
So, along with all these others, I am seeking Jesus. Why? I must have some degree of expectation, something which will strike me in the encounter that I have with him. Essentially, this passage of Mark’s Gospel demonstrates for us two startling examples of people seeking Jesus out for something that they need. They seek in different ways. Both experience deep-seated needs which reach into the core of their being and affect them profoundly. Both come from very different strata of Jewish society, and yet both search out this Teacher.
In fact, Mark, in his construction of this account, is almost Lucan in his invitation to us to enter into the comparison and contrasting of these two people. One a man, the other a woman – with profound implications for their status across every area of society in Jesus’ day (and still in our own!). One a high ranking official in the Jewish worshipping community, enjoying the respect of his fellow worshippers and townspeople, and we can be sure influence with many; the other, a woman who is afflicted with an ailment, probably in some way related to her menstruation, but because of this, and under the same Jewish faith-law which places the man on such a high level, makes her ritually unclean, and unable to participate in the daily life of her community (see, for example, the norms set out in Leviticus 15:19, and the verses following, to see just how profoundly difficult and sad this woman’s position is). One comes openly, while a whole crowd looks on, and no doubt sympathises; the other, because of her ritual separation, hardly dares be sensed in her presence or approach, so afraid is she, and so she seeks the slightest possible, virtually undetected, contact with Jesus. One comes desperate and told by Jesus to have faith; the other comes desperate, with faith already the defining motivation.
Mark presents two extremes, so distant that the whole of humanity, and us as well, can fit into the space which these two individuals open up. So, each of us, in other words, has space and opportunity and motivation to approach Christ.
And, although all these aspects differ fundamentally, the impulse of a search made as a result of the desperate personal need is shared in both cases.
Why, then, am I seeking Jesus? For consolation, healing, confirmation of faith, direction in my life, to share in his Spirit and work? Because I am attracted to him by what I read in the Gospel and hear others speaking about him? Because I want to get to know him, in whatever way I can? For each of us, the question and the reason is going to be intensely personal, life-changing perhaps, as it will be for all the actors in this pericope.
Of course, it’s vitally important that I know from the beginning that I am not swallowed up by this crowd – in the middle of this mayhem, Jesus sees each individual and knows their needs. Better, he feels our needs. So, I am always myself with Jesus, and he is always himself with me.
As we have said, a very important man approaches Jesus – the president of the local synagogue – so important, in fact, that Mark is able to report his name in this story. It rarely happens in the gospels – that someone who encounters Jesus is named. More often than not they are identified by their need – the particular sickness or ailment – or their occupation and state – a scribe, or a woman taken in adultery. But here we have Jairus. As his position suggests he is a leader in his community, a prominent man in terms of belief and practice, and will undoubtedly have the respect of many who are present in the crowd and who know him. But he does not stand on his position, or authority, or influence. The gospel tells us that he approaches Jesus in a way which suggests complete humility – he falls at Jesus’ feet and begs him.
This is an extraordinary moment – we know nothing about this man except that he is prepared to lay aside entirely the office which he bears to approach Jesus as a father who is in dire need, because his daughter is in dire need. There is no demand made here, no authoritative statement or display of position.
Jairus does this in front of the crowd pressing about Jesus – it’s as if he doesn’t care who sees him make himself small because his need is so great. The only thing which matters to Jairus in that moment has stripped him back to his true self – father pleading for a child – and this is the man whom the crowd behold.
Perhaps this is the only way in which he can truly approach Jesus. This is this man as he is, suddenly fully aware of who he is and able to live that truthfulness without any fear of others judging him. Suddenly, there is a shining transparency about this man – he doesn’t hide behind office, position, robe, ring, influence or reputation. He doesn’t hide because he has only himself to bring. This is humility. True humility allows one to see both oneself as I am, the needs of my neighbour for what they really are, and the God who is already pouring himself into my life for the power that he has in his love. True humility, then, is little other than the living out to the full the greatest commandment of them all – to love God, and to love my neighbour as myself.
