Gospel: Mark 5:21-43
21 When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered round him; and he was by the lake. 22Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet 23and begged him repeatedly, ‘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.’ 24So he went with him.
And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. 25Now there was a woman who had been suffering from haemorrhages for twelve years.26She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. 27She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak,28for she said, ‘If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.’29Immediately her haemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. 30Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, ‘Who touched my clothes?’ 31And his disciples said to him, ‘You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, “Who touched me?” ’ 32He looked all round to see who had done it. 33But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. 34He said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.’
35 While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, ‘Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?’ 36But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, ‘Do not fear, only believe.’ 37He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. 38When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. 39When he had entered, he said to them, ‘Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.’ 40And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. 41He took her by the hand and said to her, ‘Talitha cum’, which means, ‘Little girl, get up!’ 42And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. 43He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.
I spent too long in the emergency department yesterday, and last night. It is beyond ironic, after witnessing a person suffering under many doctors, seeing them made no better, but rather grow worse, that the lectionary should open this morning to the story of "a woman who had been suffering from haemorrhages for twelve years." It is almost the worst thing to sit hours in hospital and be able to do nothing. The worst thing is to be turned away.
Jesus has faced down the savagery of the elements, which were always suspected to be driven by chaotic and evil forces. (Mark 4:35-41) He has faced down terrifying evil which is eroding and brutalising people from the inside out. (Mark 5:1-21) And now we come to intractable illness; a slow bleeding death which is sandwiched by Mark inside a story of the final injustice of premature dying. (Mark 5:21-43) The sudden dying of a "little daughter" has at its heart— comes from the same place as— a long bleeding of energy and life from the nation and from its people. (And, ultimately, from all of us.) The number twelve links child, country, and the bleeding woman at the centre of this healing of illness. And the beloved daughter links the spiritual leadership of the nation, the synagogue, to the same loss of blood; that is, the part of us which carries life.
At the end of the story, Jesus
took her by the hand and said to her, ‘Talitha cum’, which means, ‘Little girl, get up!’ 42And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. 43He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.
Talitha cum— taken by the hand… is a Markan image of resurrection. It is God's gift to us, and it is our calling to take the good news of that gift to the world: "give her something to eat," he says to the parents of a child who is rising to new life, and beginning to walk about.
The overwhelming image for me in these sandwiched stories is that of powerlessness. The leader of the synagogue is powerless in the face of his daughter's illness. And the woman, tough and persistent, is ground down. It seems that the leader's hope in Jesus will be one more insult of powerlessness; we hear of distant healings, but he sees one in the flesh. Yet because of the delay it causes, his daughter dies.
Female friends been gracious to share with me the profound sense of healing which the story of the bleeding woman brings to them. (I have explored this a little here.) I want to say, as carefully as I can, that the stories address, first of all, the issue of exclusion, and not the issue of the extra exclusion of women based on purity laws and other discriminatory cultural practices1. If we do not address the root issue of exclusion, then the wonderful resurrection word of Jesus to both the women in this story, will simply be overpowered— eaten away by another Hydra head of exclusion.2
As a species, and therefore, in any culture, we seek to regain power over death and intractable illness by the building of community. We seek to construct places and gatherings of nurture and healing which bring us and hold us together. The Emergency Department brings the whole city together; it is crowded; everyone is there, rich or poor.
But as a culture we build that togetherness "over-against." We structure community against a common enemy, who for the most part, is innocent. And even when it seems there is naked aggression, and real culpability, we bolster our defence by dehumanising the enemy with propaganda and untruth; we make them less than human, and maximise the power we gain from our exclusion.
The hospital brings us together. We were all there; the sick and the suffering, and their friends; those of us wearing the little orange visitor badges; nurses rocking in stress and exhaustion at their screen; doctors struggling to hear over the noise, dodging gurneys, persisting although out of their depth, and visibly appalled by the suffering handed to them to heal.
