More Good News (From Mark)
This scene in Mark’s story of Jesus (Mark 5.21-43) finds the New Human Being and his disciples back on the west, or Jewish, side of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus has shown his power over a storm and a legion of demons, but what will he do when he encounters two persons, each in their own rapidly descending journeys toward death?
First, let’s grasp the idea of ancient Judaism as an honor culture. One’s status determined to whom one could speak and how to interact with others, regulated social rules and transactions, and circumscribed mobility and access to others within the system. In this part of the story, Jesus once again disrupts—and therefore challenges—those very dynamics, rules, and roles. For example, women were not to be assertive and synagogue rulers were to engaged with bowing and scraping, kowtowing deference. But (again) Jesus subverts the status quo in order to create new possibilities of human community. And once again we look at ourselves: our honor code system is not identical to this one, but in what ways does Jesus challenge ours, and therefore, call us to resist and transform it?
Jesus has returned to Jewish territory and is approached by a member of the Jewish ruling class (Jarius), but while in a tightly-packed crowd, he is interrupted by a woman who has been hemorrhaging money and blood for 12 years. She has paid doctors over and again to be healed or saved from this physical ailment (in Greek, “healed” and “saved” is the same word)—and the social alienation, loneliness, and shame it has brought her. The doctors have taken her money but not helped her. Jesus heals her for free. This woman, poor and outcast, shamed, exploited, alone, comes to Jesus. Hiding and hoping, she makes her way through the crowd, wanting to touch, if nothing more, just his clothing. When Jesus notices and accepts her highly inappropriate touch (according to the honor culture), she falls at his feet (.33).
Moments before, it was Jarius who fell at Jesus’ feet (as he asked for the favor of his daughter’s healing). An important symbolic reversal is being demonstrated. Jesus puts this woman’s need first, above the needs of the synagogue leader and his innocent 12 year-old daughter. The woman is from the bottom of the honor scale, Jarius is at the top of it. But by the end of this scene, she becomes the “daughter” at the center of the story. Jesus then tells her, “My daughter, your faith”—her sheer audacity!—"has saved/healed you, go in peace and be of full health, free of your scourge” (.34). Her faith is honored by Jesus—in contrast to his male disciples who are “without faith” (4.40).
Jesus then exhorts Jarius (a leader of the synagogue!) to follow the example of this lowly, shamed, unclean woman! Jesus tells him: “Do not fear, only believe” (.36). But when Jesus tells him that the girl is not dead, but only asleep, the remorse turns to derision, which of course, is a signifier of too little belief (i.e., trust).
Mark shapes this story to juxtapose the two extremes of the Jewish social scale/honor system. Presumably, the girl has enjoyed 12 years of privilege, yet is now “near death” (.23). The woman has suffered 12 years of pain, destitution, loneliness, and shame by way of a purity system and its (religious and medical) doctors. She could not enter a synagogue and participate in religious rituals, could not have sex with a husband, could not be touched by others. She was violating taboos when she squeezed herself into that crowd.
Ched Myers concludes that “The object lesson can only be that if Judaism wishes ‘to be saved and live’ (.23) it must embrace the faith of the kingdom: a new social order with equal status for all.” At the end of the story, the narrator observes that the girl is 12 years-old, added as though it were an afterthought. But of course, there is intentionality here. The number 12 links the woman and the girl, the two “daughters” of Israel to the 12 tribes of Israel. Perhaps the woman represents tradition-bound, “mother Judaism”—unclean, isolated from the world, oppressed by a myriad of laws and honor codes—but saved by the New Human Being, the Anointed One (“Christ,” in the Greek). Perhaps the girl represents the New Israel, offspring of the synagogue and its Pharisaic heritage, on the verge of bearing children and thus, bringing new life into the world. Resurrected from the dead, saved/healed by Jesus, she can now fulfill her calling and destiny.
Notice that Jarius asks Jesus to do nothing more than just touch his daughter and that the woman believed if she just touched even his clothes, she would be healed. One way to hear this part of the story is to judge with ideas shaped by modern science, and a set of modern and contemporary prejudices that holds such child-like, magic-like faith in contempt. How naïve, childish, unsophisticated! But are we to imagine that God will only meet us, touch us, and respond to our needs if we approach God with a sufficient level of philosophical, theological, and scientific knowledge and sophistication? As Dan pointed out in our discussion, isn’t it the case that whoever reaches out to the Christ, however educated, knowledgeable, and sophisticated—aren’t we are simply seeking, more or less, to just touch Jesus… and be healed?
Thanks for reading,