Not for nothing does St Benedict present what might be termed his charter for monastic life in Chapter 72 of his Rule in those terms:
“This, then, is the good zeal which monks must foster with fervent love: they should each try to be the first to show respect to the other, supporting with the greatest patience one another’s weakness of body or behaviour, and earnestly competing in obedience to one another. No one is to pursue what he judges better for himself, but instead what he judges better for someone else. To their fellow monks they show the pure love of brothers; to God, loving fear; to their abbot, unfeigned and humble love. Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may he bring us all together to everlasting life.”Rule of St Benedict, Chapter 72
It would be impossible for a monk to do these things and to love in these ways had he not already found that he himself was and is loved, both by God and by his brothers, and that this love establishes him in love for himself, redeemed by Christ.
Now we are asked to look at our own needs and begin to question their relative importance and our demands for their fulfillment. Part of the gospel’s challenge is to ask us to bring things into perspective – and that perspective is always provided by what Jesus will give to us. He will always give us what we really need, in other words, what makes the true difference in our lives, what defines us in a new and life-giving way. When we come to know what that is, and we put all other things aside in favour of it, he will give it. Essentially, this brings us to the search in our own lives for the kingdom – we might take a moment to look at Matthew 13:44-45, two little parables which compare the kingdom of God to things which are beyond price.
When we can see the things of the kingdom for their real value, and judge much of that which is about for the little real value which it has, we are on the right road. Then we have, suddenly, an idea of what to look for and what to ask him for!
So far, the questions – Why am I looking for Jesus? What am I asking him for?
The third question springs from Jairus’s attitude – bending low, probably on his knees, and begging. This begging isn’t to be taken in a demeaning sense – Jesus does not wish to belittle us when we meet him. But here the request that Jairus makes comes from the depth of his being – this begging wells up from deep inside him – all of himself is poured into this request.
Which, of course, is why it is so powerful! Jairus is asking nothing for himself here – it is entirely for his sick daughter that he has come seeking Jesus! Jairus is living entirely for another person in this moment. His whole attitude – body, spirit and words – is selfless. There are two complete forms of prayer being taught to us here – Jairus plays the role of the intercessor, the one who stands between Christ and the person in need, and prays for that other person. There is a purity about this prayer which is striking – we know that, in a sense, and if we wish to frame it in this way, Jairus stands to benefit from Christ hearing him. But one would never, we would hope, stand to use someone else in such a way to gain our own happiness. It will be as a result of his daughter’s healing, first and foremost and above all, that Jairus will be at peace: nothing else matters in his life other than this thing, that she be restored to health.
True intercessory prayer is always utterly disinterested in personal gain and always utterly invested in the good of the one prayed for – that makes it a powerful attitude of mind, spirit and the totality of one’s being. And it is a role shared by every Christian – to ask, to seek, to knock on behalf of others! And it is entirely Christ-like: the one who intercedes for us with the Father, as Redeemer and Saviour and Sacrifice, Priest and Victim.
The second form of prayer which is taught to us here, and which is equally valid and necessary, is the prayer of petition, asking on one’s own behalf. We have to counsel ourselves, and others sometimes, who doubt that this should happen – it is a false humility to say that I should not pray for myself and my own needs. Indeed, it is central to the practice of discernment that I be able to bring myself in humility before the Father, through Christ, moved by the Spirit, to ask for what I need. Discernment shows me the way in which I set aside the many things which clamour for my attention and which tell me – through many other voices – that they are necessary for my existence – these embrace a wide gamut of possibilities, from possessions to relationships. Discernment teaches me to allow the Spirit to reveal to me what is needed, what is necessary, for me to live my life in accordance with God’s will, and so be fulfilled as a daughter or son of the Father. Perhaps the most difficult part of petition prayer is seeming not to receive what I asked for – but the question must always be asked: is the Father giving me what I need, but in another way, a way which I did not foresee nor expect, and that needed thing did not even occur to me? God sees what we need and gives it – he is not, and as Scripture shows again and again – a tight-fisted God, who treats creation and his image and likeness as plaything.
Undoubtedly, this woman approaches knowing that what she asks is wholly expressive of her deep need – and it is a prayer which only God can answer, as her own terrible life experience has taught her.
So, there is much already in this passage which nourishes our lectio this week: how we approach Jesus; with what do I come; how do I identify and discern my own needs; what are the needs of others which I am ignoring and which now I need to bring before God; how do I live humbly before God and others; how do I experience their love for me; how do they experience my love for them; how is that love withheld and how do I work to restore it; how do I live with a real transparency of life and being?
-Part of our continuous lectio divina on the Gospel According to Mark-