And the crowd, and the messengers, and even the disciples, all pull the system down. The mourners scorn resurrection, but do you notice that the disciples scorn Jesus when he knows the loss of power from his self; healing is neither free, nor cheap. The leaders know they deserve priority, and the poor get in their way. The crowd presses in; the whole situation is "on the edge," and overwhelming. Davis alerted me that πολὺς appears in the text 8 times; the amplifying large or great is translated in various ways in our English texts, but would be heard almost as a chorus in the original reading of the story.
Slowly, last night, the good and bad patients were discerned. I find it difficult not to feel that the too hard, and the too ill, were gradually excluded. Despite the words offering safety, my sense that we were invited to leave has not diminished; indeed one interpretation could be that the "communal us" primes the "too hard" patients to walk out on their own, to "choose" to leave. Which seems terribly and horribly similar to Hamerton-Kelly's observation that the man in the tombs had internalised the exclusion of his city and was stoning himself! The terrifying thing about our powerlessness is that all of us were there for healing; to get it or give it, and yet I could not help but feel we were being asked to leave. And that I was equally powerless in the face of it all. No one wanted this outcome.
I wrote to friends
when a country keeps voting for lower taxes
and demonises the poor and the sick and the old
it finally has to go to a public hospital because there is nowhere else that will take it
and then it finds that even though it's "as sick as"
there's no one there to help
it's happening folks.
In this place, Jesus heals. Jesus heals by including. He validates the invalid. He includes the bleeding woman who— in his culture— has, in her desperation, 'stolen'3 his power. His whole ethos is to include. Kingdom is based on all the birds of the air finding shelter; there is no exclusion. (Mark 4:30-32)
As happened with the man in the tombs, we see fear when there is healing. The woman is afraid because she realises she has touched upon something far greater than all the other powers; indeed we will see in a moment that it is a power greater than death. But it requires everything of us; it requires us to give up our way of being human, and to live by inclusion, not exclusion. To fall before Jesus and have "told him the whole truth," is to own to our part in the exclusion. It is for me, longing for healing and safety for my friend, to acknowledge that I am part of the excluding species, and am caught up in the games of power and status. I have to die to being me to become the validating and including follower of Jesus.
And so Jairus is asked not to fear; not to pretend he does not quake before the enormity of what is asked of him in the face of the death of the one he loves, and in the face of the dying he is called to undertake so that he may be healed. Rather, he is asked not to fear in the sense that he does not reject the call. Not to laugh, not to drive Jesus out, not to reject the poor woman who is intruding into his privilege, but instead, to trust Jesus and to go on; to faith Jesus. This is what he does, and this is why Mark tells us his name is Jairus: enlightened one.
Andrew Prior (2018)
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
Also on One Man's Web
Fred... and much more - Mark 5:21-43 (2015)
Each of the posts below suggest you read Point 3 in "Fred… and much more" (The link above)
Mark 5:21-43 - Be a Man (2012)
A Substantial Healing - Mark 5:21-43 (2012)
Mark 5:21-43 - Healing a Deep Hatred (2009)
Mark 5:21-43 - Let her get up (2006)
1 We should beware unwitting anti-semitism in interpreting this reading:
Amy Jill Levine, from The Misunderstood Jew HarperCollins eBook, Chapter 5.
The most common Gospel text cited to prove Jesus’s anomalous views of women is the account of the hemorrhaging woman and the framing narrative of the dead girl, which appears in all three synoptic Gospels: Matthew 9:18–26, Mark 5:21–43, and Luke 8:40–56. Matthew’s version begins as Jesus is teaching; suddenly a “ruler” (archon; Mark, Matthew’s source, specifically identifies the man “Jairus,” a “synagogue ruler”) “came in and knelt before him, saying, ‘My daughter has just died; but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.’” Matthew intensifies the situation, for in Mark’s version the girl is only ill. “Jesus got up and followed him, with his disciples.” Then, interrupting the story of the dead girl, Matthew recounts that “a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his cloak” in hopes of receiving a healing. Jesus turns, sees the woman, and says, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.” Matthew provides the happy announcement: “And instantly the woman was made well.” Resuming the story of the desperate father and the dead daughter, the narrative picks up with the notice that “when Jesus came to the leader’s house and saw the flute players and the crowd making a commotion, he said, ‘Go away; for the girl is not dead but sleeping.’ And they laughed at him. But when the crowd had been put outside, he went in and took her by the hand, and the girl got up. And the report of this spread throughout that district.”
