Mark 5:21-43: the story of “a dead girl and a sick woman.” Most bible translations I’ve seen title it something like that. I wish that wasn’t the headline… The story, really, isn’t about the illness or the dying–it’s about a Jesus who sees, names, flips the script on the cultural norms of his day, and restores Shalom–brings wholeness and sets all things right–in every life he touches. But I don’t know how we’d make a neat, succinct title out of all that…
This story has been one of my favorites for a couple of years now. Ever since I heard a brilliant social psychologist and theologian named Christena Cleveland tell it in a way I had never heard it before. There is so much tucked away inside this passage, so much that is easy to miss if we just read the words off the page. As I thought about how to present these things, I felt like the best way to do that is to simply tell the story in expanded form. So, what follows will be a mixture of the story straight out off the pages of scripture, the original Greek words and definitions used, the cultural nuance I have learned from Christena and others, points from Sunday’s sermon, and some of my own thoughts, too. I want you to find yourself in the midst of these people, breathing the same air, watching this beautiful story unfold. So, if you’ll allow me the creative liberty, I am going to write this in story form, without explaining or notating. The expanded definitions of words come from Strong’s Greek Lexicon. Everything else is how I’ve come to understand this passage–with the help of many others–at this point in my life. Without further ado…
News of what had just happened to Legion was spreading like wildfire throughout the region. People have been camped out near the water for days, waiting for Jesus to return. They have all heard the story, and they all have questions. Many have needs, and they are holding on to their last shred of hope… maybe he holds the keys to their miracles, too?
There he is. Jesus and his disciples just got out of the boat. The crowd is growing and pressing in. Everyone is eager to talk to him… So many voices. Suddenly, a surprised hush falls over the group. Someone just fell at Jesus’s feet. It’s Jairus, the synagogue leader! What is he doing? The crowd is appalled at what’s happening. Jairus, along with the other leaders, has been refuting every claim made about Jesus. They’ve been cautioning everyone to stay away from this “teacher”. He’s dangerous… he’s broken with tradition… his claims are heretical… They’ve told the community these things and more. So what is this highly esteemed leader up to? His very name means “whom God enlightens”–doesn’t he know he shouldn’t be doing this?
“My little girl, my daughter–she is dying! Nothing has helped… We’ve tried everything!” His voice is desperate, he’s pleading at the feet of Jesus.
“Please come! Come, touch her, lay your hands on my little girl, so she can be saved and healed–made whole again, brought back to life! Please come with me!”
He’s not the only leader in the crowd… He has to know the others just heard what he said, too. This won’t go well for him in the synagogue… It’s a bit of a surprise that none of them are saying anything to him yet. Maybe they’re waiting to see what happens–or maybe they’re simply too shocked to speak up.
Or… perhaps it’s the look on Jesus’s face that’s stopping them from questioning Jairus just yet… The compassion in his eyes–it’s unnerving. Who is really that kind? Surely he won’t go with him right now. He just returned from crossing through the waves again. He has to be hungry. Probably exhausted. Who could expect him to go anywhere right now? But there’s not even a hint of frustration on his face.
Jesus hasn’t said a thing yet. He simply helped Jairus to his feet and now they’re headed off. His followers that were in the boat with him, along with a huge part of the crowd, are following them.
Jesus stops walking abruptly. “Who just touched me?”
What is he talking about? There’s a massive crowd around him–people are bumping into each other constantly. Everyone is touching everyone else…
“There are people all around you, friend.” It’s one of his disciples talking, giving voice to what everyone is thinking. “Why are you asking who touched you?”
Jesus doesn’t answer the question. He’s quiet. He is looking all around, intently. But he’s doing more than looking– he’s looking to see, and not just with his eyes… He’s searching with his mind, too. He’s looking with a desire to know, to become acquainted with this person he’s searching for. He’s looking to know them experientially. He wants to care for and pay heed to whoever he’s looking for… That’s the kind of looking he’s doing.
Someone is moving toward him…
Why is she here?
The woman moving toward him shouldn’t be here. She knows that. She’s unclean, and according to the synagogue leaders, she has to keep her distance. It’s been twelve years since she’s moved freely among a crowd like this, twelve years since she’s been well. What is she thinking? Surely Jairus will tell her she needs to leave, that her being here puts everyone at risk of being made unclean, too.
She looks so afraid. She’s trembling. Now she’s huddled at Jesus’s feet, and she’s talking. She’s telling him her story, starting from the beginning…
Jairus looks both annoyed and afraid… He knows his precious daughter may not have much time left. He’s not saying anything–yet. But the look on his face suggests that he might not stay quiet for long. There’s no time for delays or interruptions, especially not when it comes to this woman. She knows she’s not supposed to be here.
