Gabriel von Max, The Raising of the Daughter of Jairus, 1881.
These are notes for a sermon I preached this morning at Church of Our Lord in Victoria, BC, for the 4th Sunday in Lent.
This section of Mark’s gospel is a double story: the woman with a flow of bleeding is framed by the beginning and the end of the story of Jairus. And the two stories are intended to play off each other in interesting ways. Jairus is bold, the woman with the flow of blood is timid. The daughter is 12 years old; the woman has suffered bleeding for the same length of time. The woman is not named, while Jairus is. Perhaps this is protective anonymity, lest she suffer for her testimony of what Jesus did for her. Jairus is named presumably because he was well-known in the early Christian movement, and so that readers of the story could ask him about it and thereby verify the testimony that Mark relays from him; perhaps also because he was already dead, and thus safe from persecution.
Jairus is a “ruler of the synagogue” – not a very important person, but a leader the community. He humbles himself quite blatantly, “falling at Jesus’ feet” (5:22), and puts his request: His daughter is “at death’s door” – literally, “disposed finally” (ἐσχάτως ἔχει, 5:23). The father is driven by desperation. We can imagine what has brought him to this point: his daughter’s health has become worse and worse; the doctors can do nothing; the spirits of the household are slipping. So the father goes to find Jesus. Ponder the connection between a father’s love and the humility he shows in his request – prostrate, “begging earnestly”, his worry and fear and love in every word: she is not “my daughter” but “my little daughter”. It is the diminutive of affection.
“come, lay your hands on her” – contact is needed. This is how such healings have always worked in the Bible. We remember Elijah in 1 Kings 17, who “stretched himself upon the child three times”; or Elisha healing the widow’s son in 2 Kings 4, when he…
“lay upon the child, and put his mouth upon his mouth, and his eyes upon his eyes, and his hands upon his hands: and he stretched himself upon the child; and the flesh of the child waxed warm.”
Jairus’ request for Jesus to “put his hands on” his daughter sets up the other miracle, accomplished by even slighter contact. If Jairus does not ask, or if Jesus does not go with him, then the woman with the bleeding will never be healed either.
According to Leviticus, a woman with a flow of bleeding made anything unclean that she sat on or lay on. This principle is behind the humour in the story of Rachel and Jacob fleeing from Laban. Laban catches up with them and accuses Jacob of having stolen his household gods, called Teraphim. In reality, it is Rachel who has stolen them. The law in those days gave a procedure to be followed if a man suspected a guest of having stolen his property: if he chased after the guest and caught up with him within a certain number of a days, he could compel the guest to submit to a search of his baggage. So Laban rummages through Jacob’s stuff, looking for his gods. “Now Rachel had taken the household idols, put them in the camel’s saddle, and sat on them. And Laban searched all about the tent but did not find them. And she said to her father, “Let it not displease my lord that I cannot rise before you, for the manner of women is with me.” (Gen. 31:34-35) So for the Jew, menstrual blood was an unclean thing, and there is taunting humour at the expense of paganism in the image of Rachel menstruating on the household gods of her father.
The cleanness laws of the Torah are not a matter of morality; there is no suggestion that menstruation is evil, or that touching a dead body is in itself sinful. Someone has to bury dead bodies; they can’t be left lying around. Likewise, menstruation is a natural process, the renewing of the womb on a monthly basis, accompanied by a flow of blood, which is the life of all flesh. Don’t get the wrong impression: these rules were simply routine in ancient Israel. You did not become an outcast because you had become unclean. You simply followed the law and cleansed yourself. Cleanness laws in the Torah are a matter of access to the Temple: whom does God allow to enter His house, and in what condition? If you touched a dead body, you were to bathe and be considered unclean until evening. If you were a woman having your period, you counted off seven days, and then you could worship. And those days were filled with other activities. Most of the time, cleanness laws were not a big deal.
But in Jesus’ day, cleanness had become politicized to include separation from Gentiles and half-Gentiles, or Samaritans. The rabbis had a rule that, “The daughters of the Samaritans are menstruants from their cradle,” because their mothers did not follow the same procedures for cleansing as were observed by Judaeans; thus, they never actually became clean, and their children, being born from them, had also never been made clean. And the rabbis had evidently gone beyond Leviticus, so that not only did a menstruating woman make unclean what she sat on or lay on, but in the rabbis’ view, anything she touched. And anything she touched also communicated uncleanness in turn to anyone who touches it. That is why, in John 4, we are told that “Jews and Samaritans do not use vessels in common” – and also why the woman tells Jesus “Sir, you have nothing to draw with, and the well is deep” – implication: you obviously cannot use my pitcher, since I am a Samaritan woman and you are a Jew. But she leaves it behind for him anyway just in case he is the sort of Jew who sits loose to the cleanness laws – for if no one knew that the pitcher was hers, and no one saw her hand it to him, there could be no harm.
In our story in Mk 5, it is clear that the prevailing application of these Levitical laws of cleanness — going beyond Leviticus itself — has produced fear in the woman with the bleeding, which shapes this woman’s actions. She is unclean, perhaps also known to be unclean, and for her to touch even Jesus’ garments was, in the eyes of her contemporaries, to make his clothing unclean, and thence also to make him unclean. What she is doing is, though not strictly illegal, at least highly scandalous: it is like knowingly spreading a contagious disease.
Where does Jesus stand on cleanness laws? In his parable of the good Samaritan, it was an exaggerated concern for cleanness that motivated the priest and Levite to pass by the man who had been beaten by thieves – and not merely to pass by, but to pass by on the other side, lest they accidentally contract uncleanness and be unable to do their work in the Temple. Instead of being guidelines about when and how to enter God’s house, the Temple, the cleanness rules in the early first century had become a matter of social status, exclusion of outsiders, and an excuse not to show mercy.
Jesus himself, however, is above these cleanness laws. When he touches a leper, he doesn’t become unclean; rather, the leper is cleansed. So also in the case of the woman with the bleeding: he heals her; he does not contract uncleanness.
Consider her situation. Seven or ten days a month of being unclean and not being able to enter the Temple is one thing. Twelve years of continuous uncleanness, of missing every sacrifice, every feast at the Temple, is quite another. After a few such absences, her condition would be known, and she would suffer the shame of social avoidance: “Stay clear of her; she’s unclean because she’s been bleeding forever.” Such shunning begets timidity. She is afraid, because she does not want to be found out. Rubbing shoulders with the crowd means that she has deliberately put every one else in contact with her uncleanness. But then, she is desperate.
Then, too, “she has suffered much at the hands of doctors” – poking, prodding, administering whatever humiliating nostrums might have been prescribed in their day. And since there is no social safety net in Ancient Israel, no insurance, no Medical Services Plan, she has also been impoverished by paying for these doctors. Small wonder, then, that she will try anything, and risk even public disgrace and humiliation on the chance that Jesus might be able to heal her. His reputation precedes him, for Mark says that “she had heard about Jesus” (5:27). But she dares not approach him openly, and so she comes surreptitiously only, sneaking up behind him.
At this point, I want you to notice the focalization of the story. Through whose eyes, with whose feelings, is this scene described? The answer is surely the woman. We are told her motive: “She had heard about Jesus”. We are told her private thoughts: “For she said, “If only I may touch His clothes, I shall be made well.” We are told her private physical sensations: “she felt in her body that she was healed of the affliction.” And when Jesus asks “Who touched me?”, we are told what she was feeling: “the woman, fearing and trembling, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell down before Him and told Him the whole truth.” Can there be any question? The woman is the source of this story.
Examine the moment of healing. She touches his outer garment – not even him himself, but clothing in contact with him! It is a telling reversal: normally, if the woman touched a garment, and then Jesus touched it, he would become unclean with a second-order uncleanness. Instead, Jesus’ own garment is able to make her clean. Mark does not describe how this worked, except through the perceptions of the woman and Jesus. She “knew in her body that she was healed from her affliction”. I love this way of putting it. The woman doesn’t just feel better. She knows in her body. And the woman’s act of bodily knowing is paralleled by Jesus’ own similar knowledge: “perceiving in himself that power had gone out from Him.” It is not a deliberate act of healing by Jesus, but almost like an electrical discharge effected by contact.
Jesus tells her two things. First, “Your faith has saved you”. We may wonder at this. Surely it was the power of Jesus that healed her. But she was only able to avail herself of that power because she believed that He was Israel’s Messiah. And that is the power of faith, not located in itself, but in the person to whom we are loyal: if we show loyalty to Jesus, if we give him our allegiance, then He saves us from our afflictions. Her faith has saved her, though she approached “afraid and trembling” (φοβηθεῖσα καὶ τρέμουσα), a combination that is, really, not unusual for faith. That is what Paul tells us: “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you.” The woman shows her faith by approaching Jesus, afraid though she is. Trusting Jesus will often involve struggling against our fears; it will not always be comfortable.
The second thing Jesus tells her is, “Go in peace”. But this is not an adequate translation, for ὕπαγε εἰς εἰρήνην is surely a rendering of the Hebrew lēk leshalôm, with the word shalom meaning more than just the absence of war, but rather “general well-being” and “health”. Something like “Go, enjoy your health” might be more accurate.
