We’re going to be spending roughly half our time in our Old Testament reading, Deuteronomy 15, and the other half in our gospel passage. These two don’t look like they’re related to each other in any obvious way, but as I spent time with them over the last couple of weeks, I came to see that God has something to teach us about our passage from the Gospel of Mark by looking at it through the lens of Deuteronomy 15. Obviously, by doing it this way, I’m not going to be able to give an exhaustive account of what Mark 5 has to say to us. But of course, I couldn’t do that anyways—nobody could. That’s the beauty of God’s Word. There’s always more to glean from it.
Deuteronomy, An Overview
So let’s look at the book of Deuteronomy. I want to remind you of where we are in the story of Israel when we get to this book. We’ve seen Israel’s escape from slavery in Egypt, we’ve been to Sinai, we’ve seen God renew his covenant with Israel, as Abraham’s descendants, through Moses. We’ve wandered in the desert for 40 years, we’ve seen a new generation of Israelites born, and now they’ve made it to the Jordan River. They’re ready to go into the Land of Israel.
Almost the entire book of Deuteronomy is a speech. Moses gets up in front of the people and delivers a sort of “pep talk” to this new generation of Israelites who are about to go claim the land that God promised them and that they’ve been waiting for their whole lives.
Deuteronomy can be broken up into a three-part structure. In the first eleven chapters, we see Moses highlight Israel’s rebellion. He reminds them of the ways that they have failed to love God and to keep his commandments, he reminds them of God’s discipline. And he issues a challenge to this new generation to be different from their parents, and to respond to God’s covenant and to God’s commandments with obedience and love.
And a very important text in this first section of Deuteronomy is found in chapter 6, verse 4: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” And the two verbs here are so important, and you can’t separate them from one another: “Hear” and “love.” “Hear” can also be translated “listen.” It can also be translated, “Obey.” It’s more than a passive hearing, where we just sit there and the words float into our ears. Hearing assumes a response to what is heard—because if you really hear something, it will elicit a response from you. To really hear God’s commandments, to really internalize them, is to obey them.
And so here’s what Moses is saying here: Listen to God’s commandments in the way that shows you love him. And love God in a way that leads you to obey him.
All right, that’s the book of Deuteronomy. Let’s get into the weeds. We’re in chapter 15, which is in that second section of the book where Moses gives the Law again. And remember, as I said, Moses doesn’t just say the exact same words he did the first time. He’s expanding, explaining, clarifying what these commands mean, how the Israelites are supposed to live them out.
In Deuteronomy 15, Moses lays out God's instructions for the “year of release.” Every seventh year, creditors had to forgive the debts they were owed. If you lent someone some money, some food, anything you would expect to be repaid—when that seventh year came around, what you lent them no longer belongs to you. The land was also given the opportunity to rest in the year of release, so that the soil could remain healthy. As you know, if you plant, plant, plant, you’re going suck all the nutrients out of the soil, and after a while nothing will grow anymore. So they didn’t plant or harvest anything.
And if you think about it for a second, that can really create a hardship for the poor people in the land, those people who couldn’t afford to stockpile food to last them all year. Because the poor Israelites often relied on gleaning during harvest times—just like in the book of Ruth—God heavily emphasizes here that the Israelites must remember to take care of the poor people in the land.
And to get the full scope of how radical God’s vision is for supporting the poor, we need to go back a little further in the chapter than where we started this morning. Back to verse 4. So from Deuteronomy 15:4-11, there are three key verses here, three things I want us to see God telling us about how the Israelites—and all human beings, really—should care for the poor. There’s an ideal, there’s a warning, and then there’s the reality. And the reality isn’t great.
Starting in chapter 15, verse 4:
There will be no poor among you; for the Lord will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess—if only you will strictly obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all this commandment that I command you today. For the Lord your God will bless you, as he promised you, and you shall lend to many nations, but you shall not borrow, and you shall rule over many nations, but they shall not rule over you.
