Mark 5:21-43

Faith as Criterion for Participation (1) – Positively Stated

The disciples and Jesus returned from pagan territory to the Jewish side of the lake.

Mark 5:21-43 – Jesus Heals the Two “Daughters”

21 When Jesus had crossed back in the boat to the other side,
he was on the shore of the lake,
and a large crowd gathered around him.

Mark situated the encounters on neutral ground, certainly not the site of expected confrontation and conflict.

22 A leader in the synagogue, named Jairus, came up
and threw himself at his feet,
23 telling him, "My daughter is dying",
and urgently encouraged him to come and lay his hands on her
that she might recover her health and live." 
24 He went off with him, 

Mark was about to use a literary technique to highlight the connectedness of two separate incidents, to make obvious the similarities and the contrasts. He would insert an incident of a hemorrhaging woman between the first and second halves of the story of the ailing younger woman.

“Daughter of Israel”

The prophetic literature referred at times to the nation as “daughter of Israel”, even “virgin daughter of Israel”. The word “daughter” would figure clearly in the narrative in reference to each of the women.

The following citation illustrates the tendency:

“...What can I say for you, to what compare you, O daughter Jerusalem?
To what can I liken you, that I may comfort you, O virgin daughter Zion?
For vast as the sea is your ruin; who can heal you?” (Lamentations 2.17)

The two women of the story illustrated different aspects of the Jewish nation. The young girl represented those at home in and protected by the institution, the hemorrhaging woman the oppressed but faithful minorities excluded from community life by the institution.

The gesture of Jairus may sound extravagant to modern ears, but it was a normal expression of the honour system of the East. It looked to be an expression of humility, yet in the cultural attitudes of the time, it was in effect an effort to control the outcome. Jairus presumed his own superior position of honour in relation to Jesus. By voluntarily debasing himself and making his request of Jesus, he was running a slight risk of being rejected, and so of losing face, but he was also effectively placing pressure on Jesus. To maintain his own honour Jesus would be expected to respond favourably to the risk taken by Jairus. Were Jesus to refuse he would have stepped outside the honour exchange and thereby lost face.

The young girl was referred to pointedly as daughter. In Jewish society women, and particularly female children, had no rights. Jairus’s daughter was fortunate to have had her father to plead her cause. She was also privileged to have had as father a man highly respected in the religious and social community.

Mark did not identify the synagogue where Jairus was a leader. Presumably he was a Pharisee, probably also a scribe. His openness to Jesus would seem to have precluded his being a leader of the Capernaum synagogue where Jesus had been so poorly received. (It also serves as a warning not to tar all Pharisees or scribes with the one brush.)

24 and a large group of people followed him crowding around him.
25 There was a woman who had been haemorrhaging for twelve years.
26 She had suffered under a number of doctors
and paid out all she had for no benefit at all;
in fact she had only grown worse.  

The elder woman was in a situation diametrically opposed to that of the girl. She was ritually unclean, irredeemably so. She had no man to plead her cause. The nature of her ailment would have meant that no man would ever marry her, or, if she had married, that her husband had either died or divorced her.

Mark pointedly said that she had been not only excluded but financially and personally exploited by the system.

He also made the observation that she had been suffering for twelve years. Mark would soon comment that the young girl was twelve years of age. Probably Mark saw in the number twelve a reference to the twelve tribes (or the nation) of Israel. In that case he was inviting readers to see the women as symbols of the plight of the nation.

27 She had heard about Jesus,
and in the crowd she came up from behind him
and touched his cloak.
28 She had been saying to herself,
"If only I can touch his clothes, I shall get well.

In the honour code of the culture the woman had no option but to approach Jesus unnoticed. To approach him directly would have offended his honour. Her gesture of touching, were it noticed, would have rendered Jesus unclean (and unsuitable, in Jairus’s mind, to touch his daughter). Either the woman was so desperate that she did not care, or her sense of Jesus was such that she presumed that he would not care. However she judged that fact, she showed faith in the capacity and willingness of Jesus to reach out to her, despite her utter social marginalisation and powerlessness.

29 Immediately, the flow of blood dried up,
and she knew in her body that the affliction had been healed.
30 Jesus recognised immediately in himself
that power had gone out of him.  
He turned around in the crowd
and said, "Who touched my clothes?
31 His disciples said to him,
"Can you not see the whole crowd is pressing around you,
and you ask, 'Who is touching me?’ ”
32 Jesus kept looking around to see the woman who had done it. 

Mark had no problem in accepting that Jesus recognised that something had happened to him without precisely knowing what.

