A woman from a parish I once served—I’ll call her Iris—experienced a parent’s nightmare: her son died as a young man. Iris had also lost her husband a few years earlier, but losing her son, she said, was incomparably worse.
A few weeks after the funeral, I visited Iris and she said that she was very confused. After a month or two I stopped seeing her at Mass, so I visited her again. She said that her confusion had lifted and now she was outright angry with God. She said to me: “Listen, I’ve given God a lot. I went to church every week for 50 years. I prayed every day. I sent my kids to Catholic schools. And what do I get in return? A dead son, that’s what he gives me. I told him he was a lousy God and that I’m giving up on him.”
No need to defend God in that moment; God can take it. I wanted just to walk gently with the anguished person. But it does get one thinking: Why does God allow death, or why did God create a world in which death even exists? The obvious scientific answer is that death is the cost of being a creature. Being a physical body means being subject to physical laws, including that matter breaks down. The theological response in our first reading, from the Book of Wisdom, is that this is not God’s doing at all. In fact, God is the very antithesis of death: “God did not make death, nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living…for God formed man to be imperishable; the image of his own nature he made him” (1:13; 2:23).
So where did death come from? The end of our reading today addresses this: “But by the envy of the devil, death entered the world, and they who are in his possession experience it” (2:24). Paul identifies the devil with the serpent of Genesis and the cause of death as sin from Adam (Rom 5:12). But we should never imagine that if original sin had never occurred, then there would be no death. The laws that govern matter are still laws. And I think the Book of Wisdom concedes this, for it recognizes that even the faithful will die. The real issue is whether God is the God of life or not.
Wisdom announces that the death of God’s faithful is only a prelude to being held by God until the time of resurrection, when we will live with God in the manner God originally intended. “The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment shall touch them.... They are in peace.... In the time of their judgment they shall shine....and the Lord shall be their King forever” (3:1-8).
The insight that God stands for life, even in the context of suffering and death, grounds our Gospel reading. Here we read about Jairus who pleads with Jesus to come to his home and heal his daughter, who is deathly ill. On the way, a woman who had suffered for 12 years with a hemorrhage touches Jesus’ cloak and is healed. Apparently the Holy One of God (Mk 1:24) is not at all defiled by being touched by an “unclean” woman (contrast Lev 12:4). His response is to assure her, “Your faith has saved you.” Jairus’s daughter dies in the meantime, and Jesus calls for a similar faith. He comes to the bedside, takes her hand and says to her, “Talitha koum.” By giving us the Aramaic words, Mark allows us to experience the intimacy and affection Jesus brings to those to whom he minsters. Talitha koum means literally “Little lamb, arise.”
The woman with the hemorrhage and the young girl eventually both died, as we all will. This did not mean that Jesus had failed or merely postponed the inevitable. His healing of the woman and his raising of the child point to the kingdom’s ultimate plan, which is for union with God. These miracles told the people of Jesus’ time, and us, that God walks with us in our suffering with great love and tenderness, and promises that our mortality is not the end of the story. For God is the God of life.