Commentary on Mark 5:21-43
Last Sunday’s Gospel lection, Mark 5:1-20, recounted a tale of terror.
This Sunday: a tale of two pities. The predicaments in Mark 5:21-43 are so poignant that they would make a stone weep. Using his trademark technique of intercalation (for another, see 14:53-72), Mark sandwiches one story (5:24b-34) inside another (5:21-24a and 5:35-43). Each complement and amplifies the other with mirrored details so subtle that most would register with Mark’s listeners subliminally, if at all.
- Two suppliants, a named synagogue benefactor (archisynagogos, verse 22) and an anonymous pauper (verse 26), seek or are sought by Jesus (verses 22a, 32) before prostrating themselves before him (verses 22b, 33b).
- Both stories revolve around two “daughters”: one, actual (verse 23); the other, figurative (verse 34).
- Both women are in dire straits. One, twelve years of age, lies at death’s door (verses 23a, 42b); the other, a victim of chronic menstruation for twelve years (verse 25). Absent healing, neither will ever experience the joy of childbirth (Psalm 113:9).
- Their cases are manifestly hopeless. One “spent all that she had” on ineffectual treatments that aggravated her life’s seepage (Mark 5:26): “for the blood is the life” (Deuteronomy 12:23). The other is dying (Mark 5:23) and eventually will be pronounced dead (verse 35a).
- Professionals—physicians (verse 26a) or hired mourners (verse 38; see also Jeremiah 9:17-20)—have proved useless. Spectators react stupidly (Mark 5:31), callously (verse 35), or derisively (verse 40a). With cryptic remarks (verses 30, 39), Jesus responds by rejecting (verses 32, 36) or ejecting them (verse 40b).
- Perpetual bleeding and death are ritually defiling, impossible to purify, and socially alienating (Leviticus 15:19-20; Numbers 19:11-13). By touch—either the sufferer’s (Mark 5:27-28) or the healer’s (verses 23, 41)—the polarity of contamination is reversed. Two of Israel’s daughters are fully restored to their proper homes, from which they have been horribly estranged.
- The Greek verb for their restoration is identical: “made well” (sothe, verse 23; sesoken, verse 34).
- In both cases of healing, the prerequisite is pistis: the “faith” (verse 34a) or “belie[f]” (verse 36b) that recognizes in Jesus a trustworthy agent of God’s curative power (verses 23, 27-28).
- In both cases, the greatest challenge to such trust is fear (phobetheisa, verse 33b; phobou, verse 36b).
Random chance could account for a couple of these correspondences. More than a dozen indicate deliberate craftsmanship. Mark has twinned these tales with reverberating details. Notice, too, how much longer Mark’s account runs: 377 Greek words, compared with 292 in Luke 8:40-56 and 139 in Matthew 9:18-26. Commentators lambasting Mark for verbosity have missed something important: digesting this narrative sandwich takes a lot more time in the Second Gospel—and time is of the essence.
Unlike Matthew’s version, in which Jairus’ daughter has just died (Matthew 9:18), in Mark she is on death’s verge, dangling by a thread (Mark 5:23). That starts a ticking clock. The obstructive crowd, the woman’s case history and desperate maneuver, Jesus’ standstill and search for her, the rehearsal of everything implied by “the whole truth” (verse 33): all these details in verses 24-34 devour precious minutes as a child’s life dwindles away. With the heartless report in verse 35, the bomb explodes: “Your daughter is dead.” We are emotionally whipsawed by contesting emergencies. For twelve long years that poor woman’s life had bled out of her. When power flowed from him (verse 30)—a miracle occurred for both the healer and the healed—Jesus gave this daughter more attention than she wanted (verses 32-34). But what of Jairus’ daughter? After a dozen years would an hour’s delay have mattered to the menstruant? It certainly does for Jairus. For his child, it’s too late now. Or is it?
Here shines Mark’s genius as a gospeler. He doesn’t merely spin miracle stories. He hooks us into these characters’ lives, creating within us the awful oscillation between fear and faith. Mark knows that trust in God comes hard. We grasp it. We lose it. We reach again. We trust—God, replenish our lack of trust (Mark 9:24). After years of suffering, we reach our tether’s end. The flame is snuffed. If you want to know how hard faith is in Mark, listen, over a long night in Gethsemane, while Jesus prays for escape from the inescapable (14:32-42). At three one afternoon on Golgotha, listen as he shrieks his abandonment by an apparently absent God (15:34). When Jesus took the hand of a little girl and whispered, “Arise, little lamb” (literally, in Aramaic, talitha cum), he did exactly what his heavenly Father would do for him at Easter. Egeire: “Get up!” (Mark 5:41). Egerthe: “He has been raised” (Mark 16:6b).
I tell my students that Mark 5:21-43 is so exquisitely wrought that it almost preaches itself. That’s an overstatement, yet the power of two voices sensitively reading these entwined stories should not be underrated. Might one structure a sermon-sandwich of interlocking components, thus preaching a scriptural word in a scriptural way?1 Were I to run a highlighter across this Markan passage, the line would fall on the battle for faith against fear (Mark 5:33-36). That, not the healings in themselves, is where I believe the Evangelist’s primary interest lies.
God knows that our congregations need all the support we can offer them in resisting a devilish anxiety that now pervades our culture 24/7. Some fears are reasonable. Others are manufactured by politicians and other power-mongers for no reason other than to secure for themselves even more wealth and control. Typically, they present themselves as saviors of the populace they frighten. That’s a lie. Mark redirects us to the true Savior, who subverts fear and fortifies faith. Trust in God, not paralyzing terror, is bedrock for all of Abraham’s children, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim alike (Surah Al-Ma‘Idah 5:69): “For whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day, and does what is right—Jews, Sabaeans, or Christians—no fear shall come upon them; neither shall they grieve.” In Isaiah’s words (12:2), “Surely God is my salvation;/I will trust and will not be afraid.”
- Leander Keck. The Bible in the Pulpit (Abingdon Press, 1978).
PRAYER OF THE DAY
God of healing, when someone in your world suffers, you suffer as well. Restore your world and heal your children so that no one needs to suffer any longer. Amen.
Do not leave your cares at the door, Elizabeth Stanley