by Ellen Sims
21When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. 22Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet23and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.”
24So he went with him. And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. 25Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. 26She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. 27She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, 28for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” 29Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. 30Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” 31And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’” 32He looked all around to see who had done it. 33But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. 34He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”
35While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” 36But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” 37He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James.38When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. 39When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” 40And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. 41He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” 42And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. 43He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.
We have today a healing story within a healing story. The Gospel reading appears in your bulletin with spacing that sets off the three parts. Story A1 is about a sick girl. Jesus agrees to accompany the synagogue leader, Jairus, to his home to heal the man’s young daughter. Story B is about a sick woman. Before Jesus can get through the crowd, a woman who’d been sick for years is healed by merely touching Jesus’s cloak. Although Jairus had explained that his daughter is on the brink of death, Jesus lingers to dialogue with the woman who’d been healed. Story A2 returns the focus to the little girl, now declared dead, but Jesus goes to her home anyway and, to everyone’s amazement, revives her.
I’m going to use these two interwoven stories about healings—similar in some ways, different in others—to let you “look under the hood” at the sermon writing process. I am hoping to illustrate more deliberately than usual how a sermonic theme might emerge and how a spiritual insight might surface while remaining firmly rooted in the text as it is, not as we want it to be. I want to go beyond a children’s version of this story that tells us Jesus heals. That is a faithful conclusion but is not a deep analysis of a rich Gospel text. We will try, in the process, to be careful not to impose our own prejudices and needs onto the story. And we want to avoid eisegesis. , which imposes onto the text our own agenda. Instead, we’ll do exegesis: pulling out what is in the text. We’ll try to respect that the story was crafted by a particular early group of Jesus followers and pay attention to deliberate literary choices they made to show us Jesus as they experienced him.
We’re going to look at the structure of this story-within-a-story. Knowing there are all kinds of ways a writer might choose to present the details of a story, we want to respect that a writer chose a certain way to organize and present this story in order to highlight a particular theological theme.
But first we’ll ask this generative question: Where’s the trouble in the text? What, if anything, disturbs you about this text? Pay attention to anything in the story that seems discordant, at odds with what you expected. Maybe you’re just reading the text wrong and are coming at it with your own prejudices and cultural values and without enough knowledge about that ancient culture or the Bible. Or maybe there is something in the story that is intended to snag you and hold you there and make you pay attention. I suspect you might guess from the way I summarized the whole passage earlier that, for me, the key trouble in the text is the fact that Jesus chooses to talk with the woman just healed from a gynecological problem before he tries to help the little girl near death. The woman had been suffering but has just been healed. The child is dying. So we have every right to wonder, when the storyteller says the child has died, if the woman has been healed and then blessed with caring words at the expense of the little girl. You haven’t been connecting the dots if, in the middle of the pericope, you don’t worry that maybe Jesus erred when he ditched his plan to follow Jairus home immediately. Jesus’s decision cost the child her life—or so it seems by verse 35.
So Jesus doesn’t look so great at this point. We’re used to siding with Jesus when we read the Bible, but careful readers are right to think Jesus made a fatal mistake — until we read nearly to the end of the entire story. And even then a cynic would insist, “Well, Jesus still needlessly took a chance that might have cost the girl’s life.”
If you’re hearing the story for the first time, and you get to the part where Jesus, after the first miraculous healing, heads to the child’s home only to hear that the child has already died, you have to lose a little faith in Jesus and think, if you’re reading closely and being honest, “If he’d kept to his original intention, the girl might not have died. He should have rushed to the child, healed her, and returned to speak healing words to the woman. If he’d kept to his plan, the child might have lived and the woman, who had been healed, could surely have waited for Jesus to return to experience his salvific words later. Isn’t that what we’d think if we were reading a secular story about a good, well-intentioned but imperfect man? Wouldn’t we worry the story’s hero made a fatal error? Of course, if we are already fans of Jesus, we might argue that Jesus knew all along the girl wasn’t really dead. But the writer creates suspense here to do more than just demonstrate Jesus’s healing powers. The story holds in tension the fate of the sick girl and sick woman and asks readers to side with one. And most of us might automatically sympathize more easily with the adored and dying child rather than the stigmatized, recently healed woman.
When Jesus and three of his disciples reach the home of Jairus, the mourners are already wailing. She’s dead! If we can hear the story as if for the first time, we must consider that if Jesus had kept to his original plan, she might have lived. Ah, but Jesus insists the child is still alive. The suspense builds. He goes to her bedside, takes her hand, calls her to get up, and she DOES.
If we’ve been reading this story for the umpteenth time, or with eyes predisposed to seeing Jesus as perfect, we might at this point dismiss that fleeting thought we had earlier that Jesus erred in delaying the child’s healing. But if we’ve allowed ourselves to stay within the uncomfortable tension the storyteller has created, we might go a little deeper. And if we note the story’s contrasts and structure, we might see how the writer leads us into that depth.
