Today’s reading is Mark 5:21-43:
When Jesus had crossed over again in the boat to the other side, a large crowd gathered around him; and so he stayed by the seashore. One of the synagogue officials named Jairus came up, and on seeing him, fell at his feet and implored him earnestly, saying, “My little daughter is at the point of death; please come and lay your hands on her, so that she will get well and live.” And he went off with him; and a large crowd was following him and pressing in on him.
A woman who had had a hemorrhage for twelve years, and had endured much at the hands of many physicians, and had spent all that she had and was not helped at all, but rather had grown worse — after hearing about Jesus, she came up in the crowd behind him and touched his cloak. For she thought, “If I just touch his garments, I will get well.” Immediately the flow of her blood was dried up; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her affliction. Immediately Jesus, perceiving in himself that the power proceeding from him had gone forth, turned around in the crowd and said, “Who touched my garments?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you, and you say, ‘Who touched me?'” And he looked around to see the woman who had done this. But the woman fearing and trembling, aware of what had happened to her, came and fell down before him and told him the whole truth. And he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace and be healed of your affliction.”
While he was still speaking, they came from the house of the synagogue official, saying, “Your daughter has died; why trouble the Teacher anymore?” But Jesus, overhearing what was being spoken, said to the synagogue official, “Do not be afraid any longer, only believe.” And he allowed no one to accompany him, except Peter and James and John the brother of James. They came to the house of the synagogue official; and he saw a commotion, and people loudly weeping and wailing. And entering in, he said to them, “Why make a commotion and weep? The child has not died, but is asleep.” They began laughing at him. But putting them all out, he took along the child’s father and mother and his own companions, and entered the room where the child was. Taking the child by the hand, he said to her, “Talitha kum!” (which translated means, “Little girl, I say to you, get up!”). Immediately the girl got up and began to walk, for she was twelve years old. And immediately they were completely astounded. And he gave them strict orders that no one should know about this, and he said that something should be given her to eat.
A young woman at a church said, “This community doesn’t feel like my community anymore.” She was referring to the fact that a couple of other women who she didn’t know had started to come to her small group. The group dynamics had shifted. She didn’t feel like an “insider” anymore. I sympathized with the feeling to some degree, but hoped that she would see this as a time to grow in love for others. I hoped she would understand that this was never actually “her” community; it was Jesus’ community. That is important to introducing this passage in Mark 5:21-43.
Jesus is not just collecting a scattered group of followers, but preparing people who would love one another in his name and engage the world as his new community. After taking his disciples to a Gentile cemetery (seen by Jews as unclean!) and casting a host of demons nicknamed after an occupying Roman “Legion” (unclean!) into pigs (unclean!), Jesus brings his disciples back to Israel to deal with forms of uncleanness and pollution back at home.
Jairus is a highly respected Jewish “insider.” As a leader of a synagogue, he is a recognized elder in his community. He was the one to know the Jewish law and traditions. Synagogues were buildings where a Jewish community would meet for worship, prayer, and study of the Torah.
Jairus loves his young daughter as a caring father would. For Jairus, the potential loss of his little girl must have been huge, because he risks his reputation and standing in society to publicly humble himself before Jesus, who is at this point a controversial figure. Even more poignant is the fact that she was twelve going on thirteen. Although the bat-mitzvah was not formal Jewish practice at the time, this was probably a time when a girl would start to be considered a woman. She’s getting towards that age, and she was on the verge of new life. But this sickness cuts that short.
But along the way to his home, they’re interrupted. A bleeding, outcast, and unclean woman reaches out to touch the hem of Jesus’ cloak. Symbolically, the hem of one’s cloak represented authority and status. So she was appealing to Jesus’ power and authority to heal her, thinking she could do this quietly, in a crowd. But Jesus uses up precious time by stopping and asking, “Who touched my garments?” (5:30). The answer: Everyone (duh)! Then Jesus burns up even more time by interacting with this woman and listening to her whole story (5:33).
To Jairus, this hemorrhaging woman is an “outsider.” Twelve years ago, she had started bleeding. For various reasons, the Jewish law required that she live separately from everyone else and be regarded as “unclean.” Interestingly, Jairus himself might have been the one to pronounce the verdict and ask her to keep her distance from the community.
Jairus has got to be anxious and furious. But Jesus, lingering on with this woman, says, “Daughter, take courage; your faith has made you well” (5:34). Jesus is pointing out – to Jairus, most of all – that she is someone’s daughter, too: God’s.
This is a literary sandwich. Jairus’ daughter is now connected to, and interpreted by, the bleeding woman that Jesus called “daughter.” Socially and ceremonially, Jairus and his daughter are “clean,” on the “inside” of Israelite society; whereas the bleeding woman is “unclean,” on the “outside.” Yet as the story unfolds, a reversal happens: the hemorrhaging woman is on the inside (i.e., the middle) of the story, and the Jewish leader and his daughter are on the outside (i.e., the before and after). The obviously unclean “daughter” is the “inside” story of the apparently clean daughter. In the mind of Jairus, and just as powerfully in the structure of the text, the two stories are bound together.
Jesus is probably thinking, “Jairus, connect the dots here. On the deepest level, you and your daughter are just as unclean, sinful, and corrupted by evil as the hemorrhaging woman is. She may be an outsider under the Jewish cleanliness laws, but when it comes to God’s character of pure, holy love, you are an outsider.”
This joining of stories now brings Jairus both sinking despair and a thin but piercing hope. “While [Jesus] was still speaking,” (v.35) word comes from home that his own daughter is now dead. I wonder if the word “daughter” was uttered at precisely the same moment, so that Jairus heard, simultaneously, these two things:
“Daughter, take courage; your faith has made you well” (5:34).
“Your daughter has died; why trouble the Teacher anymore?” (5:35)
Nurturing Jairus’ thin hope, Jesus turns to him and says, “Do not be afraid any longer, only believe” (5:36). Arriving at the house, Jesus enters. He takes the dead little girl’s hand (5:41), which makes another parallel between the two women. For in Judaism, a corpse was unclean just as the bleeding woman was unclean.
Notice that every time Jesus finds an unclean person, he goes out of his way to touch or make contact with that person. Jesus touches an unclean leper (1:41). He sets foot on Gentile soil and contacts a man from the tombs (5:1-5). He is touched by the bleeding woman (5:27). In every case, Jesus’ cleanness and life “infects” the other person. Normally, it went the other way round, and uncleanness won, but not with Jesus. Now, in what is surely not a throwaway gesture, Jesus takes the dead girl’s hand and pours life back into her body. The lesson: Jesus doesn’t just change his mind (or God’s) about our uncleanness, impurity, and sinfulness. Jesus changes us. He heals our humanity.
I wonder if Jairus, receiving his daughter back with hugs and tears, I’m sure, made the connection that she was born twelve years ago (5:42), the very same time that the woman became unclean. Certainly we are meant to, as Mark provides that important little detail. Did Jairus look out his window to see where the formerly outcast and now healed woman had gone? Did he make the connection that Jesus called that woman “daughter,” and must have felt the same compassion for her that he felt for his little girl? Did he welcome that woman back into full communion, in Jesus’ name?
And did the disciples understand more deeply that Jesus cleanses both Jew and Gentile in a radical new way? For the people who gather in the name of Jesus is never just “our community” or “my community.” It is fundamentally Jesus’ community. We ask Jesus to give us love and perspective to embrace those who we have previously cast out.
MakoNagasawa is Director of the New Humanity Institute. He, his wife Ming, and their two children live in a Christian intentional community involved with urban ministry in Dorchester.