Death was not God’s doing, he takes no pleasure in the extinction of the living. To be – for this he created all! Those words from the book of Wisdom sum up the principal message of today’s readings, but the word ‘death’ is used ambiguously here. The more important meaning is ‘spiritual death’, serious sin, the kind which severs our relationship with God. I think it probable that physical death was always part of God’s plan. Once our period of testing, our earthly life, is ended, we pass through physical death to eternal life.
The passage from St Mark’s gospel which we’ve just heard interweaves two stories about life and death. It begins with the synagogue official coming to ask Jesus to do something for his 12-year-old daughter who is desperately sick. Jairus falls on his knees at Jesus’ feet to ask for his help. That gesture shows that he was one Jewish leader who was not hostile to Jesus. In telling us that the daughter was 12 years old, St Mark is pointing out that she is almost a woman, old enough in those days to be betrothed and to transmit life. Jesus sets out to accompany him to his house and a whole crowd of bystanders follows them.
Among them was the woman who had been suffering from a haemorrhage … for 12 years – as long as Jairus’ daughter had been alive. Now that condition, apart from weakening her body, made her ritually impure. She wasn’t supposed to join the community in worship or to touch another person. Furthermore, she had originally been quite well off, but after 12 years of doctors’ bills she had spent all she had without being any the better for it, in fact she was getting worse. She had heard about Jesus; she believed what she heard and so thought: If I can touch even his clothes I shall be well again. Well, you know the story: Jesus was aware that power had gone out from him. When he asked who had touched him, the frightened woman fell at his feet and told the whole truth. Far from being angry he simply told her: My daughter, your faith has restored you to health; go in peace and be free from your complaint. In so doing, he restored her to the fullness of life. Death was not God’s doing.
At this point some people arrived from Jairus’ house to tell him that his daughter had died and that there was no need to trouble the Master further. Hearing that, Jesus told him: Do not be afraid; only have faith. Arrived at Jairus’ house they found people weeping and wailing unrestrainedly. They had seen death before and they knew that the girl was dead. That is why they ridiculed Jesus when he said: Why all this commotion and crying? The child is not dead, but asleep. Five people accompanied Jesus into the house: the grieving parents and the disciples Peter, James and John. Once again Jesus risked ritual impurity: he took the girl’s hand and ordered her to get up. Talitha koum, he said – and she obeyed him. Jesus’ word is more powerful than touch. Time and again in healing miracles Jesus forbids people to talk about it, and so it is in this case. One wonders why he bothered! Given the crowds who had come to mourn with the parents, there was no chance at all that they would remain silent when they saw the daughter walk out of her bedroom.
Today’s second reading, from St Paul’s second letter to the Christians of Corinth, is not concerned with imminent death, but with the kind of extreme poverty which can lead to it. Paul is going to take up a collection for the relief of the poor Christians in Jerusalem. Remember that at Pentecost there had been pilgrims in Jerusalem from all over the Mediterranean world. Many of them, as well as many locals, were impressed by the preaching of the Apostles and embraced Christianity. Not all persevered in the faith. What’s more there came a time when the leaders of Temple Judaism decided that Christianity was a heresy and launched a persecution. Their leader, James, was put to death. This was the time when the zealot Saul (later Paul) was hunting down followers of Jesus. Many believers fled while many of those who remained were too poor to go anywhere else.
Years had passed and the poor were still poor with little hope of improving their situation through their own efforts. So Paul decided to collect money for them in Greece and take the proceeds back to Jerusalem. Writing ahead to Corinth from Macedonia he begins by stirring up a bit of rivalry. The Macedonians have been very generous, he says – and then goes on to remind the Corinthians how well off they are: You always have the most of everything – of faith, of eloquence, of understanding, of keenness for any cause, and the biggest share of our affection – so we expect you to put the most into this work of mercy too. He reminds them of the sacrifices Jesus had made for them – and for us – and goes on to explain that he’s not asking them to give away all they possess. This does not mean that to give relief to others you ought to make things difficult for yourselves: it is a question of balancing what happens to be your surplus now against their present need, and one day they may have something to spare that will supply your own need.
Perhaps you are expecting me now to urge you to contribute generously to some worthy cause – but that is not part of today’s programme! Instead I must turn once more to the refugees and asylum seekers who put their lives at risk trying to reach Australia. We have all been horrified by the loss of life from an overturned boat last week, and relieved that so few drowned when a second boat capsized this week. If I asked you to name Australia’s two most prominent Catholic priests, I expect most of you would mention Cardinal Pell, and a good number would also name the Jesuit Fr Frank Brennan. The son of a former justice of the High Court, Frank Brennan is himself a professor of law at the A.N.U. and at the A.C.U. He gave a talk in Canberra on Wednesday night which you can find on the internet with the title “Australia’s 20-year search for the right asylum policy”. In it he makes some interesting points.
For instance, in 2010-2011, 5175 people arrived in Australia by boat and applied for temporary protection visas. In the same year 6316 arrived by aircraft and made the same application. This is a regular pattern: more refugees fly in than sail in. There is much talk of a ‘Malaysian solution’. Apart from the fact that Malaysia is not a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention, the queue of people now in Malaysia waiting for a refugee visa already numbers more than 90,000. The UNHCR publishes an annual list of ‘persons of concern’. I take this to mean people whose status has not yet been determined and whose request for asylum could still be refused. In Australia there are more than 28,000 such people. Compare that with two European countries much smaller than Australia: Belgium 42,000 and the Netherlands 87,000. In Malaysia there are over 208,000 such people. The former Australian of the Year, Professor Patrick McGorry described our immigration detention centres as “factories for producing mental illness”. Mental illness – not physical illness. The centres are clean and healthy, adequate meals are provided. The psychological stress comes from the very long periods of uncertainty as the prisoners (for that is what they are, without having committed any crime) wait and wait for a decision.
You and I cannot solve this problem but we can make our views known to government. We can call upon our leaders to hire and train the staff to process the applications rapidly and humanely. This does not mean that to give relief to others you ought to make things difficult for yourselves. Just remember: Death was not God’s doing, he takes no pleasure in the extinction of the living. [Q.Howard]
30-06 and 01-07-2012