Now we’re in the section we read earlier this morning:
If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be. Take care lest there be an unworthy thought in your heart and you say, ‘The seventh year, the year of release is near,’ and your eye look grudgingly on your poor brother, and you give him nothing, and he cry to the Lord against you, and you be guilty of sin. You shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging when you give to him, because for this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’
The Ideal, The Warning, and the Reality
So we saw the ideal. Here’s what God wants, verse 4: “There will be no poor among you.” God doesn’t want any of his people to suffer from poverty—and it is the role of the entire community to be their brothers’ keepers. But even while this law is being given, God knows the hearts of human beings and their unwillingness to open their hands to their neighbor, leading to the warning in verse 9. Don’t harden your heart against your poor brother or sister. Don’t think that just because the year of release is coming, you can turn a blind eye to the suffering of your neighbor. Even if the year of release starts tomorrow, give freely to those in need.
But verse 11 acknowledges the sad reality: Despite what God has commanded here, there will always be poor people in the land of Israel. Even God’s chosen people, who were themselves impoverished slaves in the land of Egypt, can’t manage to take care of each other when they are in need. If there’s anybody in the world who can understand being poor, it’s the Israelites. And yet they don’t. So this verse is a terrible, terrible testimony to the broken condition of human beings. Even when God plainly lays out how we are to behave, we can’t seem to overcome our selfishness for the good of our brothers and sisters—and, in fact, there’s no evidence that the year of release was ever really practiced in Jewish history. Not once. We’re a hopeless case. As Moses knew, we have hard and selfish hearts.
But then we come to Mark 5. And here we meet the first human being who opens his hand to a brother in need—or, in this case, a sister—even when it might cost him. And I’m sorry about this, but we’re gonna have to reread this passage as well. I know it’s a lot of rereading, but our lectionary left a really important part of the story out. I don’t know if you noticed, but we started in verse 22, and then after verse 24 we jumped to 35 and then finished the chapter. And that’s fine if you only want to read about Jairus, but there’s another story that happens in the middle of his story, and I don’t think that’s coincidental. I think Mark did that very purposefully. So let’s flip to Mark 5 and start again in verse 22, and we’re going to read this second story:
Then came one of the rulers of the synagogue, Jairus by name, and seeing him, he fell at his feet and implored him earnestly, 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.” And he went with him.
And a great crowd followed him and thronged about him. And there was a woman who had had a discharge of blood for twelve years, and who had suffered much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and was no better but rather grew worse. She had heard the reports about Jesus and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his garment. For she said, “If I touch even his garments, I will be made well.” And immediately the flow of blood dried up, and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. And Jesus, perceiving in himself that power had gone out from him, immediately turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my garments?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing around you, and yet you say, ‘Who touched me?’” And he looked around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling and fell down before him and told him the whole truth. And he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.
While he was still speaking, there came from the ruler's house some who said, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the Teacher any further?” But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the ruler of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.”
And then comes the rest of what we read earlier. Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t think it’s coincidental that Mark places this story in the middle of Jairus’s story. These gospels that we read every Sunday weren’t just thrown together. Each writer, as he was guided by the Holy Spirit, deliberately, painstakingly shaped his gospel to highlight the aspects of Jesus’ ministry he thought were most important. So everything we find there, from the overall structure, to the individual words used, can tell us a lot about the heart of God.
So Jairus, a “ruler of the synagogue,” an important guy, approaches Jesus and asks him to come heal his daughter, who is on the brink of death. Jesus says, “Of course,” and goes along with him.
But as they’re on their way, something really interesting happens. Jesus feels power “go out from him,” and stops. And when he turns around, he sees a sick and destitute woman. For twelve years, she has had a discharge of blood, and nobody has been able to stop it. Her money is all gone, wasted on doctors who couldn’t help her. Because of her illness she is considered ceremonially unclean, and so not allowed to touch anyone or be touched. Think about that—she hasn’t had a hug or a back rub, nobody to hold hands with her—in twelve years. St. Jerome said “Her spirit had died within her,” and I think he’s right. She’s lonely, she’s poor, she’s without hope. But then she touches Jesus’ garment, believing with all her heart that even this small act of faith can make her well. And it does: “Immediately the flow of blood dried up, and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease” (5:29).
