The gospel lectionary reading for Trinity 4 in Year B is Mark 5.21–43, the intercalated stories of the raising of Jairus’ daughter and the healing of the woman with a flow of blood. (For some reason, the lectionary jumps over the previous episode, the deliverance of the Gerasene demoniac; I assume that one of the parallel accounts from Matt 8 or Luke 8 are covered elsewhere in the lectionary, though I have not spotted where.)
Some time ago, I wrote reflections on these passages for Scripture Union’s Encounter with God Bible reading notes. I reproduce them here, and then offer further reflection on the question of purity and the significance of Jesus’ actions in this pair of stories.
The early chapters of Mark’s gospel took us on a breath-taking, roller-coaster ride through the early stages of Jesus’ ministry. We were offered summary accounts of a typical day in Jesus’ life, showing his dynamic power in preaching and healing, and the impact that he made. This included drawing crowds who longed to hear his teaching and receive his healing touch, but along with that the political and religious leaders who, feeling threatening by this new popular interest, began to plot against Jesus.
This next stage of the story continues with some of the same themes, and builds on Mark’s first chapters. Once more we see Jesus acting with dynamic power; once more we see his teaching ‘with authority’ have its double effect; once more we see opposition growing even whilst the crowds swell. But the pace slows here; Mark offers us stories of particular individuals in some depth—and usually in much more detail than the parallel accounts in Matthew and Luke. He is at his masterful best in telling these stories—including vital eye-witness detail (usually thought to have come from his source, Peter), structuring his stories with careful craft, and always focussing on Jesus’ compassionate attention to individuals. We are given a picture of someone who is unflustered by the most disturbing of encounters, someone who responds with equal compassion to the rich and the poor, the powerful and the destitute, someone who will not rush by but will attend to the needs of those before him, and someone who freely shares his power and his mission with those who join him.
But the cross casts its long shadow even in this first half of the gospel. John the Baptist’s fate foreshadows Jesus’ own destiny, and Jesus knows it. As we head towards the crucial turning-point of the gospel in chapter 8, Jesus is already aware of the bittersweet nature of the kingdom he proclaims—a kingdom which brings profound liberty to all who encounter it, but only at the cost of his own life.
Despite being the shortest of the gospels, this is one of several stories that Mark tells us in great detail—longer than Luke, and much longer than Matthew’s summary version. It is full of vivid action and striking detail as it communicates Jesus’ mastery over the forces of chaos in this man’s life.
There is some debate about exactly where the ‘Gerasenes’ are located—but the end of the story refers to the Decapolis, ten towns to the north-east of Galilee that were largely Gentile. As Jesus steps out of the boat, this wild man ‘immediately’ comes from the tombs—a word characteristic of this part of Mark. There has clearly been a lot of shouting going on; the man shouts at Jesus (verse 7) because Jesus has already been commanding the spirit to come out of him (verse 8). Mark paints a nightmarish picture of someone on the very edges of human existence. He lives in the tombs, a place of fear on the (physical and metaphorical) edge of society. He has a supernatural strength, and with his animal howling and self-harming, he must have barely looked human at all.
In striking contrast to this wild, inhuman spectacle, Jesus appears to be in complete control. The man uses his name, perhaps as an attempt to wrest power from him, but Jesus demands to know the name of the spirit in return—Legion, suggesting the unwelcome occupation by an invading force. The spirit(s) recognise not only Jesus’ authority, but also their own status, epitomised by the unclean pigs. Jesus uses his power not as a demonstration, but for restoration—restoring the man to dignity (‘clothed’, verse 15), sanity (‘in his right mind’) and community (‘to your own people’ verse 19). Yet the response is fear; the people are not prepared to accept Jesus’ reordering of their world.
Are there areas of your life which need this restoring power of Jesus? Are there areas of the life of your community which need Jesus’ reordering?
Jesus once again ‘crosses’ the lake—not diagonally, as we might think, but across its northern section. Mark has a particular interest in boats, fishing and lake crossings, perhaps reflecting Peter’s perspective as a local fisherman.
Of all the gospels, Mark does his theology primarily through telling his story. Here he interlocks two encounters with Jesus, and they have important points of connection. Both characters are desperate for Jesus’ help, and both share ’12 years’—the age of Jairus’ daughter (verse 42; note how Mark postpones telling us this information as part of his storytelling technique, to create an ‘aha’ moment for the reader) and the time the woman had suffered (verse 25). But they mostly offer a study of contrasts. Jairus, a named man, is a person of means and influence. As synagogue leader, he had probably contributed financially to the community and was looked to for leadership. By contrast, the woman’s bleeding would have made her unclean and unable to participate in the life of the religious community. She has exhausted her financial resources, and Jesus is her last hope.
The act of healing is not an exercise of magic, but of humanity. As the woman reaches out to touch Jesus, he senses the power leaving him. Healing was as costly for Jesus as it can be for us—it takes time, attention and energy, and he is willing to give all three to the woman. By commending her ‘faith’ (verse 34) he was not praising her for some attribute which qualified her to receive healing, but for her attitude of trust and willingness to receive what only he could give. Recognising her own poverty allowed her to receive her inheritance of healing (compare Matt 5.3).
The final contrast is not with Jairus, but with the disciples and (as Luke 8.45 tells us, though Mark disguises this) with Peter. They are sceptical about his insight, and slow to see his power to heal.
How might we better offer the hope of Jesus’ healing to the full range of people around us—the resourceful and the exhausted? Are you living within this hope today?
