Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Jesus extends the power of holiness to (re)generate life wherever he goes

Hand reaching out to touch a rough surface
Photo by Benjamin Ranger on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

June 30, 2024

Gospel
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Commentary on Mark 5:21-43



Mark skimps on detail and storytelling flourishes—except when it doesn’t. This passage offers us one of the Second Gospel’s best-told stories, all while ramping up our estimation of how great Jesus’ power is. Thus far in Mark he has healed people with words or a touch, commanded unclean spirits, and controlled the weather. Now the energy that radiates from him heals a woman without him willing it, and he brings a young woman back from death. He extends the power of holiness to (re)generate life wherever he goes.

Comparing and contrasting the two women opens our imagination to the wide range of Jesus’ ministry. No one is invisible or too far gone. Although both women remain anonymous, they are quite different. One is out of money, bankrupted by her healthcare options; the other one has a father (Jairus) who possesses a measure of status because of his leadership role. One approaches Jesus surreptitiously, while Jairus prostrates himself before Jesus with a crowd’s full awareness. The woman with a hemorrhage has endured her ailment—and failed attempts to cure her—for 12 years, matching the age of Jairus’s daughter. For the former, 12 years marks a very long time to be ill. For the latter, her age probably puts her on the cusp of betrothal.

Mark provides no details about what sort of hemorrhaging is occurring. It does not have to be a menstrual disorder or the result of a pregnancy-related injury. That inference is nevertheless reasonable and ingrained in the passage’s interpretive history. If that is her condition, presumably it makes her infertile. Given ancient understandings of anatomy, menstruation, and ritual purity, Mark’s implicit point would therefore be that her womb is no longer a source or a site of life.1 That could be an instigator of shame in her culture and a cause of particular grief for her and her family. A challenge for preachers is describing those ancient norms while acknowledging what’s similar and different today.

Touching Jesus’ cloak stops the hemorrhage. It cures her ailment. But a more holistic healing, or restoration, comes when Jesus hears her story and publicly commends her faith, even calling her “daughter.” She enters the scene alone, in secrecy. She departs it having been dignified and praised by Jesus, all while her neighbors witness.

Jairus’s daughter dies, perhaps because Jesus cannot reach her in time as a consequence of his decision to linger with and elevate the woman who touched his cloak. It must be agonizing for Jairus to have to watch and wait. Jesus nevertheless urges him to hold on. He coaxes him back from the cliff of fear and encourages him to “continue believing.”2 When Jesus reaches the house, the healing transpires in a way that resembles the story of Elijah reviving the widow’s son (1 Kings 17:17–24). Jesus’ deed proceeds more simply, however; all he has to do is instruct the young woman to get up while taking her by the hand.

Interpreters sometimes claim that this passage portrays Jesus as unconcerned with or even dismissive of Jewish purity rituals. Those interpretations are incorrect and have no basis in Mark’s narrative. Neither does Jesus violate Torah, either consciously or unintentionally, when the woman suffering from a hemorrhage touches him or when he touches Jairus’s dead daughter. To make oneself ritually impure was not a sin or moral transgression. Most people in Jesus’ world were in a state of ritual impurity frequently. Cleansing rituals were performed easily and often.

Even more misguided are interpretations of this passage that take Jesus to be liberating people from oppressive rules or superstitions based on patently intolerant, misogynistic, or elitist assumptions concerning ritual purity. Those interpretations distort what we know about Jewish law and practice in the first century. Those anti-Jewish interpretations attempt to magnify Jesus by diminishing Judaism. They essentially remove Jesus from his Jewishness.

You can consult the work of Amy-Jill Levine3 and Matthew Thiessen4 to investigate matters of ritual purity in more detail. I recommend in particular Thiessen’s argument that the Gospels depict Jesus as more powerful than death and the death-related powers that create ritual impurity. The holiness within him is contagious and overwhelms any power considered contrary to divine holiness. Jesus, the Gospels proclaim, utterly reshapes the world as he and his fellow Jews understood it.

Preachers might focus on the characteristics of faith in this passage. Neither the woman of the first story nor the synagogue leader of the second one refer to Jesus as “Messiah,” “Son of David,” “Lord,” or anything like that. They don’t recite the Apostles’ Creed, explain the Trinity, or pledge money to Jesus’ movement. They simply come. If we want to know what they believe, we can say that they believe Jesus can help them. Or they hope he might. It’s about trust. Maybe mere desperation.

Let’s put to rest the idea that in Mark faith is some kind of a prerequisite to healing, if by “faith” we mean an adequate measure of a person’s earnestness or submissiveness. This requires us to pay careful attention to verse 34 (“Your faith has made you well”). There are other occasions in which Jesus heals and feeds people with no explicit mention of faith (examples in the vicinity of this passage include 5:1–20; 6:5, 13, 41–43, 56). Illness is not the punishment for insufficient faith. People who suffer do not need to be implicitly scolded for not believing enough in Jesus.

A preacher might ask a congregation to consider where and how they actively participate in the healing that Jesus extends to the world, in all the many dimensions of his healing. In Anna Carter Florence’s newest book, she ponders Mark’s comment about the woman living with a hemorrhage: “She had heard about Jesus” (verse 27). Florence contemplates what stories or acclamations the woman had heard from others and reminds us that we never know where the things we say about Jesus will end up.5 There are people who wonder whether they are beyond reach or doomed to suffer. How might your sermon—to say nothing of the witness of your congregation—plant a seed of hope in someone who finds their way to it, and then finds their way to Jesus, even without your knowledge?


Notes

  1. Matthew Thiessen, Jesus and the Forces of Death: The Gospels’ Portrayal of Ritual Impurity within First-Century Judaism (Baker Academic, 2020), 69–79.
  2. The present-tense imperative in verse 36 implies that Jairus already has faith. Jesus says, in effect, “Keep on believing,” not “Start believing.”
  3. Amy-Jill Levine, The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus (HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), 173–77.
  4. Thiessen, Jesus and the Forces of Death.
  5. Anna Carter Florence, A Is for Alabaster: 52 Reflections on the Stories of Scripture (Westminster John Knox, 2023), 141–43.