A Tale of Two Daughters (Mark 5: 21-43)

by The Rev. Daniel P. Strandlund on June 3, 2021

This week we pick back up with our journey through Mark. To review, in Mark 5:1-20 we saw Jesus cross to the southeastern side of the Sea of Galilee with some of his disciples into predominantly Gentile territory. There, Jesus was met by a man possessed by the demon Legion. We saw Jesus cast a demon called Legion out of a man and into a herd of swine.  With symbolic language, Mark showed Jesus as the leader of God’s invading forces. God’s kingdom is reclaiming territory from Roman rule.

 

Now in Mark 5:21-43[1], Jesus crosses back across the Sea of Galilee, returning to predominantly Jewish neighborhoods somewhere on the western shores. As the cultural geography changes, so also does the symbolic language. Here, the images are not so much military or kingdom centered but are instead evocative of home and family in the ancient world. This passage is about two daughters in two symbolic households. Today, I want to call attention to how artfully Mark interweaves them.

 

The first is the household of Jairus (5:22). Jairus is a “leader of the synagogue” (5:22), which makes him a person of importance in this predominantly Jewish area of Galilee. He would not have been a clergyperson, but rather a layman of prominent social standing. He is most likely wealthy. In those days, someone like Jairus may have been instrumental in getting the synagogue built and keeping it maintained. This accounts for how apparently easy it was for Jairus to reach Jesus: There’s a massive crowd there (5:21), but Jairus seems to have no trouble making it to Jesus (5:22). It’s as though the crowd gets out of his way.

 

Jairus is the patriarch of his household, and as such it’s his job to represent his family in public. Jairus’ 12-year-old daughter is sick, near the point of death (5:23). He falls at Jesus’ feet, a sign of deference, to ask that Jesus “come and lay…hands on her” (5:23). Jairus begs Jesus repeatedly to do this, and Jesus obliges (5:23-24).

 

But our story is interrupted when the needs of a second household intrude, though it’s not obvious at first that this interruption has anything to do with a household. An unnamed woman who has suffered from a hemorrhage for 12 years pushes through the crowd and touches Jesus’ cloak (5:25-29). We don’t know the socioeconomic status of the family she grew up in, but we know that she is now destitute. She “had spent all that she had” on physicians, “and she was no better, but rather grew worse” (5:27). This unnamed woman is in the crush around Jesus, one of dozens of anonymous faces reaching out.

 

She does not have a prominent man like Jairus to intercede for her, so she forces her way herself (5:27). In the first lines of speech by a woman in Mark’s Gospel, she tells herself, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well” (5:28). She reaches out; Jesus knows power has gone out from him (5:30); but no one is sure who it was that touched Jesus (5:31-32). The woman is afraid but comes forward to fall at Jesus’ feet and tell him the whole truth (5:33).

 

This is when we see the second household appear: “Daughter,” Jesus says to the woman, “your faith has made you well; go in peace and be healed of your disease” (5:34)[2]. The woman has a faith which even the disciples lack (4:40, for example). She is a member of Jesus’ family: As Jesus said earlier on, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (3:35). In calling the unnamed woman “Daughter,” Jesus is representing God, gathering and caring for God’s household on earth.

 

At this point, we return to the first household—Jairus and his daughter. The little girl has died (5:35), and Jesus’ response continues the faith theme: Turning to Jairus, Jesus says, “Do not fear, only believe” (5:36). Coming so soon after his address to the unnamed woman, one can almost feel Jesus gesturing at her as he calls Jairus to faith: “Jairus, be like this daughter of mine.” The crowd continues on, but when they reach Jairus’ house, the camera zooms in and things are far more intimate. Of the crowd around Jesus, only Peter, James, and John are allowed to follow.[3] Jesus puts the mourners outside and enters the room where the girl is with only the three fishermen and the girl’s parents. The mother, like her ailing child, is never named and never speaks, though she is clearly there (5:40).

 

Jesus speaks in Aramaic—Talitha cum[4]which gives this miracle a magical words kind of feel. Everyone is “overcome with amazement” (5:42), using language appearing nowhere else in the Gospel except at Jesus’ own empty tomb (16:8). This story is clearly a big deal, therefore, which makes its ending all the more striking—Jesus’ very human and practical command to “give her something to eat” (5:43). It’s as though Jesus is saying, “I know that was amazing to see, but let’s not forget the kid has been through a lot. Get her a snack.”