The delay in Jesus’ journey is reminiscent of his delay in John 11 in going to the home of his friend Lazarus. The story continues with its sharp contrasts between faith and unbelief.
Messengers come ‘from the synagogue ruler’, but since Jairus is with Jesus and is addressed by them, this must mean they have come from his house. Jesus is referred to as ‘the teacher’, a translation of ‘Rabbi’ (compare John 1.38); by this point in Mark his status is now widely recognised. He either ‘overhears’ what they say (it is not addressed to him) or he ‘overlooks’ ie ignores it. Trusting Jesus, even in the face of death, offers an alternative to the stark reality of the news that has been brought.
Jesus not only encourages faith, he also clears away anything that would reduce faith. So he goes on only with the inner circle of his disciples—Peter, James and John. By the time they arrive at Jairus’ house, there is already quite a crowd. As an important figure in the community, Jairus’ misfortune will have drawn many people from the town, and that would include a sizeable entourage of professional mourners, paid to wail and grieve with friends and family. Jesus’ reordering of the world has previously provoked fear, but now it draws mocking laughter of unbelief—so Jesus puts them away too. Neither questioning doubt nor mocking cynicism can be allowed to puncture faith.
Mark alone records Jesus’ actual words in Aramaic to her. There is no drama or fanfare—simply clear evidence of Jesus’ miraculous power. Whilst even the inner circle are astonished at what they have seen, Jesus’ concern is with the girl. She is to be given something to eat, and no-one is to be told. The family are recipients of a gift of grace, not performers in a miracle show.
What are the things that have, over time, sapped or undermined your faith? How might you leave those things behind and focus on God’s promises to you?
David Garland offers a fascinating insight into the question of Jewish purity laws and the significance of Jesus’ action in both parts of this intertwined narrative, in chapter 7 of the volume Reading Mark in Context (ed Ben Blackwell, John Goodrich and Jason Maston). It is often noted that the woman with the flow of blood would have been ritually unclean; Mark uses the two phrases ‘discharge of blood’ and ‘flow of blood’ (ἐν ῥύσει αἵματος, Mark 5.25 and ἡ πηγὴ τοῦ αἵματος, Mark 5.29) which match the phrases found in the Greek version of Lev 15.25 and 12.7 respectively. We can see why this would have left her ‘destitute’ (Mark 5.26): according to OT purity laws, she had to abstain from sexual relations (Lev 20.18), been cut off from her religious community (Ezek 36.17), and banished from the city (Num 5.2). Garland comments:
Because of her condition, the woman knows only shame. She does not dare ask Jesus directly for healing but creeps up from behind to touch his garment, hoping then to steal away unnoticed.
But he also notes that impurity comes from touching a corpse (Num 5.1–4, 19.11–22, 31.19–24), though what is not often noted is that even entering a house where there is a corpse makes a person unclean (Num 19.14). We might find the connection between menstrual bleeding and death odd, but within the OT law bleeding is symbolically connected with death because ‘life is in the blood’.
These two stories are therefore not only connected by the time period of 12 years, nor merely by the stark contrast between the two scenarios (a wealthy, respectable, named man, and a destitute, outcast, unnamed woman). They are also connected by the theme of impurity, and Jesus’ transgression of purity laws—or, rather, his transformation of them.
Mark’s narrative repeated emphasises the question of ‘touching’. Jairus pleads with Jesus to ‘lay hands on’ his daughter (Mark 5.23); when he comes he does indeed ‘take her by the hand’ (Mark 5.41); the woman is determine to ‘touch’ Jesus’ garment (Mark 5.27, 28); Jesus announces that he has been ‘touched’ (Mark 5.30) and the disciples marvel that he knows someone ‘touched’ him (Mark 5.31). Any Jew aware of the laws of purity would be alert to this language.
Jesus is not depicted here as cavalier or careless about questions of purity (and note that he is nowhere in the gospels depicted as anything other than Torah-observant). Yet he changes the fundamental dynamic about purity. An impure person would normally make another person impure by contact, so that both would be put at a distance from the holy presence of God, and thus require purification. But in Jesus, the holy presence of God has already come, and this holiness makes the impure pure. Thus the woman does not need to go through any purification rites; her contact with Jesus has both healed her and made her clean, and this is the significance of Jesus command to her simply to ‘go’. Garland expresses this transformation graphically:
(I think though we need to be careful not to contrast ‘Jewish’ with ‘Jesus’ since Jesus was Jewish!)
He is not here doing away with the requirement for purity, but fulfilling it by means of his holy presence. Garland cites Dean Deppe’s observation from his study of the theological intentions of Mark’s narrative devices:
‘The new Israel can discern that cleanliness comes from Jesus and not in maintaining the Jewish rituals’…Mark wants to help his audience properly ‘read the Old Testament in the age of the kingdom’. For those with faith in Jesus, the regulations about uncleanness from genital discharges and from corpses have been superseded by Jesus’ holy power to cleanse impurity. The woman’s faith [not only heals her, but] is sufficient to save her (p 90).
The picture at the top is from my own photograph of the extraordinary painting that forms the back wall of the ‘Encounter’ chapel at the church of Duc in Altum at Magdala on the shores of Galilee. The website includes this fascinating comment:
The Magdala Synagogue inspired this chapel’s present structure. Colour pigments identified by a lab in Germany from the original synagogue frescoes were reproduced and used to decorate the walls. The chapel evokes encounter reminding pilgrims and visitors of the first generation of Jesus disciples who mingled without divisions among themselves nor separations from the Jewish community when they gathered in the synagogue.