The Girl in the House
It’s always obvious when death has invaded a house. Often, we pull the shades and reduce the ambient light. We speak in hushed tones and anxious whispers. Some of us putter about, trying to put things in order in the midst of the chaos. Others of us sit staring into space, stunned into inaction by the incursion of the dark power.
Functionaries come and go – clergy (perhaps), funeral home staff, sometimes medical and hospice workers, sometimes law enforcement (depending on the situation and the state). Someone is often on the phone and/or the computer, contacting other loved ones and friends with the news of the death.
As others learn of the death, they come to the door – often with food in hand. Some sit for a while in silence or in tears. Some take it upon themselves to orchestrate the grieving for a bit. Some simply want to learn if the reports are true.
Whether one thinks that Death is an actual “spirit” or a sociological event, an emotional pall is cast over the house, just as a pall will be cast over the coffin in some of our traditions. There is nothing more to say, nothing more to do. There is only waiting – waiting for events to take their course, for the reality to set in fully, for the next ring of the doorbell.
Death had attacked the home of Jairus and penetrated the body of his daughter. He learned that the situation was hopeless even as he pursued the one, last, desperate strategy of recruiting Jesus to mount a rescue. There was no point in bothering Jesus further, the messengers said. After all, dead is dead. And that is that.
Jesus is undeterred. “Don’t be afraid,” he tells Jairus. “Just keep on having faith.” There is that theme of resilient reliance that we have encountered in Mark’s account. It seems clear that in Mark’s faith community, there was a definite danger that disciples were on the point of giving up their trust in Jesus in the face of suffering and adversity.
The people in the know wondered why Jesus would continue so cruelly to sustain the hope of the panicking parent. They ridiculed Jesus’ confidence, so he kicked them out of the house.
Now, let’s pause for a moment here. Jesus went into the house. That may seem like an innocent detail but think back a bit. “But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property,” Jesus declared in Mark 3:27 (NRSV), “without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.” Jesus went into the house.
The power of death had invaded that house and taken a little girl prisoner. The “strong man” was in charge of things. Only the Stronger One could enter that house and tie up Satan. Then the hostage could be released. Jesus enacts the little parable in Mark 3 as he enters the house of Jairus and takes it back for healing and salvation.
I’ve observed in earlier posts that this idea of the Reign of God as an invasion of healing and salvation is important in Mark’s account. Even the story of the woman in the crowd carries this sense. Jesus’ power of healing and salvation is so pervasive that sometimes it just pours out of him on its own. Touching Jesus’ garment was a bit lit grabbing hold of a live wire. The connection was made, and the power flowed.
Jesus went into the house. He overwhelmed the Strong Man and drove out the spirit of death in that house. The boundary between exorcisms and healings is always fuzzy in Mark’s miracle stories. It’s fuzzy because healing and exorcism accomplish much the same thing. The forces of sin, death, and the devil must be driven out of the house so the forces of forgiveness, life, and salvation can take their rightful place.
Jesus has no time for scoffers – those who by their resigned realism end up cooperating with the dark invader. So, out they go. Those who have even a shred of hope are welcome – especially that desperate mom and dad who simply want their daughter back.
Jesus takes her by the hand and speaks tenderly. Little girl, get up! Some commentators note that “Talitha” can also be translated as “little lamb.” These are words warm compassion and deep humanity. There is no delay in the response. She’s up and hungry! She is twelve, after all.
It’s one thing to release a woman from twelve years of disability, to free a possessed man from years of mental incarceration, even to still a wild wind and waves. It’s quite another to render inert the chief weapon of the Enemy – death itself. After all, this is the real power that tyrants have over any of us – the power to erase us from existence. If that power is no more, then anything is possible!
This is why Jesus orders them to keep it a secret. When word gets out, the powers that be – both visible and invisible – will be put on notice that their time is coming to an end. Such information provokes a swift response from the powers that be. Such a threat results in execution for such disruptive troublemakers. That time will come for Jesus, but not just now.
Of course, his strict orders to keep quiet about what happened were not particularly effective. Those who had laughed at Jesus’ audacity and confidence certainly went outside and shared the sad story. The little girl was dead. And this stupid, insensitive, charlatan from Nazareth couldn’t take the hint. Everyone in the crowd was certainly clear that funeral plans were now on the agenda.
Therefore, when the little girl walked out of that house at some point, whatever secret had been kept was a secret no longer. People tend to notice when a dead teenager is walking out and about in the village. And such an event was bound to raise a question or two. In short, word must have traveled like wildfire, not only through the village but through the region – and perhaps to the palace of Herod Antipas as well.
As I’ve noted previously, this healing/exorcism/resuscitation was a temporary reprieve. Some day the mourners would be planning the final funeral for the little girl. But not just now. The Reign of God has invaded not only the house of Jairus, not only the village of Capernaum, but the entire cosmos. The Strong Man is on the run, and the victory is assured.
Don’t be afraid. Just keep on believing! That resilient reliance will be the challenge for the disciples throughout Mark’s account. They won’t come out so well as the story unfolds. Perhaps, Mark hopes, we can do better – we who know the whole story from the outside in. But it’s hard, in the face of tragedy, to keep on believing.
I think about C. S. Lewis and his searing little autobiography, A Grief Observed. He notes his surprise that grief feels so much like fear. That is the first part of his report and of this text that makes sense to me. The father is afraid – afraid of losing, afraid of failing, afraid of being alone, afraid of death, afraid of chaos. It’s hard to keep on believing in the midst of all that fear.
The challenge to hold fear and faith, doubt and determination, together in the same space seems to be one of the elements of this text. A resource to meet that challenge is the memory of the community – our memory together of how it turns out in the end. Jairus had just seen the healing of the woman in the crowd while he waited for Jesus to come with him. Did that give him some hope that things might turn out all right?
We tell one another such stories week in and week out in Christian worship – stories that we call the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. In the midst of our fears, we can hold on to the hope that comes from such testimony. We can keep on having faith.
Resources and References
Branch, Robin Gallaher. (2013). A study of the woman in the crowd and her desperate courage (Mark 5:21-43). In die Skriflig , 47(1), 319-331. Retrieved June 16, 2021, from http://www.scielo.org.za/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S2305-08532013000100032&lng=en&tlng=en.
Gaiser, Frederick J. “In Touch with Jesus: Healing in Mark 5:21–43.” Word & World, Volume 30, Number 1 (Winter 2010), pp. 5-15.
Moss, Candida R. “The Man with the Flow of Power: Porous Bodies in Mark 5:25-34.” Journal of Biblical Literature 129, no. 3 (2010): 507-519.
“Skin,” https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/skin-1. Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition