Healing Two Daughters

BindingWe continue our celebration of the 30th anniversary of Binding The Strong Man, Ched Myers’ political reading of Mark’s Gospel.  Today’s passage is Mark 5:21-43.

“Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and 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”…Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had…”–Mark 5:22-23, 25-26

On the one hand, the synagogue ruler, Jairus (one of the rare named characters in Mark’s story), makes an assertive approach to Jesus, as befits male social equals.  This man was both “head” of his family (thus appealing on behalf of his daughter) and “head” of his social group (leader of the synagogue, archisunagogoon).  The man falls down at Jesus’ feet, a proper granting of honor prior to asking a favor.

On the other hand, the woman who reaches out from the cover of the crowd, an ashamed and covert attempt to gain healing, is anonymous.  When Jesus tries to seek her out, the disciples discourage him: “You see how the crowd is pressing around you and yet you say, ‘Who touched me?'” (5:31).  The woman has no name, she belongs to the crowds–she is statusless, with no one to defend her (as Jairus defends his daughter).

…This woman is doubly poor, doubly outcast.  As a result of her physical condition of unarrestable hemorrhaging, she should–according to the Levitical purity code–be perpetually segregated.  And she was a victim of exploitation as well.

…I would contend that the primary level of signification in this episode, however, lies in the fact that Jesus accepts the priority of the (“highly inappropriate”) importunity of this woman over the (“correct”) request of the synagogue leader.  His mission to “lay his hands on” Jairus’s daugher (5:23c) is interrupted by the “touch” of the doubly poor woman, and now she is the one who falls at the feet of Jesus (5:33).  The most important symbolic reversal here is the status of the destitute woman.  From the bottom of the honor scale she intrudes upon an important mission on behalf of the daughter of someone on the top of the honor scale–but by the story’s conclusion, she herself has become the “daughter” at the center of the story!  “My daughter,” proclaims Jesus, “Your faith has saved you, go in peace in and be in full health, free of your scourge” (5:34).  Not only is her integrity restored, but she receives a grant of status superior to that of Jesus’ own male disciples, who are “without faith” (4:40)!  Such a profound reversal of dignity will occur only one other time in Mark: in the story of another destitute Jew, the blind beggar Bartimaeus (10:51).

…Mark shapes this story to intentionally juxtapose the two extremes of the Jewish social scale.  The little girl had enjoyed twelve years of privilege as the daughter of a synagogue ruler, yet was now “near death” (5:23).  The phrase used by Mark in 5:23 (eschatos echei, lit., “near her last”) faintly echoes the term he will later use in speaking of the reversal of the social order (first vs. last, eschatos, 9:35; 10:31).  Indeed, as far as Mark’s Jesus is concerned, the social order represented by the synagogue ruler’s Judaism is on the verge of collapse.  The statusless woman had suffered twelve years of destitution at the hands of the purity system and its “doctors”; yet she still took initiative in her struggle for liberation.  The object lesson can only be that if Judaism wishes to “be saved and live” (5:23), it must embrace the “faith” of the kingdom: a new social order with equal status for all.  This alone will liberate the lowly outcast and snatch the “noble” from death.  Mark’s narrative of symbolic action thus achieves the same effect as Matthew’s blunt announcement to the Jewish leaders that “tax collectors and prostitutes are making their way into the kingdom of God before you” (Mt 21:31)–and with equal shock value!

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