Christian feminists tend to love this story for, selectively interpreted, it plays perfectly into the argument that Jesus rejects any religious practice that would keep women from being equal to men. The problem with the argument is that it rests on faulty historical reasoning, and bad history cannot lead to good theology. Although no version of the story cites Leviticus, mentions impurity, expresses surprise at a bleeding woman in public, finds odd Jesus’s touching a corpse, or portrays Jesus as abrogating any Law, New Testament scholars import all this and more.11 Thus we read of the “woman’s courage in breaking with crippling cultural taboos imposed on her so as to reach Jesus directly and be fully restored and integrated as a person with full rights in her society.”12 The inevitable conclusion of this reading is its practical payoff for women in the church today: “To continue to exclude women from certain Christian ministries on the basis of outmoded Jewish taboos is to render null and void the liberation that Jesus won for us.”13 The end, the liberation of women today, does not, however, justify the means, the false portrait of Judaism.
The term “taboo” is already loaded; “crippling cultural taboos” much more so. Both are unwarranted. There is no reason why the woman would not be in public; there is no reason why she should not seek Jesus’s help. No crowd parts before her with the cry, “Get away, get away, hemorrhaging woman!” No authorities restrict her to her house or require her to proclaim herself “Unclean, unclean.” And, finally, Jesus abrogates no Laws concerning any “crippling cultural taboos,” for there is no Law forbidding the woman to touch him or him to touch her.
Concerning ritual-purity practices, John Meier correctly states:
The purity Laws of the Pentateuch (Lev 15:25–30) do not explicitly state that a zaba [woman with a uterine or vaginal discharge] communicates ritual impurity simply by touching someone—or, a fortiori, in the case of Jesus, someone’s clothing. Unless we suppose that ordinary Galilean peasants knew and observed the more rigorous rules of the Essenes or anticipated the halachah of the later Rabbis, there is no reason to think that either the woman or Jesus thought that impurity was being communicated by her touching his garment.14
Noting Jesus’s silence about corpse, menstrual, and ejaculatory impurity, Meier concludes that “Jesus was simply not interested in the questions of ritual purity that consumed the interests of many pious Jews of his time.”15
The point can be made in a stronger manner, for absence of evidence is not the same thing as evidence of absence or lack of concern. The historical default would be that Jesus was no more, and no less, concerned with ritual purity than were the majority of his fellow Jews and that he and his followers practiced what his fellow Jews did. Jesus kept the purity Laws, as did his earliest followers. His dining with tax collectors and sinners (as well as with Pharisees) need not have transgressed any purity regulations. Purity Laws are not mentioned in this passage concerning the hemorrhaging woman and the dead girl, because they did not need to be; they are not relevant to the story. In like manner, they are also not mentioned in connection with the burial of the corpses of John the Baptist and Jesus himself.
Such readings that speak of Jesus’s breaking or violating purity Laws rest on the misunderstanding and so misrepresentation of Jewish practices. Interpreters describe these practices not as halakhot, or mitzvot, or even commandments, but with the negative term “taboos.” In this classification, Jewish tradition is always retrograde, and Jesus or the church liberates people from it. The point is the opposite of multiculturalism: rather than celebrating cultural difference, theologians first misinterpret Jewish cultural practices and then condemn them.
2 Which one suspects is happening in the backlash of which Susan Faludi wrote, and which has only increased since then.
3 Jerome Neyrey: Thus if a healer "gives" healing or a teacher "imparts" teaching, unless he is appropriately remunerated, he would be perceived to be losing as others gained at his or her expense.) Or, if someone secretly obtained healing or some other benefit without the healer's knowledge and remuneration, this might be considered a form of theft (see Mark 5:28-29).
Would you like to comment?
I have turned off the feedback module due to constant spamming. However, if you would like to comment, or discuss a post, you are welcome to email me, and I may include your comments at the bottom of this article.