As we confront a world where there are increasing disparities that leave many behind – poor, homeless or addicted to drugs, how should we respond. Rev. Mark Lewis described how the church in Jesus’ time equated sickness and poverty with God’s punishment for sin and rejected caring for them contrary to Hebrew Scripture. That is why Jesus was criticized by synagogue leaders in Mark 3 for healing an individual with a paralyzed hand. So Jesus left the synagogue and travelled across the Sea of Galilee to the country of the Gerasene where sick people and those with mental illness (demon possessed) resided. When he returned after healing some of them , he was met by a synagogue official named Jairus who wanted Jesus to come and heal his sick daughter. On the way to Jairus’ home, a crowd formed and a woman suffering from menorrhagia touched his cloak in an act of faith. Jesus felt the power traveling from him to this woman and she was healed. Jairus wanted Jesus to hurry to his daughter but Jesus had stopped to heal this poor woman who had suffered with her illness for 12 years. Jairus wanted his daughter healed. Jesus tells Jairus that this woman was “his daughter”. The story provides us with a moral framework as we think about the disadvantaged in our society who suffer from homelessness, addiction and poverty. They are all God’s children.
It is Always Your Child
The Rev. Dr. J. Mark Lewis
Introduction – For weeks, Jairus, the leader of the local church, has been telling Jesus, “You must not heal, you must not heal, you must not heal!” Jairus told his congregation that sickness was God’s way of punishing people for their sin, and to heal someone was to defy the will of God. Jairus was finally so enraged by Jesus’ healing, that he threatened to kill Jesus. Now Jesus is returning from a trip to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, and Jairus is running towards him waving his arms. The disciples no doubt think that Jairus has come to condemn Jesus for sharing God’s love with the “pagans” on the other side of the Sea of Galilee. But when Jairus reaches Jesus, he falls on his knees, and with eyes full of tears, says the most unlikely thing, “Jesus, Jesus, my daughter is sick, I think she is dying, please come and heal her!” And Jesus said…
I am not sure where you all live, but wherever it is, you likely face many of the same challenges that my home city of Hamilton, Ontario faces. Hamilton has recently declared a state of emergency with respect to homelessness, opioid addiction, and untreated mental health. Canadian society has changed over the past few years. There have been shifts in the economy that have left many persons with no hope for a home to live in, food to eat, meaningful employment, or adequate medical care. In despair, many people have been driven to homelessness. In addition to this, we are facing an opioid crisis that has come into existence through the failure of our government to monitor and control opioid use. Since 2016 more than 30,000 Canadians have died from opioid overdoses, more than all other major forms of accidental death combined. The rate of death by opioid overdose is dramatically increasing. In 2022, 7,328 Canadians died of opioid overdoses, that’s 20 deaths per day. That is more than double the rate of opioid deaths before the pandemic.
Today’s sermon is about how the church should respond to people living on the streets and people who are addicted to opioids. Should we even be talking about such an ugly subject? How should we respond to those people whom we meet in the streets and who make our downtowns scary places to be? At my church, St. Paul’s in downtown Hamilton, in the last few months we have had a bullet fired through our front door, a knife attack, several arson attempts (one resulting in an arrest and a charge of “Arson that disregards human life.”), bricks thrown through our stained-glass windows, endless graffiti, and homeless encampments. For some time in 2022, we had to hire a security guard for Sunday mornings so that our members could enter the church safely. What a strange situation for a church that is a National Historic Site and celebrating its 190th birthday. How does Jesus call us to respond to such a strange situation?
I am thankful for my congregation of St. Paul’s, Hamilton, which has opened its doors to become Hamilton’s safe consumption site. We are working in conjunction with the Hamilton Urban Core Community Health Center. In 2022 the safe injection site hosted 21,500 visits from persons seeking help and guidance. In the Summer of 2023, we will expand our relationship with Hamilton Urban Core in order to host the Hamilton Urban Safe Supply Program. We are dedicated to helping the most vulnerable people in our community in their time of need. But why do we bother? Why would we want to help a group of people that many people would like to write off and forget about?
