by Musa Dube
Since the opening of the assembly, it became clear that WSCF has been struggling to find itself in the story of Talitha Cum and to interpret the theme for itself/themselves. I have looked around to see the visual interpretations of the theme, Talitha Cum. The assembly outer cover is resolute that the girl is up, alive, laughing and happy. The WSCF Africa poster features a girl who is rising. It is not clear if WSCF is represented by the little girl who is rising or the masculine woman who is extending her hand to lift her up, or both. Whatever the case, life is evident in their poster. She is rising into life in abundance. Then of course, through our papers, comments and discussions we have been interpreting the theme for ourselves. Since Saturday, it became clear that WSCF has been reading itself as the little girl who is being called out of sleep; the little girl who is rising or who is dead and still awaiting the touch of life. This interpretation was an important self-critical analysis. However, this dragged on for too long, until someone said, “STOP!! WSCF is alive and kicking. Did you not hear the regional reports? Did you not see for yourself that it happening? WSCF is alive.” Somehow, this brought us back to the outer cover of the conference visual portrait of the theme. I take it that we have made an important journey for ourselves, to interpret the theme of Talitha Cum: Arising to life in abundance. I want to continue this conversation with you this morning by basing our Bible study again on Mark 5: 21-43 from a narrative point of view.
A narrative analysis asks the question: “how does the story mean?” (Malbon1992: 24). In and through this question, the reader pays attention to the narrative rhetorical devices of conveying meaning such as plot, setting, characters, narrator, narratee, implied reader, repetition, juxtaposition, symbolism and irony. How these narrative devices are constructed is designed to persuade the reader to take certain perspectives and to distance themselves from other perspectives. In short, a narrative is not neutral; neither does it expect its reader to be neutral. If you are treated to a story, then you are also expected to respond to its worldview.
The opening setting of the story of Talitha Cum is by the lake. Jesus has just landed in a new place, using a boat. He has just come from a place where he freed a man of a legion of demons. He is surrounded by crowds. But then the story takes us on a journey from the open public space, by the lake, where Jesus is thronged by crowds, to a private space, Jairus’ house, where Jesus restricts entry into the place where the sick, dying and dead child was laid. Here he calls, “Talitha cum!” and the child rises and begins to walk about. She must have walked out of her room or the place where she was laid, for crowds saw her and they were ‘overcome by amazement,’ v. 42.
It is the time setting that punctuates this story, determining its tension, its pace and its climax. In a word, this time setting could be named as “an urgent and critical moment.” It is Jairus, the synagogue ruler, who defines this time setting for us. He comes in desperation and pleads repeatedly: “My little daughter is at the point of death.” He pleads with Jesus: “come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well and live.” This is how urgent it is—it is a matter of life and death. The main difference lies with the arrival of Jesus in time to lay hands on her and give her the chance to live before death snatches her.
Jesus must have fully grasped the urgency of the time in Jairus’ words and action. Without any word or question, he began to journey with Jairus towards the dying child. Basically, Jesus has received an emergency call. In our own modern days we may choose to hear the cry of and flashing lights of an ambulance as it slides past busy traffic and as every driver is obliged to make way for lifesavers, to give life a chance. Every second and minute counts here. The reader who is invited to travel with Jesus and Jairus is aware of this emergency journey. This urgency adds to the pace of the story, for the reader is aware of the necessity for the plot to be fast forwarded towards Jairus’ house—to save a life which is at the point of death.
But as the saying goes in such moments, “all that can go wrong, will go wrong,” the urgent time is arrested. The plot is diverted. A woman comes from behind. She is a woman who has been bleeding for twelve years, and she has sought out many doctors, who seemingly took her money, but did not deliver healing to her body. This woman interrupts the linear plot, by inserting her story into the story of Jairus and his dying daughter. In so doing, she does the unimaginable—she slows down and even stops Jesus from his emergency call.
The bleeding woman began to push her way through towards Jesus. The story tells us that she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well,” verse 28. She touches and she is healed. But, if the woman had expected that her act would go unnoticed, she is out of luck. Even more seriously, Jairus and his daughter were now in a worse situation. Jesus is immediately aware that power had gone out of him. He stops. He turns. He asks, “Who touched my clothes?” verse 30. This question rightfully startled his disciples, given the crowd that is surrounding him, but perhaps given the emergency situation. They respond, “You see the crowd pressing on you; how can you say, ‘who touched my clothes?’” verse 33. Basically, they are saying, it is a ridiculous question. If the woman had expected the answer of the disciples to convince him, it did not. She was again out of luck. Jesus continued to search. As the narrator tells us, “he looked all around to see who has done it!” verse 32. The woman realised that she could no longer hide from behind scenes. Much like Jairus, “she came in fear and trembling, fell down before him and told him, the whole truth,” verse 33.
The problem is that the ‘whole truth was, most probably, a twelve year long story of her search for her healing. While Jesus is listening to her, we can feel the impatience of Jairus. Time is not on their side. His daughter is at the point of death. They really did not have time to listen to such a long tale. Jairus’ worst fears are confirmed. Messengers from his house arrive and they say to him, “Your daughter is dead. Why bother the teacher anymore?” verse 35. The girl is now outside the tick of time. She is late. The urgency that had so far propelled the plot forward, the journey towards Jairus’ house, has been brought to a full stop. It was too late. They had lost all time. Hence they underline, ‘Why bother the teacher?” verse 35. The readers and the listeners expect the emergency journey to cease, for there is nothing as final as death.
