Commentary on the Readings
13th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year B – July 1, 2018
Rescued From Death by the God of Life
Despite the suffering it entails, humans desperately love life. Ulysses in Hades tries to comfort Achilles who replies: “Do not embellish me at death, O Odysseus! I would prefer, as a laborer, to serve on earth another man rather than rule over the dead.” The Egyptians viewed death differently. For them death was “everlasting life” in a wonderful kingdom, located to the west, lit by the sun god, from dawn until dusk, when it gets dark for us.
Among all ancient peoples the conviction of the existence of an afterlife prevailed and among the Greeks, immortality of the soul. Inexplicably, this did not happen with the Jews since they were born as a people in Egypt. They let more than a thousand years passed before they began to believe in a life beyond death.
They proclaimed, yes, the Lord “the God of life” (Num 27:16), but always in earthly perspective. “In you is the source of life,” sang the psalmist, but for life he meant “health and blessing” (Sir 34:17), a fertile land, abundant crops, numerous descendants, and finally, to die “at a good old age” (Gen 35:29), as the ripe sheaves that are withdrawn from the field (Job 5:26). In the Hebrew Bible the word “immortality” does not even appear.
The slowness of Israel in reaching an explicit affirmation of eternal life is precious and enlightening. It makes us understand that, before believing in the resurrection and a future world, it is necessary to value and passionately love life in this world as God appreciates and loves it.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“From the Lord I have learned to love life, every expression of life.”
A few centuries before Christ, Job said: “The one who lies down will not rise again; the heavens will vanish before he wakes, before he rises from his sleep” (Job 14:12) and, after him, the wise Sirach was still convinced that “the destiny of humans and animals is identical: death for one as for the other” (Eccl 3:19). Since the mid-second century B.C., everyone in Israel believed that the dead lived a permanent sleep in the “land of gloom and shadow, to the land of chaos and deepest night, where darkness is the only light” (Job 10:21-22).
In Jesus’ time the mentality had profoundly changed. The Sadducees held that death was the end of it all, but the majority of the people shared the doctrine of the Pharisees who believed in the resurrection of the dead. The saying circulated: “The day when a man dies is better than the day he was born” in fact, they do not celebrate the day when one begins a long and dangerous journey. Rather they rejoice when a trip ends happily.
This image of the rabbis is suggestive but does not answer the more disturbing question: “Why should one die?” We come from nothing, we open our eyes to the light and we fall in love with life, then this ends up in a puff (Job 7:7), “passes like the shadow of a cloud” (Wis 2:4); a relentless and ruthless force, grabs us and pulls us back into nothingness, into the dust from which we were taken. Has God perhaps created us in his image and established a dialogue of love with us to expose us to this cruel joke?
The author of the Book of Wisdom, who lived in Alexandria, Egypt in the time of Jesus, rejects this view and, categorically states: “God did not make death, nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living. Since he has created everything; all creatures of the universe are for our good; there is no deadly poison in them” (vv. 13-14). Human life is not comparable to the waves that rise and disappear without leaving a trace of their passage. God cannot play joke with man as the wind plays with the water.
If not from God, then where does death come from?
“The envy of the devil brought death to the world”—answers our reading (v. 24).
A disconcerting statement! So, if man had not sinned, would people never die? Science categorically denies this claim. Biological death has always existed: the human body, like that of every other living thing, over the years, weakens, wears out, and ends its cycle.
This is not the death that instilled fear to the pious Jew of Jesus’ time. The just knew he was destined to live; his death, in the Book of Wisdom, is called a definite “start”, “liberation”, “transfer” into God’s rest, “exodus” from slavery to freedom, for this it was not feared. The transition to a better life could not be considered a punishment.
Which death was then introduced by sin?
The verse which precedes this passage helps us understand: “Do not bring about your own death by your wrong way of living. And do not let the work of your hands destroy you” (Wis 1:12).
Here is what causes death: sin. Who feeds on hatred, takes revenge, is violent. Who leads an immoral life, even if he enjoys excellent health, has destroyed the best part of himself.
Today’s reading concludes: “The devil brought death to the world and those who take his side shall experience death” (v. 25). It does not speak about biological death. This is an event, not an absolute evil. Man really dies only when he ceases to love, when he withdraws to himself and becomes selfish, when he moves away from God and his wisdom, which is “a life-giving fountain” (Prov 13:14), which is “the tree of life” (Prov 3:18).
