June 28, 2015 Mark 5: 21-43
Rev. Catherine Purves
When people come to the church to ask for help – and that happens quite a lot – one of the things that we can do for them is offer them some food from our Food Pantry. We don’t have bags of food ready to go. Everything is laid out on shelves, sorted according to the type of food it is. I grab a plastic bag and hold it for the person or family and then tell them that they can choose something from each shelf. They look at me as if they had never been asked to choose anything before in their lives. So, I have to elaborate. “Here are all of the cereals,” I tell them. “You can pick the one you like best.” Still they hesitate. I try to prompt them, “Do you like Cheerios?” “Yes,” they usually respond, but then, apologetically, they’ll say something like, “But my kids really like Sugar Pops.” “Well, take the Sugar Pops then.” To me this isn’t rocket science, but they seem to have been well schooled in the notion that beggars can’t be choosers.
This is a curious phenomenon, I think, because it actually robs the poor of their ability to be proactive, and that is a bad thing. We have to be able to make choices in order to live. Even if all we can do is choose Sugar Pops instead of Cheerios, even if in a lot of other areas of our life we seem unable to make choices because our options are so limited, still we can’t afford to lose that sense that choices are possible and necessary. If people (in their own minds) lose the ability to be choosers, then they become people that things happen to, powerless, undeserving people who are simply victims, people who have lost hope and who can only rely on the goodwill of others. They find that they are just beggars. That becomes their new identity, and they have accepted the apparent fact that beggars can’t be choosers.
Maybe you have never had to go to a Food Pantry. Maybe you have always been blessed to have a job and an income that allowed you to walk into a food store and make your choices freely and confidently. But this phenomenon can also happen in other areas of our lives. If you have ever been seriously ill and dependent upon doctors, nurses, and hospitals, you know what it feels like to be a beggar and to have few choices. You accept the treatment they offer, you take the pills they prescribe, you change your lifestyle as they dictate – you assume that you are powerless to do otherwise. If you want to live, you feel that, as a beggar, you can’t be a chooser.
Today’s stories from the Gospel of Mark illustrate the fact that when it comes to faith, however, beggars are choosers. This is an important, though somewhat counterintuitive, lesson for us to learn. There are two parts to this lesson. The first part is to accept the fact that we are beggars, something that we undoubtedly want to resist.
In our two intertwined stories, the main characters were the leader of the synagogue, Jairus, and the woman with the incurable hemorrhages. Jairus was a man of some importance, a person with authority. He was not used to begging, but, of course, he was desperate. His little girl was dying. Mark tells us that Jairus threw himself down at Jesus’ feet and that he begged him repeatedly, saying, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” That would have been quite a sight: the leader of the synagogue, on his knees before Jesus, begging him to come and heal his daughter.
The woman who had suffered with hemorrhages for twelve years also had to accept that she was now a beggar. She had been to physicians, accepted their treatments, spent all her money, and her condition was growing worse. This flow of blood also made her ritually unclean so her situation was both physical and spiritual. She probably felt that she couldn’t approach Jesus directly, because of her condition. She was a beggar who couldn’t even beg openly, and who perhaps feared that Jesus wouldn’t think that she was worthy of his time or attention. All she could bring herself to do was touch his cloak in the hope of obtaining a cure.
Accepting that we too are beggars is a hard thing to do. We all have an independent streak, and we like being in charge of our lives, or thinking that we are. The leader of the synagogue thought he was on top of things. The woman could always find one more doctor to try. But eventually, both came to the realization that they were beggars who could not help themselves. We too would like to think that we are managing our lives and our relationship with God by our church attendance, our prayers, our offerings, our good deeds. The truth is that we are hopeless and helpless sinners who can’t possibly tip the scales of divine justice on our own. We are beggars, completely dependent upon Christ’s mercy. All we can do is fall on our knees pleading. All we can do is reach out to touch the Savior as he passes.
But the second part of the lesson of our two stories is that beggars are also choosers. In our state of desperation and defeat, we may need to be reminded that we can choose Cheerios or Sugar Pops, and that there are even more important choices that we can make. We may need to be convinced that there is grace in this world, thanks to Jesus, a grace we can embrace, a grace that promises healing and salvation. It’s right here. We don’t need to earn our box of cereal, but we do have to pick it up and carry it home. We may be beggars, but we can still be choosers.
The ruler of the synagogue was making a rather dangerous choice when he knelt at Jesus’ feet and begged him to come to his home and heal his daughter. The Pharisees and the other religious leaders had already decided that Jesus was a dangerous troublemaker. Walking along with him in the crowd was a public statement, a clear choice. Ignoring the news of his daughter’s death and still bringing Jesus to his home was another choice. Defying the weeping and wailing and then the scornful laughter of the crowds who knew that the girl was already dead was a final choice. With each step on that path to his home a choice was made, and with each choice a deeper commitment was made. Just because he was a beggar didn’t mean that he had no choices to make.
The woman plagued by hemorrhages also made choices, though she too was a desperate beggar. Like Jairus, even being in that crowd was a risky choice, in her case, because she would have been shunned if those people found out about her medical condition. Her hope in Jesus as a healer seemed to have an almost magical aspect since she thought that just touching his cloak might produce a cure. The choice to touch him, given her rather superstitious faith, was also a risk. At that point, when she felt herself miraculously healed, she could have melted into the crowd and silently slipped away. Instead, she made a bold choice to respond to Jesus when he asked, “Who touched me?” Even fearing that he might judge or condemn her for that brazen act, still she confessed that she was the one who had been healed by his power. That was a very brave choice on her part, and Jesus honored her choice and gave her a blessing.
Beggars are choosers. This is the mysterious contradiction of our faith. What we do cannot save us. When it comes to our salvation, we are truly beggars. What God did has saved us. As we saw in our two stories, only Jesus can make people whole again, and only Jesus can raise us from death to life. But the fact that we are beggars does not mean that we have no choices to make, or that our wrong choices make no difference.
Why else would Jesus have said to his potential disciples, “Follow me”? He was asking them to choose. Why else would Jesus have praised the men who lowered their friend through a roof so that Jesus could heal him? He commended them on that assertive and creative choice. Why else would Jesus have called out to Lazarus when he was four days in the tomb, “Lazarus, come out!” if Lazarus didn’t have a choice? It appears that Lazarus had to choose life, that those men on the roof had to choose to do something crazy to get their friend near Jesus, and that the disciples too had a choice to make: to follow Jesus or to keep on fishing. They were all beggars, helpless and hopeless without Jesus, but they were also choosers, just like Jairus and just like the woman with the incurable hemorrhages.
Do not forget, then, that you are a beggar. But remember that you are also a chooser. Because, when it comes to faith, beggars are choosers.