By Ched Myers, for the 5th Sunday of Pentecost (Mk 5:21-43)
Note: This is an ongoing series of Ched’s brief comments on the Markan gospel readings from the Revised Common Lectionary during year B, 2015.
In Mark’s tale of the Gerasene Demoniac (Mk 5:1-20), Jesus brings dramatic liberation to a man “occupied” by the spirit of Legion (i.e. Roman imperialism) on the Gentile side of the Sea of Galilee. Frustratingly, this powerful story is again deftly avoided by the Revised Common Lectionary (but you can read my comments on it here in “Sea-Changes: Re-Imagining Exodus Liberation as an ‘Exorcism’ of Imperial Militarism” in Challenging Empire: God, Faithfulness and Resistance, edited by Naim Ateek et al, Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center). Jesus then returns across the sea to “Jewish” territory (5:21), where the next episode dramatizes how the poor were given priority in the ministry of Jesus. Mark 5:22-43 is yet another example of “sandwich-construction,” which wraps a story within a story in order to compel the reader to interrelate the two. The setting of the first half of this narrative sequence seems to be the “crowd” itself (5:21,24,27,31). Jesus is approached by a synagogue ruler who appeals on behalf of his daughter, who he believes to be “at the point of death” (5:23). Jesus departs with him on this mission, and we fully expect this transaction will be completed. On his way, however, Jesus is hemmed in by the crowds (5:24).
The narrative focus suddenly zooms in upon a woman whose condition Mark describes in great detail (5:25f) with a series of descriptive clauses:
- she had been with a flow of blood for twelve years;
- she had suffered much under the care of many doctors;
- she had spent all her resources,
- yet she had not benefitted, but grown worse instead.
Because the Purity Code mandated that menstruating women be quarantined (Lev 15:19ff), it would have been highly inappropriate for a hemorrhaging woman to be out in public—much less grabbing a “holy man”! But Mark ignores this scandal in order to focus instead on the way she had been bankrupted by profiteering physicians who exploited her without healing her. This woman’s approach to Jesus is in stark contrast to that of Jairus. His approach was frontal and proprietary: he acknowledged Jesus’ honor (lowering himself before him) in order to make a request. She, on the other hand, hidden in the crowd, reaches out anonymously from behind, seeking to touch Jesus covertly to somehow effect a magical cure. Jairus adresses Jesus directly, as would befit male equals, while the woman talks only to herself (5:28). Jairus is the “head” of both his family (speaking on behalf of his daughter) and his social group (the synagogue); the woman is nameless and alone. In other words, Mark is portraying two characters who represent the opposite ends of the social spectrum.
However, at the moment of contact between Jesus and the woman (5:29), the power dynamics of the story begin to be reversed. The woman’s body is healed—the opposite of what a Jewish audience would expect, since it is Jesus who should have contracted her impurity through physical touch. Indeed, Mark suggests that power was transferred (5:30) from the rabbi to the streetwoman—a clue to the social reversals to come. When Jesus stops to inquire what has happened, the narrative that was in full motion toward Jairus’ house suddenly grinds to a halt. A struggle now ensues: Jesus: “Who touched my clothes?” Disciples: “You see the crowd yet ask, ‘Who touched me?’” Jesus looked around to see who had done it. (5:31f) To the disciples, this interruption is an inconvenience attributable to the anonymous crowd, with whom they are unconcerned, anxious to help the powerful leader. Jesus, however, seeks to know the human face of the poor.
Emerging from the margins of the story to center stage, it is the woman’s turn to fall in front of Jesus, implying that she is now on equal par with Jairus. Finding her voice, “she told him the whole truth”—including no doubt her opinion of the Purity system and the medical establishment! Jesus then acknowledges her rightful status as “daughter” in the family of Israel (5:34), and commends the faith evidenced by her stubborn initiative. Even more shocking is the fact that her character now exceeds that of Jesus’ own disciples, who have been shown to be “without faith” (4:40)! But what of the original “daughter”? Jairus is informed by some servants that she has died (5:35). The phrase “while Jesus was still speaking” functions to overlap the two utterances, as if gain and loss are voiced simultaneously: Jesus: “Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace.” Servant: “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the Teacher further?”
By attending to this importunate woman, Jesus appears to have defaulted on his original task. Will the story end in tragedy? Undeterred, Jesus ignores the household’s “interpretation” of events and exhorts Jairus to believe. The unnerving implication cannot be missed: Jesus is instructing a leader of the synagogue to learn about faith from this outcast woman (5:36)! The scene now shifts to Jairus’ household. There mourning turns to derision at Jesus’ insistence that the girl only “sleeps” (5:39). Jesus is not being coy; “being asleep” will emerge later in the story as a symbol of lack of faith (13:36; 14:32ff). He proceeds to throw the onlookers out and then raises the girl back to life (5:42). The witnesses are “beside themselves with great astonishment” (5:43), a reaction that will occur only one other time in Mark’s story: at Jesus‘ resurrection (16:6)! This episode portrays Jesus in the tradition of the prophet Elisha, who raised the dead son of a woman of Shunem (2 Kg 4:8-37). This may help explain why Mark’s story ends with Jesus’ instruction to give the girl “something to eat” (5:43). For just as Elisha followed his healing of the young boy by multiplying loaves for people during a famine (2 Kg 4:38-44), so Mark will shortly describe Jesus’ feeding of the crowds in the wilderness (Mk 6:35ff). (Above: “Christ Raising Jairus’s Daughter,” William Blake, c. 1799-1800).
In the art of narrative, every detail is there for a reason, and Mark’s “aside” that the girl was twelve years old is a good case in point. She has lived affluently for 12 years, and is on the verge of menstruation. In contrast, the bleeding woman had suffered for 12 years, permanently infertile. This number, of course, also symbolizes the twelve tribes of Israel (see 3:13), and thus represents the key to the social meaning of this doublet. Within the “family” of Israel, these “daughters” represent the advantaged and the impoverished, respectively. Because of such inequity, the body politic of the synagogue is “on the verge of death.” Jesus’ healing journey must, however, take a necessary detour that stops to listen to the pain of the excluded. Only when the outcast woman is restored to “daughterhood” can the daughter of the synagogue also be restored to life. That is the faith the privileged must learn from the poor. This story thus functions to show a central characteristic of the sovereignty of God which Jesus will later also tell: The “last will be first” and the “least will be greatest” (see 10:31,43).