The devil is the one who introduces us into this state of death. It is the evil force, present in each person and that it distances us from the Lord.
The author of the Book of Wisdom appears to have assimilated well the biblical message. In the sacred books of Israel it continually reaffirms that one who chooses sin decrees his own death. Moses says to the people—“See, I have set before you on this day life and good, evil and death; I command you to love the Lord your God, and follow his ways. I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; choose life, that you and your descendants may live” (Dt 30:15-20).
During the reign of Claudius (A.D. 41-54) famines in the provinces of the Roman Empire were recorded. Even Palestine, an already very poor region, was not spared and several times the Christian communities were in emergency situations.
In Jerusalem, after a heated debate with the apostles, Paul solemnly committed himself to helping the poor of his people, reminding the Christians of the churches he founded in pagan territory of the obligation to solidarity (Gal 2:10).
He decided to take up a collection upon the advice of the Christian community at Corinth.
As it often happens with good initiatives, a cooling of enthusiasm soon follows the initial good intentions. Apathy and lack of interest enter and the project is delayed first, then stops altogether. It was what happened in Corinth.
Writing to the Christians of that community, Paul recalls, first of all, the commitment they had undertaken, and to stimulate them, he cites the generosity shown by the Thessalonians and Philippians: “According to their means—even beyond their means—they wanted to share in helping the saints. They asked us for this favor spontaneously and with much insistence, and, far beyond anything we expected, they put themselves at the disposal of the Lord, and of us by the will of God” (2 Cor 8:3-5).
Raising a bit of jealousy and holy emulation in certain circumstances, can be a good gimmick.
The Apostle does not consider it convenient to impose drastic orders also because his detractors have put out malicious rumors about him. It is said that through the collection, he intends to reach a hidden agenda: to gain the praise of his people. For this reason, he prefers to base his exhortation on generosity for two theological reasons.
The first is the example of Christ: “Although he was rich, he made himself poor to make you rich” (v. 9). The collection is not a simple act of generosity; it is a sign that the community has assimilated the thoughts and feelings of Christ. It is a proof of the authenticity of the faith, because it is a manifestation of gratuitous love, which is the perfection of Christian life.
The second reason is the need to create conditions of equality (vv. 13-14). The sharing of goods is not a marginal and optional aspect of the evangelical proposal. It is an essential requirement of the Christian vocation.
This is not to fall into misery in order to help others, but to show that faith in the Risen One has made them understand the relative value of the goods of this world.
Paul concludes with a biblical reference (v. 15). In the desert, the Israelites had received from God the order to collect only the amount of manna that they would consume in a day. There should be no leftover. Someone tried to grab more than what was necessary. In the morning he found them rotten and full of worms. It was the lesson that God intended to give to his people. The basic necessities of life cannot be amassed. They must leave something available to those in need. They should be shared.
The passage proposes two miracles, one inserted inside the other. In the first verse Jairus, a ruler of the synagogue, enters the scene. He comes to Jesus to ask him to go and lay hands on his daughter who is about to die (vv. 21-24). Then he narrated the healing of a woman who suffered from bleeding for twelve years, (vv. 25-34), before continuing with the story of illness, death and resuscitation of Jairus’ daughter (vv. 35-43).
Let’s start from healing the woman suffering from an incurable hemorrhage (vv. 25-34). The disease is described in all its gravity. It lasts for twelve years, has not improved, in fact, it continues to get worse. No doctor is able to cure it, forcing the sick to squander all her savings. It is annoying and humiliating, hits the woman in her intimate part, in that part of her body that should be a source of life and, above all, because of religious impurity. Blood is the symbol of life, but when it leaves the body it recalls death, provokes disgust and fear. The law states that one who has bleeding is not allowed at parties and meetings of the community and is shunned by all, as if she were a leper. For those who have even casual contact with her is forced to undergo complicated ceremonies before resuming normal life (Lev 15:25-27).
Like all sick, marginalized, despised people (Mk 6:56), this unclean woman feels inside an irresistible impulse to get closer to Jesus, to “touch him”. “If I just touch his cloak—she thinks—I shall get well” (v. 28).
Two obstacles stand in between this meeting: the fear of violating the strict provisions of the law and the barrier formed by the huge crowd that flock around the Master. Hence the decision to act in secret. She approaches behind Jesus, touches his cloak and as if struck by a sudden force of life, she feels healed.
