Pentecost 5: 28 June Mark 5:21-43
This episode belongs closely with the two that precede it (4:35-41; 5:1-20). All three portray Jesus in eschatological dimensions, that is, all three tell a story about Jesus which symbolises that Jesus acts out what traditionally belonged to events of the end of time: he overthrows the devil and he raises the dead. The ultimate fantasy of hope, earthed in the reality of God, namely, that evil will be overcome and new life emerge, finds its fulfilment already here in Jesus. Mark is celebrating this reality and the hope of its emergence for the eyes that see and the ears that hear.
The texture of the symbolism is richer still. 5:1-20 portrays Jesus entering Gentile territory and its dark domains, where he heals the demoniac at Gerasa by exorcism (the stilling of the storm was also an exorcism of sorts). 5:21-43 has Jesus back firmly in Jewish territory in touch with the synagogue leader. The girl is 12 years old; the woman has suffered 12 years. Mark has created two panels: one depicting life for the Gentiles (in 5:1-20), the other depicting life for Israel (5:21-43). He will do the same with the mass feedings: the 5000 celebrates life for Israel, with 12 baskets left over; the 4000 celebrates life for the Gentiles, with 7 baskets left over. Each is the centre of a cluster. Together these two clusters also form two panels of celebration of inclusion.
Within 5:21-43, itself, there is also strong symbolism. The two stories of the girl and the woman have been woven together, so that the former embraces the latter and the one feeds from the other. Perhaps they reflect an actual sequence of events. Perhaps they were linked at a later stage. At some stage someone (either Mark or a first narrator) saw fit to tell the two stories as one. Hearers in the ancient world, Jewish and non Jewish, would be sensitive to a range of issues which were part of everyday life for a woman and womanhood. 12 years of age was about the time when girls married. Will this young woman enter adult womanhood?
Gynaecological problems could complicated by purity laws which, when interpreted narrowly, could force a woman into isolation. The language echoes Leviticus 15:19, which stipulates that a woman with a flow of blood be deemed unclean. Perhaps the purity issue did loom large in the Jewish contexts where the story was first told. Perhaps it explained Jesus’ reticence or annoyance about being touched. He shows a similar initial reticence, based on such distinctions, in relating to the Syrophoenician woman in 7:24-30 (perhaps also towards the leper in 1:40-45).
Mark shows no concern for the purity issues, either in relation to the woman or to the girl, but he deftly describes the plight of the woman (and doubtless many women of his day - and today?) suffering at the hands of those from whom she sought help. One can almost feel the physical solidarity of pain - or at least imagine it. This sense of solidarity would have had the capacity to make the woman representative. It was no small question: was there also a place for women here? Do they matter? Do womanhood and holiness meet?
Viewed in this light, the (male) disciples’ reaction might also be representative. What a silly question to ask, who touched you, when you are mingling in a crowd (5:31)! Mark is not sympathetic to their concerns. They are logical concerns; it is just that they do not know that they do not know everything. Jesus’ confrontation with the woman is dramatic. Will she fail? Will he fail? She tells Jesus the truth. She tells it how it is. Jesus heals her and sends her off in peace. Too often the focus is the woman’s behaviour alone. Jesus’ behaviour also rates a mention: uncertain, but knowing someone had deliberately touched him, wanting to meet the person, listening to her truth. This is a story for women - and for men!
Mark leaves how the healing took place somewhat ambiguous. Was it the touch in some mysterious, magical way or was it Jesus’ declaration or both? Certainly her faith played a role. There are sophisticated and unsophisticated ways of explaining everything, but the message of the story wants to be heard, not explained. The same applies to the dark humour of the return to the house of the dead girl. Grief is receiving its normal cultural expression; Jesus’ suggestion that something may be different invites ridicule. It is at the same time a profound moment. The girl, who has since died, is raised. And was not that also a resurrection, the healing of the women? The woven structure of the two narratives deliberately connects the two.
If we remain at the level of the sheer miracle, we can become preoccupied with questions like: why is this useful ability not more widely available? how might it have happened? did it really happen? is it a legendary story designed to echo the feats of Elijah and Elisha? All questions have their place. But the sacredness of this text lies less in what history it might purport to tell and more in what it celebrates. It celebrates that the human yearning for new life, set out in dreams and visions for the climax of history, can find its fulfilment in being connected to Jesus. It celebrates that the reality of women in community, the suffering and deprivation, the promise of emerging womanhood and all which that entails, belongs firmly within the embrace of the gospel. It does not need male mediation. Sometimes that is its greatest threat. It is still probably a male story and still reflects dominant cultural assumptions about appropriate behaviour (5:33). But it is a moment of light and hope and, like the celebration of Gentile and Jew which it completes with 5:1-20, it celebrates inclusion of women and men and has something healing to say to both.
Epistle: Pentecost 5: 28 June 2 Corinthians 8:7-15