 

These 22 verses are some of Mark’s best in terms of storytelling. The two stories are meticulously paired and balanced. Jairus begs Jesus for help; the unnamed woman does not ask permission but simply reaches out to touch him. Jairus’ worst fears are realized when his daughter dies; what the unnamed woman hopes and believes will happen actually does. Jairus starts off talking to Jesus but then falls silent in the second half of his story; the unnamed woman speaks only to herself at first but ends up telling her full story to Jesus in the midst of a crowd. Jesus heals Jairus’ daughter in a private home with very few people around; Jesus heals the unnamed woman outside in public, surrounded by people. Jairus knows Jesus has power to heal his daughter, but the healing is delayed while they’re on the way; the unnamed woman is healed even before Jesus knows where his power has gone. Jesus sternly commands Jairus’ household not to speak of what he has done; no such command is given to the unnamed woman, whose healing was a very public affair. Instead, Jesus parts company with the unnamed woman by giving words of gentleness and praise.

 

There are similarities, too. Jairus’ little girl is 12-years old; the unnamed woman has suffered for 12 years. One daughter dies and is raised to life by Jesus; one woman takes matters into her own hands and becomes the daughter of God. In bossing people around at Jairus’ home, Jesus seems to have become the head of Jairus’ household; likewise, in calling the unnamed woman daughter, Jesus is speaking as God’s representative head of the family. Everyone who needs healing is healed.

 

Everyone gets healed, but the two miracles feel very different. One involves an anonymous and destitute woman taking charge of her own needs and her own body in relation to Jesus. She ends up telling her full story in the light of day and in public. Jesus responds with affection, praise, and familiarity. The healing of Jairus’ daughter is in some ways more difficult, at least for Jairus. His daughter’s healing first involves his worst fears coming true when the girl dies. Jairus then seems to fall silent—what could he say?—as Jesus effectively takes over his home, ordering people in and out before he raises the girl to life. After, he orders the parents to bring the kid some food and then tells them not to talk about it. Jesus’ tone in Jairus’ household is sterner than it is when he’s with the unnamed woman in the crowd.

 

I’m not entirely sure why this is. What do you make of it? On the one hand, Jesus is gentle, praising, and subject to the demands of others. On the other hand, Jesus is powerful, commanding, and disruptive of households. Mark gives us both, and I suppose this is because God is both. One takeaway for us might be that God’s healing includes both of these forms (and probably others, too). Everyone is healed, but our prescriptions are different.

 

Finally, as is so often the case with Mark, I find myself wondering about the gaps. What did the daughters say? The unnamed woman who was healed, when she told the whole truth there before Jesus, what did she say? What had her life been like? And Jairus’ daughter, what did she say about what happened? Why did Jesus tell them not to talk about it—was it because of his own ministry’s needs, or was it to protect the girl from unnecessary drama? And what did the kid’s mother think? Is she not also God’s daughter?

 

God’s Peace,

Fr. Daniel+


[1] I am indebted throughout to the work of Ched Myers and Warren Carter on this passage. Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus, 20th anniversary ed. (New York: Maryknoll, 2017). Warren Carter, Mark, volume 42 in the Wisdom Commentary series edited by Barbara E. Reid, OP and Sarah J. Tanzer (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2019). I rely more so on Myers here. Carter addresses more fully possibilities for interpreting the hemorrhaging woman (her disease, its implications, and her healing). See Carter, 119-141.

[2] Jesus is here the true physician (as in 2:17), unlike the physicians she has tried to hire.

[3] The first of a few times when these three are singled out at important times. See Mark 9:2-8 and 14:32-42.

[4] “Little girl, get up.” Jesus speaks Aramaic at other moments, too. See 7:34, 14:36, and 15:34. Of these four, in the first two examples Jesus addresses people who cannot hear him but respond anyway—a little girl who has died is raised from the dead (5:41), and a deaf man, to whose ears Jesus says in Aramaic, Be opened, is given back his hearing (7:34). But in the third and fourth examples of Jesus’ using Aramaic, Jesus is speaking to God, who presumably can hear Jesus but simply chooses not to respond. In 14:36, Jesus is alone in the Garden of Gethsemane and pleads with God, whom Jesus calls Abba (a familiar way of saying “Dad” in Aramaic). Finally, in 15:34, Jesus quotes Psalm 22 from the cross, beginning with the Aramaic for God, Eloi, Eloi. The contrast between the two pairs of examples is both beautiful and painfully ironic.

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