But no, the journey forward continues. Jesus turns to Jairus and says, “Do not fear, only believe” verse 36. They continue walking towards Jairus’ house. At this point of the story, the time setting of urgency is shown to be limited. It has become clear that it is not the defining factor in the progress of the story. The reader/listener is rudely recalled to retrace her/his steps and forced to realise that much is not hanging on time, rather on faith. It was Jairus’ faith that moved Jesus to travel with him to save his sick daughter. It was the woman’s faith that made Jesus to stop and insist on asking, “Who touched me?” Indeed, in acknowledgement of her move, Jesus said, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace and be healed of your disease,” verse 34. And so at this time, precisely when the story has lost all time to save the dying girl, Jesus reminds and encourages Jairus to maintain the energy of faith. The story does not give us any hint on how Jairus responded. But it is clear; they walked together to his house. And so they arrive. They find the house in commotion, with loud mourners and wailers. This setting underlines that the daughter is dead. Yet Jesus poses a question to them: “Why do you make commotion and weep? The child is not dead, but sleeping?” verse 39. His words could not have been further from reality. The mourning crowds, however, underline that the child is indeed dead, by laughing at Jesus. Death, they insist, cannot be equated to temporary sleep—it is final! The mourners are acting on real time while Jesus is operating on faith.
Jesus enters where the dead child is and takes her hand and says, “Talitha, cum,” and immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (verses 41-42). Much, if not all, is meant to highlight the character of Jesus. Thus the narrative presented him as swamped by a crowd, denoting his fame. The story has shown us both Jairus and the bleeding woman demonstrate incredible faith in the healing powers of Jesus. Jairus believes that Jesus can save a child who is about to die; while the bleeding woman believes that he can heal a twelve year old incurable disease. He can heal a disease that many doctors could not handle. The woman’s expectations are fulfilled, but Jairus gets higher than what he had bargained for. That is, while he believed that Jesus could save his child from dying, Jesus actually returns her from death. The plot that began running on the time line of urgency came to run solely on faith. Why this shift? What is its function and meaning?
In his book, The Art of Biblical Narrative, Robert Alter argues that such changes are in fact pregnant with meaning and should not be glossed over (1981). In this story, the change is in fact an important narrative device in the characterization of Jesus. The reader notes that from the point where the child is declared dead, no other person speaks again, save for Jesus. On this axis of faith, where time is no more, Jairus remains silent, the mourners laugh, and then, I quote, “they were overcome with amazement,” verse 42, when they saw the dead girl walking about. The shift, therefore, moves the reader from the realm of human space of possibilities, where you rush to beat time, to an exceptional space of faith, where not only time is no more, but where the human impossible becomes possible. In this space the dead rise. Death is nothing but sleep to Jesus. For all its powerfulness—death does not have the final word. Jesus does. In this way, the characterisation of Jesus moves from powerful to amazing, from human to divine. Here the plot comes to its height, featuring Jesus as the main actor and it naturally follows that everyone, the mourners, the readers and the listeners, are overcome by amazement, verse 42. They are called to move from living with the human possibilities to the realm of faith, where the impossible are possible.
Given our theme of Talitha Cum arising to life in abundance, this is an invitation to WSCF to walk with the hopeless and give hope; it is an invitation to stop and listen to those who are trying to touch us for healing; it is the role of facing death in the eye and giving hope. The theme of Talitha Cum is an invitation to WSCF; to take up this amazing challenge—the act of actually calling the dying to rise from death to life. Given that WSCF is a movement of Christians, when they read the story of Jesus, they identify with the works and values of Jesus. Jesus is the character that embodies the values and acts that we want to identify with. It is for this reason that we call ourselves Christians—namely, that we are a people who are time and again listening to the story of Jesus and trying as much as possible to walk in the steps of Jesus. In this story, Jesus is therefore the character who throws legions of demons out of a man who is entered and possessed by evil spirits—the powers of the Roman Empire. Jesus is the liberator. In the story of Talitha Cum, Jesus is the character, who is able to feel a desperate woman trying to touch him—in the midst of his fame. Jesus is the character who is able stop and listens. In this story of Talitha Cum, Jesus does not only allow himself to be touched by a stigmatised, unclean bleeding woman, he also welcomes her and calls her, daughter. If we read this story as Christians, we realise that Jesus does not travel and depend of emergency situations—he is not moved or scared by emergency situations. Rather he travels on the ticket of faith. Thus we see that when the messengers come and announce death, Jesus calms Jairus and tells him “Do not fear, only believe.” When he finds the crowds wailing and weeping, he says to them “Why do you weep, the child is not dead, but asleep.” And when he finally finds the dead girl he says to her, “Talitha Cum,” little girl I say, “Arise and she arises.”
We as WSCF, as Christians, when we read the story of Mark 5:21-43, we are in fact challenged to be represent what Jesus represented—namely, to call life back against all the forces of death, be they globalisation, gender inequalities, HIV/AIDS, war/conflicts, violence, hopelessness or stigma etc.
The challenge for us this morning is: how can WSCF Christians stand in the narrative of Jesus work for justice and healing the world? How can WSCF walk and empathise with those who are invaded by HIV/AIDS and pronounce hope and life in the midst of despair and death? How can WSCF relationship with Jesus, at an individual, national, regional and movement level become a point of breaking the bonds of death dealing forces, (colonial, patriarchal, globalisation, gender inequalities and HIV/AIDS exploitation and oppression) and bring healing? While I have no particular formula to give, what I definitely know is that this is a fitting duty for all of us who live in the HIV/AIDS era and who read for healing and liberation.