Commentary on Mark 5:21-43
After healing the Gerasene Demoniac, Jesus crosses back across the sea immediately and a large crowd gathers around him.
The reader is presented in these verses with the best example of a Markan intercalation — better known as a Markan “Sandwich” — a narrative technique that places one story inside of another. The intercalation suggests that Mark wants these stories to be read in tandem, to comment mutually on each other, and be interpreted side by side.
Jew and Gentile: No Distinction
Mark juxtaposes 5:1-20 with 21-43 in such a way as to make them broadly symbolic as Gentile and Jewish stories, respectively. In Mark 5:1-20 the demoniac, his neighbors, and those Jesus encounters in that episode are all symbolically on Gentile soil. The Demoniac is in the region of the Decapolis, among those who raise pigs (an unclean animal for the Jews), which clearly build a Gentile context. This Gentile territory finds its Jewish counterpart in Mark 5:21-43.
Jesus immediately encounters a leader of the synagogue. The number 12, obviously symbolic within a Jewish background, functions prominently in both parts of the intercalation. This territory, however, is no less fraught with the danger of uncleanliness. By the end of the framing story about Jairus’ daughter, Jesus will touch a dead body. In the middle of the intercalation, a woman with a flow of blood, who would have been continually unclean throughout the 12-year period of her ailment, touches Jesus. Like in the previous pericope in Gentile territory, Jesus paid no heed to these boundaries. The Kingdom of God’s entrance into the world renders such societal and religious boundaries irrelevant.
At issue in this intercalation, and in Mark in general, is a question at the very heart of first-century Judaism: is the covenant between God and the chosen people meant only for one ethnic group, or is it open more broadly to all the Gentiles? Segments of Israel’s scriptures testify to both positions. Judaism in the first century was not univocal on the matter, nor was early Christianity (See Galatians 1-2). Mark clearly has cast his lot with the more inclusive of these interpretations.
In chapter 5, Jesus does not discriminate between Jew and Gentile; both are healed and transformed. The rules and structures of either society are irrelevant to him. He demolishes the demoniac’s isolation. He honors the ritually unclean — the bleeding and the dead — with no heed for the consequences. Neither Jew nor Gentile has an inherent advantage. In the words of St. Paul, “God shows no partiality” (Galatians 2:6 New Revised Standard Version).
Mark himself has adapted and interpreted certain traditions from within Judaism and kneaded them into his narrative so as to challenge both Jew and Gentile. No one context is given privilege over another; in both pericope in chapter 5, the society — whether Jewish or Gentile — stands inimical to the way God’s Kingdom works. The seed can take root and bear fruit in either context, but never by the rules that those contexts have erected. Embedded within the sower’s profligate indiscretion is a deeper penchant for unexpectedness and fecundity.
When translating these core principles to today we might expect to react with fear and trembling, like the healed old woman or those who gaze upon the changed demoniac. The challenge of Mark’s gospel seems intended for those who sit in the pews, the insiders who think they have been given or have earned a special position. God, Mark tells us, does not dwell where we want. The curtain has been torn. God is no longer contained.
Based on Mark 5 — the exorcism of a demoniac, the healing of twelve years of bleeding, and the resurrection of the dead — what God is going to do next, we have absolutely no hope of predicting.
Faith in Mark’s Gospel
Mark defines faith as fortitude or gutsiness. The woman in the middle part of the sandwich shows aggressive, bold action. She knows that any touch from Jesus, whether sanctioned or clandestine, will result in her being healed. Knowing this, she crawls forward and takes what she wants by touching his hem. Jesus wheels around and grumpily asks who touched him. The woman could have crept away, having already received what she came for, but she does not. Instead, although in fear, she presents herself before Jesus; she recounts the whole truth. Jesus’ response is simply to say: “your faith has healed you.” What her faith means in this context is something more than belief. Faith entails bold action and fortitude.
As the story returns to Jairus’ daughter, some attendants arrive with an update: the girl is dead, so Jesus may as well head home. Jesus responds by saying: “do not fear; only have faith.” The introduction of fear seems strange. There is no indication that Jairus’ family or the attendants were afraid of anything. This is, however, the typical Markan pairing.
In Mark’s gospel, fear and faith are paired opposites. The theme of fear is already fresh in the reader’s mind, as it was prominent in the disciples’ response to Jesus’ calming of the storm (4:35-41) and in the response to the Gerasene Demoniac (5:1-20).
Fear is a recurring them in Mark. Not only has it led up to Mark 5:21-43, but later in the narrative it continues to epitomize one reaction to the Kingdom of God breaking into the world. The disciples react with fear when Jesus walks on the water, and the episode ends with their hearts being hardened (6:45-52). Heading up to Jerusalem produces fear in those who follow (10:32-34). The Jewish leadership fears Jesus because he has curried favor and fame with crowds (11:18).
Most notably, the entire gospel ends with fear. The women, who approached the tomb and found it empty, after being told that Jesus had been resurrected, leave in silence and fear. The last verb of the entire gospel narrates fear. Whether it is the disciples afraid of Jesus, the leaders fearing the crowds, or the crowds fearing Jesus, fear is a central dynamic in Marks’ story of Jesus.
Mark’s use of fear suggests that humans and their institutions are an obstacle and impediment to the in-breaking of God’s kingdom. When properly understood, the Kingdom of God will leave one stupefied. With the import Mark gives to fear and the way he imparts it to certain characters, Mark wrests control of the Kingdom of God from humans.