By Ragan Sutterfield
I have a small garden in my front yard, a smattering of plants, haphazardly planted–perennials and annuals, flowers and herbs and vegetables, “weeds” that I’ve welcomed and cultivated for their benefits to the soil and small wild things that make my yard their home. I water infrequently and mulch heavily–a plant must do well here or I take it out for something that won’t be too much trouble to grow.
In the front of my garden, just off the street, I have a small study in contrast. On one side of my gate where the patch of perennial oregano now flowers a few cucumber plants and sun flowers I planted this summer are flourishing. On the opposite side of the gate, just a few feet away, the another group of cucumbers and sunflowers seem stunted; their leaves are thin and they often droop in the afternoon heat. Both places get just as much water, just as much sun. What is the difference?
To answer the question I’ve had to develop my awareness, to pay attention. I’ve had to discern the body of the soil and the plants and the interactions of life across the landscape. This is not the typical response to such a problem. My own reaction in the past would have been to up the fertilizer or change my watering pattern. I would have spent far less time discerning and more time doing.
Our Gospel reading for this Sunday is a study in discernment and it offers a model for those of us who follow in the Jesus way. We too should learn to discern the body–the social body, the human body, the body of the earth. This requires an awareness that precedes any action.
The structure of the passage is what scholars call a “Markan Sandwich”: a story begins, is interrupted by another related story or episode, and then returns to the original story. Here we have Jarius, a local person of high standing, coming to Jesus because his daughter is ill. On his way Jesus encounters a woman who has had hemorrhages for twelve years, a disease that would have led to social exclusion based on the purity laws of the time. This woman, we are told, has spent all of her money on doctors who have failed to discern the problem but have instead made the problem worse. Here was see in an ancient reality something deeply contemporary. Many women find that contemporary medicine normalizes the male body and lacks discernment of the female one. Women in my own life have told me of doctors who have suggested using birth control to avoid the inconvenience of menstruation altogether. Many diseases that are particular to the female body are ignored by doctors or poorly understood due to lack of research. This is beginning to change, but there is still much more work to be done.
Jesus in his encounter with this woman is able to discern the body correctly, both physically and socially. First, the woman is healed through her own intention. Jesus is a vessel of the power of God, but her healing comes from her initiation. The healing works because Jesus has maintained his awareness by being present to God so that in him God can be present to those around him. For those of us who are followers of Jesus this should be an important vocational lesson. Our work is to be present to God and while there are many active tasks of ministry, we may not always anticipate the healing that can come into the world through that presence.
But Jesus is not merely a blind vessel–Jesus is aware. He knows that God’s power has moved from him into another. His disciples seem incredulous that Jesus could have such an awareness, but Jesus clearly recognizes the work of God in the bodies around him. When the woman is discovered, she comes forward in fear, her boldness in touching Jesus now diminished in her exposure. But in speaking to her, Jesus does not take credit or chastise her for her act. Instead, he completes her healing by properly discerning the situation and acknowledging it: “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”
This woman who was excluded from the community due to her disease is now named as a “daughter” of Israel. What’s more, her faith is what empowered her healing and so now she is told to go forward in wholeness.
The story then returns to Jarius and his daughter. Again, there is a failure to discern that Jesus corrects. He is told that the girl is dead, but Jesus knows that the girl is not in fact dead for death and life are ultimately matters of our relationship with God as Psalm 104 reminds us:
…when you take away their breath, they die
and return to their dust.
When you send forth your breath, they are created;
and you renew the face of the ground. (104:29b-30)
God’s breath has not yet left this girl, but is only dormant. What appears to be death is only sleep because she is still within the power of God’s resurrecting breath. Discerning this, Jesus raises the girl and the joy of God’s reign is brought into another household.
These episodes of Jesus’s ministry offers us a great deal for reflection, but among them is the importance of awareness and its ability to inform our discernment of the body. In a world that is increasingly mediated, our awareness is becoming limited. Few of us know the songs of the birds that commonly sing in our neighborhoods. We cannot identify even the small number of trees in a city park. We have little sense of our bodies or the bodies of those around us. We have awareness of the movement of God’s power–the fundamental energy beneath all things.
If we are to be followers of Jesus we must learn to do as he did; we must learn to discern the body–social, ecological, personal. In order to to do this we must become aware, not only of the breath of God that moves within us, but also of the world beyond our heads and hearts.
In my garden, discerning the difference between the plants that flourish and those that are weak and diseased, I’ve been getting my hands into the soil. Its smell and texture is different from the soil that flourishes. I’ve begun to recognize that my stand of perennial herbs is what is making the difference. Their root systems have worked for years in the soil to bring a host of life and the plants that are near them are benefiting from the association. It will take time to heal the other part of the garden, to cultivate its flourishing, but now I am aware of where the difference lies. With awareness I can begin action.
Ragan Sutterfield is the author, most recently, of Wendell Berry and the Given Life. He is an Episcopal priest serving a church in the historic territory of the Quapaw in Arkansas. Ragan is a member of the Wild Church network.
Wild Lectionary, a weekly reflection on creation themes in scripture, is curated by Laurel Dykstra, gathering priest of Salal + Cedar, Coast Salish Territory.
Photo caption: healthy soil