Happiness comes and goes. Sorrow and suffering can be with us for years or can come upon us suddenly. Yet we can find hope in the midst of sorrow. We can trust in the Trustworthy One in the depths of our despair. Mark 5:21-43 tells the story of a man and a woman from two very different lives, though both know sorrow and suffering. The story tells us of a father who fears losing his daughter and a woman who long ago lost the hope of being called daughter. Throughout the story, we see Jesus acting intentionally to take on our uncleanness in order to make us clean, to make us whole, and to give us hope.
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An Outcast Woman; a Beloved Daughter
We first meet a man who seems to have it all. He has a family. As a synagogue ruler, he has prestige in his community. Most likely, he is middle to upper income to have the time to serve as ruler. Yet at the moment we meet him, none of this matters to him. He is losing his daughter. He is desperate to save her.
The woman we meet partway through the story has likely lost everything. We are told she has an issue of blood that has not ceased for twelve years. That is, something about her body does not allow her menstrual cycle to ever fully stop. According to Jewish Law, women were ritually unclean during the days of their period. She has been unclean for twelve years. Like a leper, she would have to call out to those who came near her, “unclean!” to warn them not to come into contact with her. If they did, Jewish Law said they also became unclean until they performed a ritual cleansing. So this woman has probably has lost her family during the years. At the least, she has become a source of public shame for them because everyone in the town knows she is theirs. She is isolated from her community and the touch of others. All dignity is gone. She is an object of scorn to be avoided. She has been stripped of her personhood.
For twelve years, the woman had been unclean, suffering from humiliation and struggling with pain. We’re told she spent all she had on doctors but her condition only got worse. The man’s daughter was twelve years old. What a different life she had lived. Twelve years of love, joy, the benefits of wealth, and the loving touch of family. Twelve years ago, her mother had life come from her womb. But for the past twelve years, the woman had only death coming from her own womb.
Years of Grueling Anguish; Days of Sudden Sorrow
The woman for twelve years suffered physically and psychologically. She also lost all of her money, unlike the ruler who probably was middle to upper income. Yet in the story, she appears to still have hope for recovery. She is willing to try to touch Jesus’ garment to see if he might have healing power to help end her suffering. Despite her loss of family, community, and money, she still had hope. Where she had been suffering for years, the man had only suffered a few days (maybe a few weeks). His daughter was ill. He was in despair. His hope, his faith, was in tatters. His money, his power, his family and community connections–none of it could solve the problem he faced of his daughter’s grave illness. While Mark uses describes the girl as his “little daughter,” Luke tells us she was his monogenes, his “one and only” daughter. She was his life and her life was ebbing away.
We have no idea how the woman handled her illness when it first appeared, but we do know how she handled it now, twelve years later. Although she suffered greatly and had lost everything, we never hear her complain or cry out. Later, when Jesus gets to the man’s home, the family and friends of the girl are wailing and causing a commotion. Yes, the girl was dead, and likely some who were there were professional mourners. But the sudden illness and loss of this young life created sharp emotions and led many to cry out loudly in their grief.
The man clearly was seeking to find Jesus in his despair. We are told that “when he saw” Jesus, he fell at Jesus’ feet. Though he had prestige in his community, he humiliated himself in public with this act. He knew the crowds could see him and hear his pleas that Jesus would heal his daughter. He literally says, “My little daughter is at the end.” This is a final act of desperation. She is about to die. He went to seek the healer. Perhaps, like his colleagues, he had mocked Jesus before. Now, however, he was pleading for Jesus to help him. He wanted Jesus to save his daughter from death and give her life. The word sozein can mean healing, but it can also mean salvation. Jesus intentionally acts in the moment. He departs to go with the man.
We then encounter the woman in the story. She doesn’t seek out Jesus as the man had. We are told that she “hears about” Jesus. We’re told crowds are around Jesus and Jairus as they travel. No doubt some were talking about the healer and how he was on the move to do it again! The woman also wanted to be saved from her infirmity. She wanted to be healed. Unlike the man’s public actions, however, she hoped to be healed privately without anyone knowing. She thought she could just sneak up behind Jesus and touch his robe. That would be enough to heal her. She didn’t want to be a bother to anyone. She didn’t want to cause a fuss.
Immediately, she knew she was healed. Mark says she could feel the “fountain” of flowing blood “dry up.” She was freed from the affliction. Literally, it says she was freed from the whip, the common belief of people that God was actively punishing those who suffer for something they must have done wrong. At the same time, Jesus immediately knew power had gone out from him. We then see his second intentional act. He does a 180 to look behind him. He asks who touched him and looks from person to person in the crowd. The disciples are incredulous. “Jesus,” they reply, “how can you ask that! This crowd is constantly pushing up against you.” But Jesus looked into the eyes of each person until eventually the woman couldn’t stand it.
Jesus forced this private act to become public. Unlike the bold though desperate synagogue ruler, the woman fell to Jesus feet trembling in fear. She told him the whole story. She had hoped for a private healing to avoid what was now occurring. Jesus would know that this unclean woman had touched him. She had made him ritually unclean. Would he be upset with her? He had been on important business and she now had interrupted him. What’s more, if the disciples are telling us the truth, she must have bumped into many others in her attempt to touch Jesus. How many did she make unclean just now? How would they respond, since she didn’t cry out “unclean” to warn them? Would they be angry and stone her for her transgression of the Law? For twelve years, she had been alone and unnoticed. She was nothing to these people except as an object to be feared and avoided. Why, she wondered, did Jesus make her visible?