Note the contrasts between the female characters who are both called “daughter.” The child is the daughter of the leader of the synagogue, but the woman is the “daughter” of, well, no one, it seems. We don’t know her parentage. She appears all alone. But Jesus claims her by addressing her as “daughter.”
Notice also that both are associated with the number number twelve: the child is twelve-years-old; the woman’s disease is twelve-years-old. The woman’s identity is bound up in her disease.
Both are in need of healing, but neither asks for Jesus’s healing. The child’s father advocates for her; the sick woman, having no advocate, fights her way through the crowd and reaches out, in faith, to touch Jesus’s cloak, taking what she needs in faith in her desperation.
Whom does Jesus choose to minister to first? Not the character who might more easily evoke our sympathy, the precious little daughter of the prestigious synagogue leader about whom the whole town is concerned. No. Jesus certainly cares about that child. But Jesus does triage as it’s done in the kin*dom of God. So you guessed it. He chooses the least of the least. As if this solitary, stigmatized woman isn’t “least” enough, her illness had marked her as especially marginalized. She has been suffering from pain AND public humiliation. Especially in days when menstrual blood makes a woman ritually unclean and when feminine hygiene products do not exist—she lives in a state of constant embarrassment. To be a little graphic here, she surely smells bad, too, and cannot hide her shame. Yet SHE is the “daughter” Jesus calls his own. Admittedly, the child is only privileged in a relative sense. She is female and young and sick, after all. But in comparison to the sick woman, the child of the synagogue leader whom the whole village anxiously gathered around has a degree of privilege. But it is the least of the least Jesus attended to first when the privileged child SEEMED to need him more.
As I look back on the trouble in this text, I’m seeing Jesus’s seeming irresponsibility toward the sick girl as a literary trope to reinforce a core Gospel theme, which is that in God’s realm the last are first. The Jesus stories sometimes correct our misperceptions of this world and we, too, can regard the last as first. Sometimes we see evidence that power and might and wealth and privilege are not the kin*dom’s ways or aims. Jesus responds to all of us always with intentions for healing and help. But in God’s kin*dom, the last WILL be first.
This kin*dom priority of the Gospel, which runs throughout Mark, is emphasized even in the structure of the story.
Jesus’s healing of the child is the frame around the narrative focus on the woman. The storyteller uses a chiastic structure in which the center of the pericope, the healing of the hemorrhaging woman, is the real heart of the story. So the story’s very organization emphasizes that Jesus responses first to the very least. Story A1. Story B. Back to Story A2. The writer’s organization underscores the theme by putting the story of the outsider (the sick woman) INSIDE the story of the Jairus’ daughter. Let me say it again. The storyteller brings the outsider into the narrative center. The marginalized woman is literally at the heart of this pericope. Where Jesus said she belonged.
That’s how Jesus responds to us.
How do we respond to Jesus? I’m seeing a range of responses in today’s story.
1) Fascination. (See verses 21, 27, 30, 31). The crowd follows him like swarming insects to a light, like paparazzi around a celebrity. We want to make Jesus larger than life, a magic guy who takes our orders and fixes all our problems. The crowd, like many worshipers in churches today, seeks excitement; Jesus, however, is continually moving away from the crowd and toward those on the margins.
2) Fear (verse 33) is another response we might have to Jesus. Both the woman healed from hemorrhaging and Jairus, the leader of the synagogue are full of fear, which leads us to a third possible response we may have to Jesus.
3) Faith, which doesn’t mean intellectual affirmation of a theological assertion. Faith here is more of a disposition toward hope and a trust in the things of God rather than a pledge to think in a certain way. When Jesus tells the distraught father, “Do not fear; only believe” (verse 36), he is offering the fearful father the opposite of fear. He is offering comfort and hope. Faith is experiential and spiritual, not intellectual. The faith Jesus sees and affirms in the healed woman is a faith that allowed her to assert her needs.
One mark of this kind of faith is its communal dimension. In verse 34 Jesus’s full response to the woman is “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” Here’s another troubling detail, a seeming contradiction. Is the woman healed or not? “Your faith has made you well. Now go and be healed.” When Jesus healed lepers, the demon-possessed, a bleeding woman, he sent them back into their communities. Social acceptance was needed for full healing, both physical and spiritual. Although a sick little girl needs him, Jesus must engage with the woman long enough to tell her that her healing isn’t complete. His cryptic comment may imply that her healing must continue. And it can now that her sickness has left her without social stigma. She can be reintegrated into her community.
Being a part of a faith community can help us heal, can help us find hope, live in faith, recover from serious ills of stigma, despair, loneliness, just as the bleeding woman did.
Thank God for faith communities like ours that can embrace those who’ve been pushed to the margins and can bring them into the center.
PRAYER: O God who loves us all—but maybe loves the outsiders best—help us love as you love.