33 Realising what had happened in her,
the woman, in fear and trembling came up
and fell down at his feet
and told him the truth about it all.

The woman fell down before Jesus, as Jairus had done. She had no honour to trade, just a profound sense of her own need, and perhaps an unrecognised but strong sense of her humanity and her own inherent dignity.

She took the time needed to tell the truth about it all. Jesus apparently gave her his full attention and listened to her story of suffering, no doubt himself sharing the woman’s indignation at the emptiness of the religious culture that had kept her marginalised and despised.

34 He said to her,
"Daughter, your faith has saved you;
go in peace and be healed of your affliction.

Jesus was clear in identifying the cause of the woman’s cure - her faith responding to his liberating power. Her faith had led her to recognise, in her experience of Jesus’ power, something of her own dignity, to identify and respect the healthiness of her indignation, to be no longer a non-entity consigned to the edges of society but a woman, a child of God. Her faith had made her well. The woman who had no father or husband to plead her cause had been received by Jesus as his daughter. She walked away, her sense of self restored and strengthened, and her affliction healed.

Her healing became for Mark the symbol of the way to salvation for Israel. The little ones, conscious both of their need and of their human dignity, and who believed in and took on board the vision and ways of Jesus, could enter the new community of disciples.

35 While he was still talking to her,
people came from the synagogue leader’s house telling him,
“Your daughter has died.  
Why bother the teacher any more?”

The counsel of the people was to give up hope in the face of death.

36 Jesus overheard their message, and said to the leader,
“Do not fear; just have faith.”

Jesus asked of the leader of the synagogue what the woman had manifested so clearly. All that was needed was faith, not honour, or bargaining power, or tradition or prestige. The hope of Israel, particularly of institutional Israel, lay in faith in the person and way of Christ as exemplified by the woman. Salvation was not beyond it, but would require radical conversion. If the nation could face the death to self necessary for conversion, it too could become part of the community of disciples.

37 He allowed no one to accompany him
except Peter and James and John, the brother of James.
38 They went to the synagogue leader’s house
and found bedlam, women weeping and wailing loudly.
39 He went in and said to them,
“Why are you making such noise and wailing.  
The little child has not died, but is sleeping.”
40 They laughed at him.

Professional mourners were part of the cultural response to death. Jesus reinterpreted the girl’s death as sleeping. The situation of Israel, even later on in the time of Mark’s community, was not irreversible, provided it was prepared to take Jesus at face value and believe.

40 He sent them all away,
took the child’s father and mother, and the others with him,
and entered the place where the child was.
41 He took firm hold of the child’s hand,
and said to her, “Talitha, Kum!”  
Translated that means, “Little girl, I tell you, rise up.”

Jesus’ actual Aramaic words were recorded by Mark, no doubt because retained in the community memory, but perhaps also because they served to underline the reality of the event and to reinforce the symbolic message that even death was no obstacle to the power of God exercised in Jesus. God could save Israel.

42 Straight way the little girl stood up and walked around.  
She was twelve years old.
They were utterly beside themselves with amazement.
43 Then he strictly instructed them
not to let anyone know about it,
and told them to give her something to eat.

The possible reason for Mark’s making the otherwise irrelevant comment on the girl’s age being twelve has already been noted.

The words used to describe the parents’ (and disciples’) reaction to the event would be repeated at the end of the whole narrative to indicate the reaction of the women who would find Jesus’ tomb empty on the morning of the Sabbath following his death. Literally it conveyed more than amazement; it meant being “outside of themselves”, “ecstatic with a great ecstasy!” 

Mark wished to underline the fact that what happened to the girl was truly momentous, not so much in itself but in what it symbolised and anticipated: the resurrection of Israel thorough the resurrection of Christ. Like the dead young girl, the dead Christ would be transformed by God into life-giving power through resurrection. In its turn the resurrection of Christ would make possible the eventual resurrection of a dead and non-responsive Israel.

Perhaps Jesus’ insistence that no one should know this came from his conviction that only true faith and conversion could provide the context for transformation, not mindless adulation or enthusiasm.

Mark noted that Jesus told the parents to give the young girl something to eat. The comment may simply have been coincidental, but it may also have carried a faint reference to an issue that would be stated much more clearly in what would follow (and had already been quietly mentioned in preceding chapters). Questions of eating and sharing meals, of loaves of bread and of leaven, would be given greater emphasis. Sharing a meal would be seen to be evocative of membership of the community.

Next >> Mark 6:1-6