The answer lies in scripture, more specifically in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. The society in which Jesus lived shared a challenge with our society. A shift in economics saw a large percentage of societal wealth diverted into the hands of a small ruling class, while at the other end of the scale, a large number of people had next to nothing. Those who were physically or mentally ill were left homeless and begging in the streets. Those who were not born with wealth had little chance to accumulate it. Further to that, the church of the day taught that if a person was sick or poor, it was because they were being punished for their sin, or the sin of their parents. The church did not try to help the poor and outcast because they believed that to do so would be to defy the will of God. Of course, this is not what Hebrew Scripture teaches. Hebrew Scripture has always called on God’s people to care for the poor members of society. But in the time of Jesus, the church, which was synonymous with the government, developed a system to ensure that the wealthy would remain wealthy, and the poor would suffer and die.
Jesus was constantly in trouble with the leaders of the church because he declared that the poor and sick people were beloved by God, and he offered them healing. The shocking part of Jesus’ healing stories is not that he had the power to heal, but that he declared that sickness and poverty were not God’s punishment and that sick and poor people deserved healing and restoration. In Mark chapter 2, he healed a paralyzed man, and the leaders of the local church said that he was a blasphemer. Later in Mark 2, Jesus called Levi, the tax collector, to be a disciple and then ate dinner at Levi’s house with a whole host of sinners. The leaders of the local church were shocked and asked Jesus’ disciples, why their master would eat with such people. Jesus overheard and said, “People who are well do not need a doctor, but only those who are sick. I have not come to call respectable people, but outcasts.” In Mark chapter 3 Jesus healed a man with a paralyzed hand. It was the Sabbath day, so the leaders of the local church condemned him and started to plot to kill him. They were so upset that Jesus was forgiving and receiving sinners, that they declared that he had to die. If it became known that sickness and poverty were not God’s punishment, then their whole economic system would be threatened!
Around this time, Jesus crossed over to the other side of the Sea of Galilee to share the love of God in the land that the Galileans called the land of the pagans. As he was getting out of the boat on his return, he looked up and saw the leader of the local church running towards him. It was Jairus, the very man who had told him over and over again, “You must not heal, you must not heal, you must not heal!” Jairus told his congregation that sickness was God’s way of punishing sin and that if you healed a sick person, you were defying God. That’s why he called Jesus a blasphemer and called for Jesus’ death. We should note that this view is not at all consistent with the teaching of Hebrew Scripture. God’s Word has always called for us to act with compassion and grace toward people who are sick. Jairus was running towards Jesus, waving his arms and shouting. Jesus likely thought, “Oh boy, here comes this useless idiot again, probably angry because I have been to the Decapolis to share God’s love with the people he calls pagans!” But when Jairus reached Jesus, he fell on his knees weeping, and said the most unlikely thing, “Jesus, Jesus, my little girl is sick, I think she is dying, will you please come and heal her?”
And Jesus saith unto Jairus, “Jairus, you miserable, hypocritical jerk! You’ve been telling me for weeks that I am not supposed to heal, that healing is a sin, and that sickness is God’s way of punishing sinners. You even threatened to kill me if I did not stop healing. But now, when it is your own daughter, you come to me with tears and pleading, asking me to heal her. Jairus, you are such a jerk and a hypocrite! Get lost, and if your child dies too bad, I guess God is just punishing her for her sin!”
Oh, wait a minute, I might have read my Bible wrongly, Jesus did not say that at all. Instead, he looked at Jairus, saw the tears in his eyes, felt the pain of the parent watching his child suffer, and said, “Of course I will heal your daughter, Jairus, come on, let’s go to your house.” And they hurried away. But what is going on in Jesus’ mind? What is going on in the mind of Jairus? Has Jairus been cured of his toxic theology? Has he learned something here? Maybe the lesson needs to be driven home a little bit harder to make sure that Jairus gets the message.
Jairus is now leading Jesus to his home at a quick trot, “Come on, come on, my daughter is really sick, she is close to death, we have to hurry.” But a woman in the crowd is about to put the brakes on their quick journey to the home of Jairus.
