IT IS not only concepts of masculinity (as last week) that are currently fraught with sensitivities. We must also wrestle with what it means to be female. The Gospel presents two women: one is at the age of burgeoning fertility, and hence marriageability, according to Jewish tradition. As for the other, we may suspect from the “uncleanness” (Leviticus 15.25-28) of her bleeding that her fertility is rapidly diminishing.
It is no accident that the two are set side by side. The older one, after bleeding for 12 years, was surely ill from anaemia, if nothing more. Perhaps she prayed, as her hand reached out, “There may yet be hope.” The younger, meanwhile, has for 12 years been developing to a point where she begins to be constrained by her fertility. She might have been told, “It is good for one to bear the yoke in youth” (Lamentations 3.27, 29).
To die before having the opportunity of bearing children was, in Jewish tradition, a matter for lamentation, as Jephthah’s daughter reminds us (Judges 11.27). This may add an extra layer of suffering for Jairus, the Jewish synagogue leader. It is unusual for Mark to give a name to such a character, which suggests that he wants us to pay close attention to Jairus. He shows a father’s distress at his child’s suffering, asking Jesus to restore her health; there is no hint that he is anxious about his own posterity.
Modern-day contraception, by disconnecting sexual intercourse from childbearing, has created a gap between female sexuality and female fertility which was unknown in Bible days. It is shocking to 21st-century, Western Christians to think of girls as marrying at puberty, at about the age of 12. We treat adolescence — roughly the years from 12 to 18 — as a time for learning and maturing, needing protection.
The perception that biology is destiny, that women’s fertility dictates their life choices, leaves behind it a grim trail of exploitation of the immature and vulnerable. Still, standing up to that perception leaves us with ethical and practical issues that did not trouble Jesus, or Jairus, or Jairus’s “little lamb”.
The message of this challenging Gospel story is not wholly clear on a first reading. But at least it doesn’t have the uncomfortable subtext of the epistle. If there is one thing guaranteed to make us uncomfortable in church — even more than the wrong sort of hymns, or Bible stories about women bleeding — it’s too much talk about money. Or “filthy lucre” (Titus 1.11), as the Bible calls it. Or the “root of all evil” (1 Timothy 6.10), as the Bible is said to call it.
My favourite Bible verse about money comes from this letter. It came to life liturgically when I started celebrating holy communion according to the 1662 Prayer Book rite. In 2 Corinthians 9.6-7, Paul reminds people that “God loveth a cheerful giver” — which may be bad news for people like me, who can always think of something fun to spend money on. More yarn. Another orchid. Tickets for the football.
There must be a reason that this lection begins at verse 7, but the only one that I can see is that, instead of starting with the Corinthians’ needing to open their purses, it begins with a bit of ego-massage (“as you excel in everything. . .”). Then it starts urging them to be generous. The Greek says that they should abound in charis, which encompasses “favour”, “gratitude”, and “gift”; the dominant meaning here is “generosity”.
Last time the question of money came up in the Sunday readings, it was about the apostles’ holding everything in common. It didn’t feel odd to me, as a teenager, that at the moment when a collection was taken in a big Baptist church, the treasurer read out the total for the previous week’s giving, and we were told whether we had given enough, or whether there was more to be done to pay the bills. But that would be shocking in most parish churches.
One answer to Paul, and to Jairus, and to the unnamed older woman, lies in the beatific poetry of Lamentations. Suffering and poverty are not intentionally imposed on us by God; so, when we endure them, as sometimes we must, we should do so knowing that help will come, and that our hope is not in vain.