But that’s not the end of it, and here we’re going to find our connection to Deuteronomy 15. Jesus stops and asks, “Who touched me?” Why stop? Regardless of whether or not Jesus really knew who it was, the woman was healed, right? And the daughter of the ruler of the synagogue is at the point of dying! Why cause this delay, when she’s already been healed? As we already know, the little girl does die before they reach the house. Jesus is stopping in the middle of a very important errand for a very important man to talk to a sick, unclean, desperately poor woman who nobody’s taken a second look at for over a decade.
He stops because the physical healing is only the beginning. This woman may be healed of her disease, but she is still alone. She is still ceremonially unclean, until she goes through the proper steps to be declared clean. Her healthy body doesn’t mean anything if she is left to beg alone in the streets, and die alone, unable to live within her community.
Jesus seeks full healing here. He stops and asks, “Who touched me?” And I’m sure Jairus just can’t believe it, when he sees that the reason they’ve stopped is this woman. His little girl is going to die—fathers, how would you feel? And after the woman throws herself at his feet in fear and trembling, he says what is to me the most beautiful word in the Gospel of Mark:
The little girl that Jesus was on his way to heal—she had a father. She had a family and was a part of the community, and an important part of the community, at that. This woman—perhaps more importantly than being ill—was alone. She was poor, unclean, and alone. But now she is a daughter of the King.
Jesus didn’t care that an important man would owe him a favor. He didn’t care that he might get some brownie points from the religious establishment. He saw a sister in need, and he opened his hand to her as wide as he possibly could by claiming her as his own daughter. He didn’t say, “Wait just a little bit. I'll be right back after I heal this little girl.” He didn’t get mad because she was jeopardizing his chances of getting in with the popular kids. He freely gave her what she needed, and more than she thought she needed. Jesus finally realizes the ideal given to the people in Deuteronomy 15. Because of Jesus, there is one less person in need in Israel.
The Church’s Role
And here’s not where I’m going to go from here. I’m not going to tell you to “follow Jesus’ example.” Because Jesus Christ is not a dead moral exemplar. He is the living Lord, working and active in the world today, and as his body, we—the Church—we have the privilege of participating in his work.
We’re not following his example—we’re joining hands with Jesus.
This is exactly what the Church does from the very beginning. Think about Acts 2:
They were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. (2:45-47a)
They were providing for physical needs, worshiping God together, and eating together. Welcoming people into their homes, being each other’s family because they had probably been kicked out of their own for believing in Jesus. Nobody was in need. “There will be no poor among you.”
Think about the Macedonian Christians in 2 Corinthians 8, as we read this morning. They were about as poor as you can be, but “their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.” They gave whatever they could, and more, because they saw brothers and sisters in need.
As the Body of the risen Christ, the Church must be the one who realizes the ideal of Deuteronomy 15. We are his Body on earth; we do his work. We cannot be concerned with our own success or cozy-ing up with influential people, or relying on the federal government to do this work for us. Now, I’m not saying the government can’t be involved, but what I am saying is, Don’t use the government as an excuse to do nothing. We are called to open our hands to our brothers and sisters in need, because we have Christ in us. That’s why the Church can succeed where the Israelites failed. Jesus Christ gives us the power, by his Holy Spirit, to participate in his work of healing, restoration, and new life.
Now, of course, we won’t see the whole world change overnight. We’ll have to wait, maybe a long time, for Christ’s return to see a complete, worldwide fulfillment of these things. But in our spheres of influence—in our neighborhoods, in our schools, in our offices—Jesus is empowering his Church to realize the ideal God calls us to in Deuteronomy 15. And this is the job of every Christian.
So as Jesus did in Mark 5, and continues to do today, I encourage all of us to live in a spirit of self-sacrifice and generosity, so that “there will be no poor among us.” As Jesus did and does, let us fight for physical, emotional, relational, socioeconomic, and spiritual healing for the nations. This means giving money to those who need it. This means volunteering at Family Promise. This means calling your senator when he needs a talking to. This means welcoming folks into your home for dinner. This means putting yourself in uncomfortable situations to get to know people you would never meet otherwise. This means turning around when you feel like someone’s tugging at your garments when you’re just trying to get where you’re going. This means nothing less than laying our lives down for our neighbors. Let’s show them that Jesus can do more for them than they ever thought they needed. Just like he did for us. Just as he did for us, he can make them new creations, heirs of his eternal kingdom—sons and daughters of the King. Amen.