There is a woman in this town who has had an issue of blood for twelve years, and no one has been able to heal her. When she hears that Jesus can heal, she goes looking for him and finds him when he is rushing through town. She has no idea that he is rushing to the house of Jairus. She believes that if she just touches the hem of Jesus’ garment she will be cured. She pushes through the crowd, chases after Jesus, manages to get within touching distance, reaches out and just barely manages to land the lightest touch on the hem of his cloak. All at once, she knows she has been healed, she stands up, she is filled with joy, years of suffering and rejection are over, and she is well again, what a great day.
But then Jesus, who has been running through the crowd, comes to a dead stop, and the crowd around him stops, and Jairus stops, and Jairus did not want to stop! The crowd fell silent because they all knew that Jesus should be rushing to the house of Jairus. “Why are we stopping,” the crowd wonders, “Why are we stopping,” Jairus demands, “My daughter, my daughter, did you forget my daughter?” And Jesus said, “Who touched me, somebody touched me, I felt power going out of me.” The crowd backed away in fear, and now only the healed woman, and Jesus, and Jairus were left in the middle. “Come on Jesus,” pleaded Jairus, “Come on, hurry, my daughter, my daughter!” “Who touched me.” And the healed woman came forward, “It was me; I was ill, I am well now.” She was terrified when Jesus looked at her, but then her terror was multiplied when she saw who Jesus was with, it was a man she knew too well, and Jairus knew the woman too. The woman trembled when she saw Jairus. He was the man who had thrown her out of church 100 times. The issue of blood meant that she was unclean, she was not allowed to go to church, every time she tried, Jairus denied her entry, told her that she was being punished for her sin, and forbade her to come back. When Jairus saw her, he was enraged, this woman again! This unclean, miserable pest was stopping Jesus from going to heal his daughter! He cried out, “Jesus, why are we stopping for this woman, she is nothing, she is unclean, she is a sinner, we need to go and heal my daughter, MY DAUGHTER, MY DAUGHTER!!!”
And now Jesus sees the moment has come to explain something to Jairus. Jesus put his hand on the shoulder of the healed woman and said, “Jairus, this is my daughter.” And what he was saying was, “Jairus, do you know how much you love your daughter? Do you know how you would do anything to save her? Do you know how much she means to you? Well, this is my daughter, and I love her as much as you love your daughter, and all those people that I healed…the man with the withered hand, the paralyzed man, they are all my children, they are all God’s children, and I love them all as much as you love your child. Do you understand this, do you understand why I wanted to heal them?”
Of course, they would then proceed to the house of Jairus, and Jesus would heal Jairus’s daughter. And there is a depth of meaning in this story apart from the one simple idea that is presented when Jesus says, “Jairus, this is my daughter.” I have emphasized this idea because it provides us with a basis for making moral judgments about other people. I started by talking about how we make decisions and form judgments about the persons who do not have a home and persons addicted to opioids that we now see on our streets. Do they deserve help and compassion, or do they deserve contempt and condemnation? The answer lies in the story of Jairus. He had only contempt and condemnation for the sick and poor people in his town, “It was their own fault, they weren’t even trying, they deserved their suffering.” But when it was his own daughter that was sick and suffering, he ran to Jesus, begging Jesus to heal her. He was saying, “But this is different, this is my daughter!” When Jesus turned to the woman who had been healed, and said, “This is my daughter,” he was telling Jairus that he should judge all people with the same grace, love, and compassion that he would show his own daughter.
And I call on you to do the same. When you look at a homeless person or an opioid addict, and you are about to judge, you must ask yourself, “How would I judge them, if they were my child?” And remember…it is always your child, so judge with compassion.
What about Jairus? Did he learn anything that day? Did he change? Did he go back to the church and say to the other church leaders, “Hey guys, we really need to rethink our policy on the sick and poor people in our town, maybe we got it all wrong.” The story does not say what happened to Jairus, so maybe we will never know. On the other hand, if you look up the name Jairus, you will find that it means…God enlightens!
Maybe just a coincidence.
In the name of the Father, and of the son and of the Holy Spirt. Amen.
Rev. Dr. J. Mark Lewis,
Minister Emeritus, McNab Street Presbyterian Church, Hamilton, Ontario
Interim-Minister, St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church, Hamilton, Ontario
Assessor and Coach, Hope Partnership for Missional Transformation, Indianapolis, Indiana