Two Sundays ago, the Gospel reading consisted of two agrarian parables about radical discontinuity. The parable of the harvest and the parable of the mustard seed illustrated the profound transformation that was promised in Jesus’ preaching about the kingdom of God. (Mk. 4:26-34) The “kingdom of God,” according to Jesus, would be a renewal of God’s act of creation; it would transform individual believers and all the world into faithful worshipers of God.
The two healing miracles in today’s Gospel reading are examples of the transformative effects of God’s power poured out on behalf of those who believe. In the first miracle story, a woman is healed of a lifelong affliction; in the second miracle story, a young girl’s life is restored.
When I wrote about the two agrarian parables two Sundays ago, I mentioned that it is necessary to disregard our modern understanding of the organic growth of plants. Our ancestors in the faith had no grasp of the scientific concepts that we accept so readily. The two agrarian parables were intended to present images of radical, mysterious transformation rather than organic growth.
In a similar way, it is necessary to disregard our rational questions about miracles in order to understand today’s Gospel reading. None of the questions that come to our minds would have occurred to the witnesses of these two miracles. Neither Jesus nor his contemporaries would have wondered about the physiological causes of the woman’s infirmity; none of them would have been incredulous that a dead girl was restored to life.
In order to grasp the meaning of these two healing miracles, it is necessary to see them in the way that Jesus’ contemporaries saw them. To Jesus, his disciples, and the crowds, these two miracles were prophetic signs of the same sort performed by the prophet Elijah and his protégé Elisha. The witnesses to the miracles would have recognized immediately that they were the undeniable results of the exercise of God’s power. The meaning of the miraculous healings was not that the laws of nature had been superseded but that an act of Divine intervention had occurred in order to draw further attention to the proximity of the kingdom of God.
The author of the Gospel provides a clue to help his readers avoid misunderstanding these two miracles. He wrote that when the dead girl stood up, the onlookers “were utterly astounded.” (Mk. 5:42) The word used here to describe the astonishment of the witnesses to the miracle is used again at the end of the Gospel to describe the sense of awe inspired in the women who found Jesus’ tomb empty on the morning after the Sabbath. (Mk. 16:5) The intended effect of the miracles was to inspire renewed faith in the lives of those who witnessed them.
These two miracles are stories about the same sort of radical discontinuity illustrated in the two agrarian parables in chapter four of Mark’s Gospel. The woman’s physical affliction was an obstacle to living a normal life; the little girl’s death was, obviously, an even greater obstacle. The healing miracles performed by Jesus restored both the woman and the girl to normalcy; these miracles are further illustrations of the radical transformation that God promises to those who believe Jesus’ teaching.
The author of Mark’s Gospel spends quite a bit of time and ink hammering home a single message, namely, that the experience of faith in Jesus causes a fundamental transformation in one’s life. The author repeated this theme, not because there were no others to explore, but because this experience is indispensable in the lives of the disciples of Jesus. That is to say, one’s claim of faith in Jesus is no more than empty words in the absence of perceptible evidence of the radical transformation into “a new creation” promised in Jesus’ teaching.
Rather than try to formulate a scientific explanation of these two miracles or rationalize an explanation of Jesus’ actions, the author of the Gospel wants us to apply our critical thinking skills to our own lives. The people who encountered God’s power poured out in the ministry of Jesus were transformed by the experience. In today’s Gospel reading, the woman and the girl were restored to normal relationships with family and wider society; they experienced individually what it meant to be “a new creation.” Mark’s Gospel preserved these stories to help us examine our own lives for the evidence of radical transformation by God’s power.
How much do our lives exemplify the radical transformation that God offers? Can the world see that we are now a new creation? Is there evidence in our lives of a transforming encounter with Jesus?
Throughout Mark’s Gospel, the experience of renewed faith by those who encounter Jesus leads inevitably to a proclamation of Jesus as Savior. There is, however, no guarantee that the reverse can happen. A public claim of faith does not produce faith; faith is present only when evidence of faith is perceptible.
The crops in the two agrarian parables, the woman who was healed, and the girl who was restored to life are metaphors that describe the radical discontinuity between a life without knowledge of God and a life in union with Jesus. Where do you see evidence of that radical discontinuity in your life?