Proper 8

July 1, 2012
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-15; 2:23-24
Reading 2: 
Lamentations 3:21-33
Reading 3: 
2 Corinthians 8:7-15
Reading 4: 
Mark 5:21-43
By Paul Nancarrow

Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-15; 2:23-24

In the Season after Pentecost (Ordinary Time), the Revised Common Lectionary provides two tracks of First Testament readings: a semi-continuous reading of historical epics (Track 1), and a series of readings with themes chosen to reflect the Gospel (Track 2). This passage from the Wisdom of Solomon is from Track 2, and its connection to the Gospel is its reflection on life and death, creativity and destructiveness, to complement the healing miracles in the stories from Mark. The Wisdom of Solomon is an intertestamental book, and so it reflects an influence of Hellenistic thought that is absent from earlier layers of the Hebrew Scriptures. Some commentators find this Hellenistic, philosphically inclined material an intrusion on the purity of Hebrew attitudes; I tend to find the combination of Jewish faith and Hellenistic reflection both instructive and refreshing.

While earlier texts (eg, Psalm 88) speak of death as going down to the Pit, to Sheol, where the only existence is a kind of thin, sad, shadow of being, devoid of agency or enjoyment, this Wisdom text asserts boldly that “God did not make death,” and “God created us for incorruption,” and “righteousness is immortal.” While it is certainly the case that destruction and corruption exist in the world, the Wisdom writer is confident that these things are not part of God’s intention for Creation.

Instead, God “delights” in life, and has endowed the creatures with their own measure of creativity, which participates in the root goodness of God, because “the generative forces of the world are wholesome, and there is no destructive poison in them.” This is a biblical locus for the traditional theological statement that created things are good in themselves, though they may be twisted to evil in evil contexts — as some say, created things are essentially good though they may be existentially evil — as over against another theological tradition that holds that all created things are essentially corrupted and rendered evil by the Fall, and that world as such is lost.

Process thought, of course, tends more to the former view. Perhaps more importantly for complementing the Mark passage, the explicit mention of “generative forces of the world” as “wholesome” draws attention to natural creaturely processes such as sleep, eating, the body’s capacity for self-repair, the physiological benefits of emotional well-being and social connectedness, mindfulness — perhaps even what the modern West calls complementary medicine such as healing touch or energy therapy — as potential and appropriate channels for accomplishing God’s divine purposes of “delight,” “living,” “incorruption,” and “eternity.”

The passage echoes a central tenet of process theology: that in the midst of life as perpetual perishing and the tragic loss of immediacy of feeling in the passage of moments, there is yet a character of permanent rightness — “righteousness is immortal” — in the nature of things which itself enters into experience and gives to life its zest and peace. The contribution of this Hellenistic Jewish bit of Wisdom is that taking our part in the “generative forces of the world” for healing and flourishing is a specific way to contribute to the permanent rightness of God’s Creation.

Lamentations 3:21-33 (as a canticle)

The lectionary offers two passages as poetic responses to the reading from Wisdom, this set of verses from Lamentations, and Psalm 30. The Lamentations poem connects directly with Wisdom in its final lines, echoing Wisdom’s assertion that God “does not delight in the death of the living” with its own confidence that God “does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone.” Instead, it is the vision of the Lamentations poem that “The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases,” that even in the midst of suffering, “yokes,” having one’s “mouth” put in the “dust,” “smiters,” and “insults,” God’s “mercies” are renewed and God’s “faithfulness” is great.

Confidence that God does not willingly afflict and that God’s mercies are ever renewed gives the poet “hope,” which here is not simply a good thought for the future, but is an active strength to endure sufferings and to work for their transformation in “compassion” and “steadfast love.” This active strength in God both reflects the “wholesome” energies of creation in the Wisdom passage, and looks forward to the power of healing depicted in the Gospel.

2 Corinthians 8:7-15

This selection from 2 Corinthians is part of Paul’s fundraising effort for the Church in Jerusalem. While it offers valuable material for stewardship sermons in contemporary congregations, in this position in the lectionary, flanked by the themes of healing in the other readings, what rises into prominence is the connection Paul makes between the generosity of Jesus and the generosity of Jesus’ followers. The “generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ” in emptying himself to take on human form (Philippians 2:7), the act by which “though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor,” is presented here not only as an example for disciples to emulate, but is seen as the very thing which empowers disciples to be generous: “by his poverty you might become rich.”

