Commentary on Mark 5:21-43
Two Healings in One (story)
In this chapter, Mark describes Jesus healing two daughters of Israel.
Jesus had just performed a successful exorcism of a non-Jewish person (cf. 5:1-20). In our passage, Jesus returns to the “Jewish” side (or, the “other side”; cf. 5:21) to find a large crowd.
The Healing of an Unnamed Woman
Despite earlier stories in the Gospel of Mark (cf. 1:21-27; 3:1-6), Jesus was not opposed by all of the Jewish leadership. Jairus was a good example. He sought out the popular healer to assist his daughter. Yet, Jesus’ path to Jairus’ house was interrupted by a crowd (cf. 5:24). More specifically, an unnamed woman, approached Jesus secretly — unlike the named religious leader — because of the socio-religious dynamics of the day. Mark wants readers to interpret these two distinctive accounts in light of each other. His “sandwich” technique (or, intercalation) is common in the larger narrative, especially in stories when women were involved (e.g., 3:20-25; 5:21-43; 6:7-44; 14:1-11).
This was a bold woman, who approached (albeit, secretly) without a male sponsor (compare Jairus). But, in light of her condition as one whose “impurity” (cf. Leviticus 15:25-30) could have cut her off from the religious community and from financial stability, she may not have had a choice but to act daringly. [Since Mark omits the particular word for “impurity” or “menstruation” (aphedros; cf. Leviticus 15:25), interpreters should not overemphasize the implications of this story as a purity/impurity issue.]
She had “suffered a lot” under the care of the medical practitioners (5:26). Attention from the professionals was usually reserved for elite persons. The “suffering” remains ambiguous but may relate to length of time, severity of pain, or social scorn under the “care” of the specialists (5:26). Other women, throughout history, have had to act in this manner to retain their human dignity. Phyllis Wheatley published her poems, under the scrutiny of Thomas Jefferson, Immanuel Kant, and numerous other (white) intellectuals of the day. Jarena Lee, the first ordained female minister, pursued her God-given call to preach. Mother Parks wouldn’t give up her seat.
This unnamed woman spoke and these words provide insight into the woman’s thinking and theological perspective (5:28). Not only touching him but touching even his clothes may provide healing from diseases. This theological rationale was confirmed by her healing.
Just as the woman understood the changes in her body, so Jesus recognized a change in his body. [Jesus initially played no active role in her healing.] The drying up of her blood flow (i.e., her “discharge”) was due to the “discharge” of Jesus’ “power” (dunamis in 5:30). But no one else — including the disciples — recognized what had leaked out/transpired. Not even Jesus was fully aware of what had happened. Jesus was unwilling to allow the outflow of his “power” to occur without acknowledgement. The “stealing” of a healing miracle was inappropriate. It was one thing for him to touch others (e.g., 1:41; 3:10) but another matter altogether for persons to touch him.
“Fear,” not boldness, provoked the woman to come forward this time. Yet, she presented herself to him to reveal the “whole truth” (5:33). She did not have to return. She could have escaped with her healing intact. But she apparently understood his intense look (perieblepeto, a common Markan term usually reserved for Jesus’ glare [3:5, 34; 5:32; 10:23; 11:11]) and may have recognized the potential for public shame if she were caught by this male healer. The cultural weight of her situation demanded her return.
How many members of that crowd must have felt skittish after hearing the “truth” that her vaginal bleeding-self had come into contact with so many of them before the healing! [Since the author reserved the term “truth” only for Jesus — who “teaches the way of God in accordance with the truth” (12:14) — and this woman, this was another courageous act on her part!]
After his initial “glare” (periblepeto) at the crowd and surroundings, Jesus’ reaction was rather surprising. What flowed from him (“power”) earlier healed her. Now, what flowed from her (“truth”) would bring forth healing, confirming words: “Daughter, your faith has made you well!”
The Healing of Jairus’ Daughter
The narrative returns to the journey to Jairus’ house. The delay — to “heal” and “converse” with the unnamed woman — led to a report from Jairus’ household that his daughter had already died. Jesus was too late. “While he was still speaking” (verse 35) words of affirmation and confirmation to the daring woman whose “faith” had made her well, bad news arrived: “your daughter has died.” But Jesus’ reaction to this news reminds us of what enslaved African Americans of the 19th century sang, “God may not come when you call him, but he’ll be there right on time!” Despite the way circumstances looked, there was a firm belief in the sovereignty of God.
Jesus challenged Jairus to hold on to his faith (i.e., “only believe”), a faith that led him to the healer in the first place. Jesus, also, took further action. He reduced the number of potential witnesses to three — Peter, James, and John — an inner group who would also receive other special revelations at the transfiguration (9:2-8) and in Gethsemane (14:32-42). This reduction of witnesses would continue after the tear-wearied circle at Jairus’ home ridiculed Jesus’ assessment of the situation (5:40).
Similar to earlier healing stories, Jesus touches the young lady (cf. 1:40-45). Her “young” age may be an indicator that she was of marriageable age; some scholars place the appropriate age a few years later. Unlike earlier healing accounts, Jesus speaks Aramaic here: talitha cumi. Because of his audience, Mark translates the words (cf. 7:34; 14:36; 15:34), while the other Gospels omit the foreign words altogether. A Greek speaking audience, Jewish or not, might think that the strange words are part of some healing formula; Mark’s translation tried to offset this idea.
Finally, Jesus wanted “silence” about this healing, like many performed on the Jewish side of the lake. Also, he requested food for the raised girl, suggesting the holistic mission that showed his care for all needs — spiritual, physical, emotional, psychological, and political. This 12-year old daughter of Jairus, a number that reminded readers of the earlier “daughter” of Jesus (verse 34), probably began her own “bleeding” (a symbol of life) around this age.
Culturally, she was approaching the age customary for marriage. She was born in the same year when the woman began incessant bleeding. Yet, in the same year both were healed. One stopped bleeding, which restored her life. The other had her life restored, so that she could continue to “bleed” and eventually produce life.
Second, issues of impurity may lie below the surface of the entire narrative. But this story is not a challenge to the purity system. Rather, this unnamed woman was restored (to purity?). Unlike the healing of a man with leprosy (cf. 1:40-45), Jesus did not command this woman to present herself to a priest for confirmation. Yet, first century (Jewish) culture may have recognized in this bleeding woman, and dead girl the potential for impure contact with Jesus . . . but he didn’t hesitate to bring restoration.
Summary for Preaching
Jesus’ life, along with his death, grants life-changing healing. It is a healing authority that crosses boundaries, both ethnic (cf. 5:1-20) and gender ones (cf. 5:21-43). Jesus chooses not to leave people in the conditions in which he finds them. And he has the power to alter that condition.
Do we? Can the Christian community alter the conditions of people’s lives? Can it, too, bring healing into troubled circumstances? Must it not also cross boundaries — whether they are related to ethnicity, gender, race, sexual orientation, politics or any other boundaries that divide our society — and advocate life-giving meaning and change? May God grant us the courage to do so!
July 1, 2012