Homily for the Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B.
If you’ve ever struggled with an addiction or know someone who struggled with one; if you’ve ever faced a sudden death or unexpected diagnosis; if you’ve ever lived through a period of great sadness or depression; then you know just how desperate you can become. And when you try for the hundredth time to overcome your addiction and you fail, or you undergo the experimental treatment and things just get worse, or you read the latest self-help article or test out the latest wellness fad and happiness still seems as far away as it ever was, the desperation settles in and becomes a dominant theme in your life. You join the ranks of countless men and women who, as Henry David Thoreau famously said, “lead lives of quiet desperation.” There seems to be no way out, no exit, from the misery of existence except for death. Living becomes almost indistinguishable from dying and dying becomes preferable to living.
In our gospel today, we encounter two figures who are on the brink of desperation. The first is Jairus, the synagogue official. His daughter of twelve years is dying, and he doesn’t know what to do. He has heard of Jesus, that He is a great teacher and healer. And seeing Jesus, He falls at his feet and pleads earnestly with Him. We can hear the note of desperation in his voice: “My daughter is at the point of death. Please, come lay your hands on her that she may get well and live.” Anyone who has faced a sudden death or unexpected diagnosis can sympathize with Jairus. “What can be done? Is there any hope? Will she get better? Can she be cured? Please do something, do anything you can.”
The second figure is the woman who’s suffered with hemorrhages for twelve years. She’s visited doctor after doctor, but none has been able to heal her. She’s spent everything she has, her whole livelihood, in pursuit of a cure, only to be left in as much pain as when she started. And not only is she in pain physically, but also spiritually since her condition—which renders her ritually unclean—prevents her from participating in worship at the Temple. On the brink of despair, she too approaches Jesus, having heard of His mighty deeds. She touches his cloak, and with an inner voice filled with faith, but also desperation, she says, “If I but touch his clothes, I shall be cured.” Anyone who has struggled with an addiction or has lived through a period of great sadness or depression can sympathize with this woman, though many of us don’t have her faith. For many of us, our inner voice in these situations is just filled with desperation: “I’m so tired of this. Nothing seems to work. I’m broken, and I’ll never be fixed. No one can help me. I’ll suffer with this the rest of my life. There’s no point in trying.”
Where is there desperation in our lives? Where do we feel tempted to despair? Where have we just given up? It is precisely there that Jesus wants to encounter us and bring His healing touch. So often in these moments of desperation, we turn to anything and everything but Jesus. We turn to self-help instead of saving help. We don’t bring our desperation to Jesus, we don’t fall at His feet like Jairus, or reach out to touch him like the hemorrhaging woman. Perhaps we do this, because somehow Jesus seems less real to us than whatever or whomever we turn to for self-help. Perhaps we do this because we don’t have faith that Jesus—even if He’s real—can or wants to help us. Perhaps we’ve asked Jesus for help before, and we’ve been disappointed in His apparent lack of response. And so, to avoid being disappointed again we don’t ask Him for help. Or, even if we do ask Him for help, we don’t make the “big ask,” we don’t ask Him for total freedom from our addiction, we don’t ask Him for the miraculous cure, we don’t ask Him for the joy that is complete. We think we’re being modest by asking for small things, but maybe we just lack faith. Maybe we believe in a small God, a God who can do only certain things at certain times.
As Christians, we do not believe in a small God. We believe in a God who can do all things. To have faith is to be willing to ask big things from God. To have faith is also to recognize that the biggest thing we can receive from God is God Himself. And, so, even if God doesn’t grant us at that moment, total freedom from our addiction, or the miraculous cure, or the complete end to our sadness and depression, we know that our God is more real than anything or anyone else we may turn to. We know that to receive God Himself is better than to receive any of His other gifts. To have faith is to refuse to lead a life of quiet desperation, but to share—and even shout—our desperation to Jesus. It is to fall down at His feet and say to Him, “Jesus, I am at the point of death, come lay your hands on me that I may get well and live.” It is to reach out to Jesus and say, “If I but touch you, I shall be cured.” May we not lead lives of quiet desperation but, like Jairus and the hemorrhaging woman, may we bring our desperation to Jesus and have the faith that he can and will save us. Amen.