Jesus doesn’t reply with anger or rebuke. Instead, he called her “daughter” and told her that it was “her faith” that healed her. Jesus made this public so she could be welcomed back into community, into his kingdom. More than that, we welcomed this woman who had probably not had family connections for twelve years into his own family. Moreover, he honored her by saying it was her faith, not his power, that had healed her. Jesus made himself a servant to her needs and showed his love through inviting her into relationship and restoring her to community. She wanted healing, but he told her to go with “peace” for she was no longer unclean but cleansed (the Greek word hygiēs from which we get “hygiene”) from the whip.
Part of the reason Jesus honored the woman was to welcome her back to her community. Another reason was for Jairus. He probably saw this woman as a distraction who was wasting precious minutes that his little girl couldn’t afford to lose. Indeed, while Jesus was speaking the good news to the woman, members of Jairus’ community came with the worst news imaginable. His daughter was dead. “Why bother the teacher any longer?” they asked. If they shared the skepticism of many Jewish leaders, this might have been said sarcastically. Why bother with “the teacher” any longer?” Not the healer, notice. The woman had feared public exposure and was forced to face it. Now, the man faced something even worse: the fear that all hope is lost. His little girl was dead.
For the third time, Jesus does something very intentional. He first went with the man. He then looked and found the woman. Now, he intentionally ignores the words of these messengers. He tells the father, “Don’t fear. Just trust!” Perhaps Jesus pointed toward the woman nearby who, despite her fears, showed great faith and now stood there healed. Again, Jesus seems to honor the woman as he encourages the man.
Jesus and the father go with three of Jesus’ disciples to the man’s house. We are not told that they stopped at a mikvah for a ritual cleansing to purify themselves from the woman’s unclean touch. So Jesus apparently entered Jairus’ home unclean. This made Jairus’ home unclean and all within it–including Jairus himself–unclean. What we see is that Jairus cared less about rituals than about relationship. He was willing that he and his whole family become unclean like this man if Jesus could give him back his daughter. In this way, he also identified himself with the woman and her faith.
Jesus was possibly mocked by his disciples (or the crowds) when he asked who touched him. He may have been mocked by the messengers who said the girl was dead. Certainly, he is laughed at and ridiculed for saying the girl wasn’t dead but just asleep. Jesus then ran everyone except the parents and his disciples out of the house. Doing this forced Jairus, a man who had been in the public eye as a leading member of the community, to learn the importance of privacy and intimacy.
Then, for the second time that day, Jesus was made unclean. The first time, it happened to him when the woman touched him. This time, he intentionally took the hand of the dead girl. Then, where power unconsciously went out from Jesus to the woman, Jesus consciously touched the girl and gave a verbal command to rise up. He calls her “little girl,” not “daughter” because the girl already had a family. She had a father who loved her and believed she would live again. Immediately, she stood up and walked around. Maybe she was walking to each of her parents to hug them. As the woman was freed from her affliction, the girl was freed from the power of death.
Not only was this a private healing and reunion for the family, but Jesus made sure the privacy continued for several minutes. He told the parents not to share what had happened, that is, don’t shout out to the crowd outside. He then told them to get the girl something to eat. As the family shared table fellowship, Jesus and the disciples exited the house. Not only did Jesus still bear the “uncleanness” of the woman and the girl, but he had to endure the mocking of the crowd as he passed them by. No doubt they continued to laugh at his ignorance, not knowing the difference between death and sleep! How could he be a great teacher if he was so unaware? But Jesus bore the mocking to allow community and restored relationship to thrive inside the home.
What do we learn from this story? First, we see that Jesus doesn’t truly become “unclean” from his contact with the women. Instead, his life-giving power flowed out to these women and made them whole, healing and restoring life to them. He also restored the woman to community and the girl to her family. Believers in Jesus are called to the same engagement with others. We are to enter into the messiness of life and seek to heal and restore community. We even have to bear mocking or misunderstanding to do the work of the kingdom.
Second, we see that it is not physical contact with Jesus that saves or makes one whole. It was the woman’s faith. It was the father’s faith. Trusting in Jesus to save and heal is something we can do the same as the woman. Though Jesus is no longer on earth, he now sits at his Father’s right hand and can bear our uncleanness and make us how.
Third, both women teach us about the Kingdom of God. The woman gives us hope that in the kingdom, whatever troubles we encounter in this life, they are not the end of the story. We will be freed and healed to experience peace and wholeness. The girl helps us see that our greatest need is to be raised to new life in Christ. This life is not something we can bring about apart from Jesus any more than the dead girl could raise herself. There is also the hope of reunion with those we love in the kingdom. Also, the verbs used of the girl, “rising up” and “standing up” are both used of the resurrection in other parts of the New Testament. Her rising to new life came after only a short period of death. Though we die, it is but a twinkling of an eye and then we will be raised to new life in the new heavens and new earth.
Today, your life might be full of struggles or it may be filled with joy. You may be in the midst of years of suffering a debilitating disease or enduring a long, lingering death. You may be experiencing a rapid loss of a loved one or a sudden change in fortune. In all situations, we are called to trust in Jesus. He is the source of our healing, life, and wholeness. He welcomes us all into community as he saves and heals us. He calls you beloved son. He calls you beloved daughter.