Jesus’ Location at the Periphery: The Woman with the Flow of Blood and Jairus’s Daughter

The passage dealing with the healing of the hemorrhaging woman is the only place in the Gospels where another healing is purposefully and inextricably intertwined, viz., with the healing of Jairus’s daughter.

Although neither woman is named, what we do know is that the two come from very different socio-economic and political locations. Jairus’s daughter represents the very center of Jewish society in that Jairus is “one of the leaders of the synagogue,” while the hemorrhaging woman represents the extreme periphery, i.e., those who are ritually and socially outcast (cf. Lev 15:19-23).1

The story begins when Jairus–a powerful, upper class Jew (an archisynagōgos)–approaches Jesus and falls to his knees desperately begging him to come and save his daughter. Jesus is obviously a pain and threat to the status quo that Jairus represents: he is a major irritant, a powerful itinerant preacher, a challenging miracle worker and always a rabble-rouser. For Jairus– a Jew–to fall to his knees before Jesus (symbolically worshiping him) is a sign of his extreme desperation almost to the point of even violating the commandments. Without a word, or any indication of his feelings, Jesus accompanies Jairus to his house, with the “crowd” (ochlos) following along. Significantly, however, the story does not neatly unfold with the healing of Jairus’s daughter, as is the case with the other healings. Instead Mark uses it as the pretext to articulate another healing miracle, which is the actual heart of this passage, namely, the healing of the hemorrhaging woman. The actual narration of the synagogue leader’s story begins before the woman’s, but it is only completed after the latter’s healing has been fully accomplished.

And Mark, even though he begins the pericope in the context of the center, with the need for Jairus’s daughter to be healed, is unable to maintain the flow of the drama without the eruption of the periphery. So while the drama is to be played out at the center, the periphery takes over, and the center is once again pushed to the edges of Jesus’ praxis of healing and transformative pedagogy. Right at the point of this insertion the difference between the two narratives is immediately apparent: the new story has many more highly developed and sharply articulated details. It is obvious that the hemorrhaging woman is much more critical for Mark despite her anonymity and marginal location in society: she is diseased, barren, outcaste, and destitute. Compare this to Jairus’s daughter, whose father is obviously a very powerful and religious upper-class man. It is therefore interesting to note that it is the peripheral woman who interrupts the story of a healing at the center, and becomes the main protagonist as well as the focus of Mark’s attention.

Here is a woman who was desperately ill, suffering from a continuous flow of blood for twelve years, who must have been extremely weak, financially impoverished from futile consultations with numerous doctors (shades of our contemporary reality), and unable to participate in communal life due to her ritual impurity. She is now broke, getting worse, and therefore desperate. If this flow of blood meant a continuing menstruation, as is usually assumed, she was also unable to bear a child and thus had no status in the society on this count also.

Yet she has not given up hope. Having heard about Jesus, she does the most Promethean act that can be found in all the accounts that Mark relays to us in the context of healing miracles. She comes up behind Jesus and touches his cloak. She is aware of her ritual impurity, and that she simply could not touch another Jew, and most certainly not a rabbi, but she believes that if she but touches his clothes she will be “made well” (sōthēsomai, from sōzō: equally to be saved). Here the physical and the spiritual meaning of sōzō becomes critical for mission and evangelization. She approaches Jesus by stealth behind his back and, dare I say, “pick-pockets” his power, as only those who are oppressed and despised know how to do. She is willing to take matters into her own hands and to perform this Promethean act, while avoiding being caught doing it, so that she can once again be without stigmatization in the public arena from which she has been excluded.

The healing itself is even more remarkable. Jesus is in the midst of the crowd, on his way to the house of an important community member, to save the life of his daughter. Even in this press of people, Jesus feels/knows that he has been pick-pocketed and that “power had gone forth from him.” He does not perform an active or conscious healing upon a supplicant; rather the woman takes this power from him, and his is totally passive in this healing. When Jesus asks who touched him, the disciples naturally enough react somewhat sarcastically, one can almost hear an unspoken “Duh!!!” in their reply, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?'” This obvious response of his disciples does not satisfy him. He continues to look around to see who has taken power from him. When Jesus confronts the crowd to find out who has done so, the woman comes forward, fearfully and shaking, knowing that she has broken ritual codes by touching a rabbi, and that she has stolen from him.

Jesus’ response is unexpectedly not one of anger, but of love. He does not revile her for her audacity; rather he lovingly calls her, “Daughter,” a term of love and endearment. Instead of blasting her for her sheer impudence and then hurrying on to the seemingly more important mission, he affirms her actions, and claims her to be his family (clear shades of “one of the least of these” Matt 25:40 and also Mark 3:34-35). Here is a mature woman who is at least twenty-five years old, assuming puberty at thirteen years and no normal menstruations ever; she is thus quite close to Jesus’ age at the time. Thus “Daughter” is intentional, ideological, and a term of approval rather than a chronological recognition. Perhaps he uses the term because she has had the courage to take her healing into her own hands, to break the oppressive religio-social codes, to refuse a place on the margins, and to challenge the edifice of dehumanizing processes. To top it all, she has the audacity, nay the courage, to step forward and admit her illegality and theft to all present; this is a genuine confession. This woman shows more courage than any one else in Mark’s Gospel, except the other woman who is also peripheral to the Jewish code in Mark 7:24-30.