The disciples’ generosity is therefore a reenactment in their own selves, a reembodiment in their actual lives, of the power of divine generosity decisively enacted and embodied in Jesus. Believers can be generous because they participate in the generous energy of God in Christ. The material generosity Paul seeks to inspire in the Corinthians is therefore a counterpart and companion of the spiritual generosity of the Jerusalemites, and both are particular expressions of the universal generous divine energy of Christ. The Corinthian and Jerusalem churches are partners in each other’s well-being, because they are both partners in the healing and reconciling mission of God.

Mark 5:21-43

The passage presents two stories of healing, the raising of Jairus’ daughter wrapped around the healing of the woman with the hemorrhage. Jairus is a “leader of the synagogue” — a subtle indicator that not all of the religious leadership was against Jesus — whose interest in Jesus at this point is chiefly in Jesus’ growing reputation as a healer. Jairus comes seeking healing for his daughter, and in that context Jesus’ religious irregularity, by synagogue standards, is far less important to Jairus than the promise of healing power. Jesus agrees to come with him.

While Jesus is on his way to Jairus’ house, with a crowd in attendance, his cloak is touched by a woman who has had a discharge of blood for twelve years. While commentators rightly point out that this makes her ritually impure, and so cut off from religious relationship with her community, Mark himself seems far more interested in the length of her illness, the considerable pain it has caused her, and the inability of “many physicians” to heal her. These are stock elements in many healing stories, magnifying the miracle of the healing by emphasizing the severity of the illness; but here they also serve to personalize the story, giving us as readers an empathy for the character of the woman.

She is so confident in Jesus’ reputation as a healer that she does not even need to ask him for healing, convinced that “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” That makes this the only story in the gospels (along with its parallel in Luke; but interestingly not in Matthew) where Jesus performs a healing miracle unintentionally. At the woman’s touch, Jesus is “aware” that “power had gone forth” from him, while at the same time the woman “felt in her body that she was healed of her disease”: there is some kind of physical energy exchange, some kind of bodily mediated dynamism between them, that they each perceive in a visceral modality, in Jesus’ case apart from prior mental intention or volition.

When Jesus says to the woman “Your faith has made you well,” that is not so much the moment of healing as it is the corroboration of healing that has already taken place, indicating that her “faith” is less an intellectual assent to the proposition “Jesus can heal me” than it is the whole act of disposing herself to receive power from Jesus. In this episode, it is the physical, dynamic, visceral energy of faith that is the important factor in healing.

The narrative then returns to Jairus and his daughter. Messengers arrive to report that the girl has died, but Jesus says to her father “Do not fear, only believe”; and it is worth noting that Mark uses the active verbs “fear” and “believe,” rather than the more indirect construction “Do not be afraid, only have faith.” Arriving at the house, Jesus finds mourners in full wail, who laugh at him when he asserts the child is is not dead but “sleeps” (another active verb, despite the NRSV and NIV translations).

Taking only the immediate family and his closest disciples, Jesus then enters the house, where he takes the girl’s hand and speaks to her, telling her to “rise.” Mark spells out the Aramaic words in Greek characters at this point, something he does only four times in his entire gospel, signalling their extreme importance. Some commentators see here an echo of Hellenistic magical practice — and not the only one in Mark — in that words or incantations performed in original or exotic languages were considered to be more efficacious. At Jesus’ touch and the sound of Jesus’ voice, the girl does indeed arise, and begins to walk about, and Jesus directs that she be given something to eat.

This last detail, though it may seem little more than a “homey” touch to end the story, is an important key to the tenor of the whole incident, especially in light of the healing of the woman’s hemorrhage that precedes it. The detail of giving her something to eat emphasizes the physical, bodily, visceral quality of the story, and in retrospect throws into high relief the energetic and dynamic elements of the narrative: the active verbs, the decisive statements of Jesus, the sound of Jesus’ voice, the touch of Jesus’ hand. Jesus’ directive to Jairus, that he “believe,” is an invitation to take an active role in the healing he seeks for his daughter; like the woman with the hemorrhage, “faith” for Jairus must be an act of disposing himself to the power of Jesus, a participatory agency in the energy at work in Jesus.

Taken in conjunction with the passage from Wisdom, we can see these healing miracles as works of the “generative forces of the world” that are “wholesome,” mediated through Jesus and participated by the woman, Jairus, and the daughter. From a process perspective, the stories function as invitations to us, in our own circumstances, to dispose ourselves to Jesus’ mediation of the “generative forces of the world,” to be conscious and intentional created co-creators who embody God’s energies for right-relationship in well-being.