So far this is the fact. Now let us look at the details that allow us to capture “the sign” beyond the miracle. We are faced with an unnamed woman, impure for twelve years. The Evangelist would like to highlight the number twelve. In fact he will use it again later, when he speaks of the age of Jairus’ daughter: “She was twelve years old” (v. 42). Twelve is the symbol of the people of Israel, which—as I have often pointed out—is a feminine name.
The impurity of the woman and the absence of life of the child indicate, in the symbolic language of the evangelist, the dramatic condition of the woman Israel whose spiritual leaders are not only unable to cure her of the illness, but feels revulsion, shunning away from here and not favoring her misery. In fact they impede the encounter with Jesus who is able to communicate salvation.
The disease is undoubtedly a form of death. The psalmist considered it a step toward the realm of the afterlife (Ps 30:3-4). The contact with a sick and unclean person entails a decrease in life. All were afraid of it.
Jesus takes a unique approach: he does not avoid in any way those who are considered unclean. He lets himself be approached, touched and does not run to undergo the ritual purifications prescribed in the book of Leviticus. He is conscious of being in possession of a life force that cannot be affected by any form of death. He wants this to be known to all, that is why he calls the woman and places her in the middle, not to humiliate her, but for all to see, reflected in her, his own condition.
The woman advances “in fear and trembling,” as if being sick, feeling unclean, feeling the need of resorting to Jesus were a sin.
There is no physical or moral disease, that justifies the refusal or that constitutes a hindrance to approach God. In the face of the Lord all people are impure, but they are made pure by the encounter with his envoy, with Christ. Only the hypocrites consider themselves holy and raise barriers so as not to be united with sinners. They do not need to “touch” Jesus. They delude themselves that they are already in perfect health.
The attitude of Christ towards the woman is an invitation to never feel discomfort, not to flee in the face of those who are considered impure. The Christian is not afraid of losing his dignity or reputation by approaching or letting oneself be touched by all those avoided by others. The only thing that should be of interest to him is to find ways to give life to a brother or sister. If for this he has to challenge even the gossips and malice of the “good people,” he does not have to worry that much.
Jesus emanates a force of life, but not all those who touch him physically receive it. In today’s passage we see that around him there is a big crowd (v. 31). These are not enemies, but disciples, people that are very close to him, who perhaps push or encumber him. Yet he says that only one person has “touched” him. Only the sick woman touched him “with faith.” “Daughter, your faith has saved you,” he says, only you, in the midst of so many people, you’ve been able to accept the gift of God.
The crowd represents the Christians of today who are close to the Master. They have the opportunity to listen to his word and “touch him” in the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. If their life is not transformed, if their “diseases” are not cured and the vices, sins always remain the same, if the cantankerous character does not change, and the offensive words not lessened, it means they remain a “crowd” that throng around Christ without really ever “touching him.” They have a surface and exterior contact with him; his word is a sound that enters the ear, but does not reach the heart.
Let’s move on to the second episode, that of the the daughter of Jairus (vv. 21-24,35-43).
The element that unites this miracle to the above is the faith that saves.
Here we are not faced with a serious illness, but a desperate situation, leading to death. Can the force of life that Jesus gives to the sick still do something in an extreme case like this? Humanly speaking, it seems there is nothing more to expect, but Jesus advises the ruler of the synagogue: “Do not fear, just believe” (v. 36).
Here is the unheard message: his power to give life does not stop even in front of man’s greatest enemy, death.
By awakening the child from the sleep of death, he shows that faith in him can also obtain this victory. He did not win death because he adds a few years to the life of man in this world. If faith in him gets only this result, one cannot speak of a final victory. In the end death would still have the upper hand. He has defeated it because he transformed it into a birth, because he let it become a transition to life without end.
Then he wants to tell us, for those who have faith in him, there are no unrecoverable situations. In the face of one who presents only a little mistake, commits venial mistake, gives in to some weakness, has no difficulty in admitting that faith in Christ can achieve good results. However, when you come across people who have completely ruined their lives, who are basically depraved and practically “dead”, nearly all get discouraged and give heed to those who, like Jairus’ friends, keep repeating: “Why trouble the Master any further?”
To these people who are tempted to lose hope, something can still change. Jesus says: “Do not fear; just believe.” Whoever believes in him will see, even today, all those who are considered permanently “dead” rise to a new life.
There is a video by Fr. Fernando Armellini with English subtitles commenting on today’s Gospel reading: