Wisdom 1.13-15, 2.23-24; Psalm 30; 2 Corinthians 8.7-end; Mark 5.21-end
THE two main characters in this Sunday’s Gospel are “archetypal opposites in terms of economic status and honour” (Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A political reading of Mark’s story of Jesus).
Jairus is the leader of a synagogue. In the hierarchy of first-century Palestine, he is, therefore, Jesus’s social equal. In contrast, the unnamed woman is both an outcast (segregated, under the Levitical purity code, for her issue of blood) and economically ruined (having “endured much under many physicians, and . . . spent all that she had”, while becoming more ill).
Because of his exalted social status, Jairus can approach Jesus directly on behalf of his daughter. By contrast, the unnamed woman lacks anyone who can intercede for her with a male religious teacher such as Jesus. Consequently, she resolves to seek healing without making herself known: “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” It is at once an audacious act, and one that, she hopes, will preserve her anonymity. Most importantly, it is an act of implicit faith.
When she touches his cloak, Jesus “is aware that power has gone forth from him”. He stops, demanding to know who has touched him. This is in no way a rebuke: whereas, in the Levitical purity code, such physical contact should have made Jesus ritually unclean, he declares that it has made her well. But Jesus also wants to nurture the seed of faith in her so that it can grow and blossom.
Mark writes that the woman “fell down before him and told him the whole story”. As in Jesus’s exchange with the Syro-Phoenician woman (Mark 7.24-30), this woman’s rule-breaking audacity is recognised and honoured. In fact, she is doubly praised by the Lord: she becomes the “daughter” at the heart of the story, and is hailed as the one “with faith” — in contrast to the male disciples, who have recently been rebuked by Jesus precisely for their lack of faith (Mark 4.40).
In stopping on the way to Jairus’s house, Jesus has given this unnamed woman’s need priority over Jairus’s urgent request for help. While Jesus is still speaking with her, the news comes that Jairus’s daughter is dead. Jesus’s response is to “ignore the message” (an alternative, and perhaps more likely translation of parakousas ton logon, in verse 36, than “overhearing what they said”), and to urge Jairus (like the woman, in her seemingly hopelessness situation) to “have faith”. As Myers notes, there is an echo here of the faith that the disciples will need to have in the face of Jesus’s own death.
When Jesus tells the onlookers that the girl is “not dead but sleeping”, he is not denying the literal reality of her death. As St Augustine explains, “She was in a certain sense asleep — asleep, that is, in respect of him by whom she could be awakened. So, awakening her, he restored her alive to her parents.”
In the daughter’s healing, we find a foretaste of the resurrection. The word that Mark uses for the observers’ astonishment at the little girl’s recovery (ekstasis, in verse 42) appears on only one other occasion in this Gospel: when the women are told that Jesus, too, has risen from the dead (Mark 16.8).
Like our Gospel, this Sunday’s psalm has both a personal and a corporate aspect. On one level, it is a story of individual deliverance and thanksgiving: “You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have put off my sackcloth and girded me with gladness.” But, as Susan Gillingham observes, “this is a Psalm where a communal experience is consistently given a personal voice” (Psalms Through the Centuries: Volume II). Its story — of the triumph of life over the forces of death and destruction — has its echoes through the centuries, not only in countless individual lives but in the story of the whole people of God.
The Wisdom of Solomon captures the life-giving reality at the heart of the stories of both our psalm and Gospel: “For he created all things so that they might exist; the generative forces of the world are wholesome, and there is no destructive poison in them, and the dominion of Hades is not on earth.”
These stories of healing and deliverance each foreshadow Jesus’s paschal triumph: the restoration of God’s good purposes in creation, and the defeat of the powers of exploitation, sin, and death.