Because of her courage, Jesus tells her, “Go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” This is the first time in Mark that Jesus tells someone to go in peace. Obviously this is of special significance. This is not just a spiritual peace but also represents a socio-political statement, for she is the author of her own peace and healing. Not only is her Promethean act publicly affirmed by Jesus, but through her healing she has brought herself out of the periphery of social and ritual outcastness into the shared public space.

While this recognition is being made public, another public announcement follows immediately. The story reverts once again to Jairus’s daughter, with the arrival of messengers “from the leader’s house,” who not only announce his daughter’s death but also counsel him, “Why trouble the teacher any further?” Overhearing these remarks, Jesus’ response, “Do not fear, only believe,” is clearly intended to point out the contrast between the woman at the periphery and her incredible belief and Jairus’s people who have no faith (pisteuō).

Jesus then moves towards the healing required at the center, where death has been publicly announced. Jesus, however, radically privatizes this healing and allows no one to go with him from the crowd except Peter, James, and John. So the ochlos is kept from being a witness to the healing at the center. Upon his arrival already the necrotic ritual is fully in operation; yet instead of feeling any sympathy at the loss of the child, Jesus rebukes them and reminds the center of its inability to recognize the difference between death and sleep. But the center, hearing this from this rabble-rousing, unwashed member of the ochlos, just laughs, which I believe communicates both condescension and arrogance of superior knowledge. Jesus turns all the mourners away and enters the private space in the house where the child is lying, accompanied now only by his three disciples and the child’s parents. He is now the totally active protagonist, while the child is totally passive in what follows. He lifts the child by the hand, and then Mark transliterates an Aramaic phrase and translates it into Greek, “‘Talitha cum,’ which means, ‘Little girl, get up!'” This is one of the very few places where the Aramaic spoken by Jesus is left intact. I think it is so because Mark wants to emphasize the difference between the “Daughter (thugatēr)” and the “Little girl (korasion, a diminutive of girl korē)” which is a reflection of Jairus’s words in the beginning of this passage. The girl immediately gets up and walks. We then have another of Mark’s parenthetical editorial interpolations, viz., “(she was twelve years of age).” She could have walked if she was two or three, and one assumes a younger age given the emphasis on “young girl.” The ones present are amazed, and then Jesus instructs them “that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.” Now the second half of this statement is interesting: why does Jesus not ask for a similar treatment for the hemorrhaging woman, who could have used it more? But what fascinates me is the first part of the statement, which has been repeatedly understood as the “Messianic Secret.” This has never made any sense to me. Why should this healing, which is most public (everyone knows that the girl is dead) but performed in the very private space of her bedroom, not be proclaimed? In contrast, the healing of the hemorrhaging woman, done in the most public of spaces in front of the ochlos, but achieved privately and by theft, is made totally public by both her confession and Jesus’ affirmation in the proclamation of shalom for her, rather than simply giving her something to eat (for one does not live by the bread alone).

These two stories are mirror images of each other, and in structuralist terms they are absolute binaries. So, on the one hand we see a woman suffering for twelve years with a disease that has pushed her onto the periphery. On the other hand we have Jairus’s daughter who is twelve years old and has lived a life of privilege and ease at the center. Mark is clearly drawing a causal connection between the twelve years of comfort of the one at the center and the twelve years of suffering of the other at the periphery. Therefore, while the woman at the periphery is being healed, the news from Jairus’s house is of death. And yet the healing of one at the periphery also heralds the restoration of life even at the center.

In conclusion we must say that this is a story of contrasts and preferences. Jairus, representing the center, comes to the lakeshore, outside the polis, among the people on the periphery, the ochlos,2  when he needs Jesus to heal his daughter. Further contrasts abound between the woman and the girl. The first is an adult woman, who has been on the outskirts of society for twelve years, suffering from a debilitating and “defiling” scourge. She is ritually unclean, destitute, and anonymous. There is no one to speak for her, and so she acts for herself. The girl, on the other hand, has lived for twelve years in comfort, and when she is stricken down, her father, a powerful man, moves out of his comfort zone and into the rabble to ask for help of a man who is dubious at best and threatening at worst in the eyes of his peers. The woman, although a mature adult, has been unable to act as a woman in social terms, as she is outcaste and barren, while the child has died just at the cusp of womanhood. The woman, when she takes her healing for herself and is affirmed, is welcomed into the family of Christ, moving from “woman” to “daughter” and set free to go into the world in peace and undefiled, while the daughter of Jairus is returned from death to the arms of her family to be cared for by her family and the patriarchal system. Her only liminal movement (other than from death to life) is from childhood to puberty, from “child” to “girl.”

1For a great insight into this extreme segregation, please read Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent, first published in 1997 and then a tenth-anniversary publication in 2007 (New York: Picador).

2As the Minjung theologians from Korea have very aptly pointed out, in the New Testament there is a sharp contrast between the concept of “people” in general (laos or polloi, which represents some notion of citizenship) and “the crowd” (ochlos). The former represents those who have some socio-political and economic status in the society, while the latter refers to those who are totally on the periphery (i.e., the Minjung). See Ahn Byung Mu, “Jesus and the Minjung in the Gospel of Mark,” in Minjung Theology, ed. Kim Yong Bok (Singapore: C.T.C., C.C.A. Publication, 1981), pp. 136 ff.