Commentary on Mark 5:21-43
One of Mark’s favorite writing habits is to place two stories in a sandwiched relationship that scholars call “intercalation.”
Our lectionary pericope begins with the healing story of a young girl connected with the synagogue leader Jairus (Mark 5:21-24a), interrupts that narrative with another intrepid healing story of a woman with hemorrhages for twelve years (verses 24b-34), and then concludes with the raising of the first young girl even though she had died waiting for the delayed Jesus to arrive (verses 35-43).
Intercalation, or the sandwiching of stories, is important not just as a marker of Mark’s writing style but also brings with it greater hermeneutical depth: the two stories of a young girl and a persistent woman, one sandwiched within the other, are there to interpret each other and reveal a Jesus in his differentiated healing and salvific power. It seems this Jesus can heal even when he doesn’t initiate it (verses 29-30) and can raise someone else he failed to heal in time (verses 40-42)! The intercalated stories are sandwiched because some things that you savor just taste better together.1
The first part of the young girl’s healing story reminds us that Jesus is still crossing the lake by boat, thus linking what we read in Mark 5 to the Jesus revealed on both Jewish and gentile sides of the lake ever since Mark 4:1. The danger is invoked by the troubled father Jairus who fears rightly that his young daughter is on the verge of death. Jairus’ faith comes through his voice: he believes Jesus’ laying on of hands can make his daughter well now and live going forward. Please note his description of Jesus’ prospective healing in Mark 5:23 draws on verbs of saving and thriving, healing and living.2
Jesus goes along with Jairus’ wish but finds his healing plot quickly interrupted. The crowd starts by pressing in on Jesus, but even that passing distraction proves to be adequate cover for a woman plagued by hemorrhages for twelve years. Here, early in this sandwiched narrative, a close reading of the Greek is a great help to the preacher. Mark 5:26 goes to great lengths to describe the woman in a long periodic sentence full of past participles: having suffered, having spent money, having not benefitted, and having gotten worse, having heard about Jesus, and having come from behind … then comes the long delayed main verb: she touched [Jesus’] garment. She “has been” participled worse than most, but by the end of the long periodic sentence the unnamed woman still has agency—in her only indicative verb—to touch the one she just knows can heal her. Hers is no passive rescue—and that itself, I suspect, becomes part of the healing. The healing confirmation does not come first from without, but within—the woman knows immediately in her body that the healing has happened.
Jesus, by contrast, knows something’s up, but is at first a disoriented healer. He even asks his disciples who touched him. The healed woman comes forward, yes, full of fear and trembling as if caught up in a theophanic moment, yet also knowing and telling truth. Jesus calls her “daughter” which even now fails to capture her in all her fullness. But Jesus also addresses and sees her because she is now graciously restored. Jesus can only confirm her healing by joining together a blessing of peace and of release from her scourge going forward.3
With that the first healing story can now conclude at the home of Jairus. But even this final part of the intercalated narratives seems to offer disappointment. Already grief has begun, because the young girl once waiting for healing is now dead. Jesus offers words of encouragement to Jairus (is Jesus still hearing the persistent woman’s remarkable testimony ringing in his ears?) but finds the now dead young girl surrounded with what looks like professional mourners. Jesus’ comment about the girl merely sleeping is greeted with laughter. In a beautiful moment he addresses her and takes her hand. The young girl rises and is restored to her family. But Jesus is not through: he wants them to keep quiet about what happened here, but to nonetheless give her something to eat … going forward.
These remarkable intercalated stories of a young girl and a persistent woman help us see the range and the reach of this mystery we call Jesus. Their sandwiched stories interpret each other and at the same time reinterpret us readers toward an emerging vision of not just healing, but new creation. Jesus’ healing power goes beyond mere fixing to a restoration to life and even empowerment through the saving faith of others. And in this beautiful, sandwiched picture is Jesus, yes, but also the crowds, a father, friends, professional mourners, and above all women, young and old alike, loosed from death and invited into new creation going forward.
- Please read my commentary, Mark (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2014), 80-82, which treats this beautiful text in much greater detail.
- Joel Marcus, Mark 1-8 (Anchor Bible; New York: Doubleday, 2000), 356-57.
- Ibid., 361.