Remember: Jesus did not need to call her out. He could have let her go, unseen by the crowd and unknown to history. But he did not. And I suspect that, as always, He is in full control of the situation. He decided to call her out partly for the sake of the crowd, but perhaps especially for the sake of Jairus, who was going with him. And I want you to see what effect this has. For we are told that “while Jesus was still speaking” – speaking that benediction to the woman, “Your faith has made you well. Go in peace, and be healed of your affliction” – while he was still saying this, news came from Jairus’ house: “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the Teacher any further?” What a contrast Mark has shown us here! “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” “Your daughter is dead.”
What must Jairus have thought? What is going through his head, as he has staked all on one last-ditch attempt, literally begging for a miracle? How must his heart have plummetted to hear those words, which every parent must dread: “Your daughter is dead.” Perhaps also he rues the delay while Jesus attended to the woman, while precious moments were wasted in which his daughter might yet have been alive when Jesus arrived. But the woman’s successful faith has been attested in the presence of Jairus; he is there to hear when Jesus says, “Your faith has saved you.” So when Jesus says, “Do not be afraid; only believe”, Jairus has all the more reason to trust him. We said before that if Jairus had not asked Jesus to come with him, the woman would not have been healed; but maybe the reverse is also true: if Jairus had not witnessed the woman’s healing, would he have had faith to continue hoping after receiving word that his daughter had died?
When someone died in the ancient world, it wasn’t a secret. Loud flute-playing, wailing, even professional mourners with powerful voices solemnized the occasion, helping the bereaved family to release their own grief without inhibition. Mark has again masterfully shifted focus again, this time to the perspective of Jesus: “They come to the house of the synagogue-ruler, and he sees the tumult and people wailing and keening.” We know what Jesus will do, and we share his perspective, share his hostility against death, His last, greatest enemy, against which He has come to fight, and his annoyance with those who make death seem greater than it really is. “Why make this commotion and weep? The child is not dead, but sleeping.” Sleep, “death’s second self, that seals up all in rest” (Shakespeare, sonnet 73) has been a euphemism for death from the New Testament to John Donne’s “Death, be not proud” to the present day. Indeed, in a sense, Jesus by His resurrection has reduced all death to sleep: “One short sleep past, we wake eternally, and death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die!”
Let’s review the camera angles from which we have viewed things in this story. We have moved from Jairus’ perspective, to the thoughts and feelings of the woman with the bleeding, to the final scene where we see from a vantage point next to Jesus: we approach the house with him, hear the mourners, receive the scorn of those who mocked him when he came to help. And now, in one final shift, we are made to hear the words he addressed to the girl: “Talitha koum” – which is, along with “Abba” in Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane, one of the few times the Gospels record His original Aramaic words for us. These are recorded, not because they are magic, but because they are the words which this 12-year-old girl heard first when she woke from death: words bidding her arise to new life. We hear them along with her. We feel the press of Jesus’ hand – no need for full-body contact like Elijah and Elisha, for here is the power that made the universe, and that made the girl. As St. Cyril and the council of Ephesus taught, Jesus did not do miracles by a borrowed power bestowed upon him from without, but by His own power. Indeed, when Elijah and Elisha raised children from the dead, they did it by the power of the Lord, the pre-incarnate Christ. All resurrections up to Lazarus are but sneak previews of the feature presentation: Christ’s own resurrection, that greatest victory. He is the resurrection and the life, as he told Martha before raising Lazarus. So every resurrection before His own is His doing, a bursting in of the Messiah’s resurrection avant la lettre.
Note that Jesus has brought with Him the three disciples closest to Him: Peter, James, and John. These are the three who will also witness the transfiguration. They are the ones privileged to see this miracle, by which Christ hints that He has come not to fight with Herod or the Romans, but with an adversary more ancient and powerful: death itself. That is why he commanded them to tell no one: as N. T. Wright points out, if Herod or the Romans heard that a man with power over death was claiming to be the messiah, there would be trouble. Thus, “the child is not dead, but sleeping” also disguises the miracle a little, and the miracle is witnessed — at least in the room itself — by only a few, who are warned to tell no one. His hour has not yet come. But it will. And when that hour came, Jesus rose from the dead himself, so that we cannot read these stories of him raising other people from the dead without seeing that they point to a more final and total victory over death.
So he raises her from the dead. And then, whether the girl is Mark’s source for this, or her father, or one of Jesus’ chosen three disciples, the story closes with an unmistakeable detail from life: “He said that she should be given something to eat.”
That, of course, is what Christ has raised us to as well. From our human frailty, from the pains of our bodies, from the grief of mourning, from the fear and trembling, Jesus promises us that He will save us and give us shalom. For He has given His life for us — “that our sinful bodies may be made clean by His body” — and He has commanded that we should be given something to eat. Let us, then, arise, and eat it.