The look on Jesus’s face, though… Again, that compassion. What is it with this man?? He doesn’t look even the slightest bit concerned about the interruption. In fact, his eyes are glistening as he listens patiently. He’s leaning in now, getting a little closer so that he can really hear her…
“Teacher, it’s been twelve years… I’ve lost everything, everyone,” she chokes out, between sobs. “I’ve seen all of the doctors. I’ve asked the synagogue leaders what to do. I’ve been prayed for. Nothing has made any difference at all. Nothing! I couldn’t live like that anymore… I heard about the man they lowered through the roof–how you healed him. I’ve heard other stories, too. But when I heard about the man in the tombs, I knew I had to try to get to you. I-I thought…” she pauses, looking around at all the eyes staring back at her, knowing that her admission could make her situation even worse. Her gaze lingers on Jairus–she can see the impatience on his face, his crossed arms. But he’s not saying anything. Jesus looks straight into her eyes, imploring her to continue. She takes a deep breath and continues, “I thought if I could touch you,” the gasp in the crowd is audible, “even if I just touched your clothes, I could be healed. And… as soon as I touched the hem of your cloak, I felt something change in my body. I don’t know how to explain it–but something moved from you to me and it changed everything…”
She takes a deep breath, pausing, fearing the consequences of her actions…
The enormous crowd had just heard this woman share her whole truth. Jesus was listening, so they did, too. They had never heard her whole story before. Even Jairus, the one “whom God enlightens”, appeared to be listening, surprised by parts of the story she highlighted–things he and the other leaders didn’t know.
Jesus is smiling now. “Daughter,” he finally says.
Daughter? Jesus often uses the more generic word for “child” when he talks to people. It can mean son or daughter, and it’s the one he chose to use just a little while back when he spoke to the paralyzed man who was lowered through the roof. This word, though, it’s the same one Jairus just used to talk about his daughter. Jesus is speaking to this unclean outcast using the same language this waiting father just used. Her face registers the shock of the moment–She had just endured more than a decade of obscurity, lived a nameless life defined by her disease. And now this teacher, this miracle-worker, was calling her “Daughter?” Who is this man who, with a word, could make her feel immediately loved and safe? Who is this one whose very presence is the embodiment of healing and power and light?
Jesus continues, “Daughter, you are saved. You are healed and made whole.” Again, Jesus borrows the same word Jairus used when he asked Jesus to “save” his daughter… “Everything has been made right. Shalom has been restored to you–you are free.” Everything about her looks different now. Her face looks peaceful, there’s light in her eyes. The fear is gone. She stands up and is on her way.
While Jesus was talking with her, some people from Jairus’s house pulled the leader aside. “She’s gone. She died. Come home, let the teacher be,” they said.
If only they hadn’t been interrupted–maybe she wouldn’t have died before Jesus could have done something. The woman was healed as soon as she touched him. If only he would have kept walking rather than stopping to engage with her. Why did he have to let her tell her whole story? Now a twelve year old girl was dead…
Jesus must have overheard the people who came to talk to Jairus. He turns in his direction and looks straight at him, paying no attention to the presence of the others in this moment. He walks over, cups the face of the man in front of him, this father’s face that is contorted with pain, and says, “Don’t be afraid. Just believe.” Something in his eyes, in his voice, in his touch, maybe–something changed the look on the father’s face.
Jesus pulls aside three of his friends, and they, along with him and Jairus start off again toward the home of the synagogue leader… No one else is allowed to follow any longer. The crowd disperses, pondering all that they had just seen and heard…
Jairus was conflicted. He got to Jesus before this woman did–he was first! He had risked his reputation and fallen on his knees before this man. He knew his daughter was close to death–seeking out Jesus was his last-ditch effort to save her. Other means of medicine had not worked for his family either. It seemed for a moment as if there was a glimmer of hope when Jesus began to accompany Jairus–but then…the audacity! Jairus didn’t know whether to be angry with Jesus, the woman, or both. Who were they to make him wait?
Jairus was the synagogue leader–a man of importance. This woman was the type of person he deemed unclean and an outcast all the time according to the Torah–their holy scriptures. Surely Jesus would not tarry. Surely Jesus would hurry to heal the beloved daughter of the synagogue ruler. Surely when Jesus identified the woman who brazenly touched him, he was going to scold her for breaking the law and then hurry on. But no…Jesus gave her precious time. Jesus gave her his full attention as if Jairus wasn’t even a consideration. Jesus listened to her and let her go on and on about her story; he never cut her off, never told her he was on a different mission when she interrupted him, he acted as if she mattered–did she?
Did this audacious, unclean woman matter more than his daughter? It would appear so and it didn’t make sense! And then the news came that his daughter had indeed died. What was he supposed to do now that his little girl was dead? His friends were telling him to leave Jesus alone, Jesus was telling him not to fear but to believe.
Jairus recalled all the things he had heard about Jesus up to this point–the things that caused the religious leaders, including himself, to squirm because they couldn’t explain or control them. Jesus didn’t bow to their authority.–that was one of the reasons Jairus sought him out–Jesus seemed to be able to think and act outside of their box. Is it possible that there could still be hope?
Before they even arrived at the house it became clear that his daughter truly was dead–the ruckus of the mourners confirmed it. Now what? There had already been some talk among Jewish religious leaders that Jesus just might be out of his mind, and his next comment certainly seemed to confirm that. He said: “the child is not dead but asleep.” Everyone knows the difference between someone who is dead and someone who is sleeping. Jairus’ friends laughed at Jesus–Jairus wondered if they were laughing at him too–their synagogue ruler who was desperate enough to consult the rebel who was flipping everything his people believed about God and the Torah on its head.
But then Jesus sent all of them out. Some of the mourners protested, some of them were slow to leave, but after a few more precious moments ticked off the clock everyone was gone except for Jairus, his wife, Jesus’ three friends, and Jesus. They entered the room where this beloved child lay–Jesus, continuing his law-breaking rebellious ways touched her dead body taking her corpse by the hand. Jairus, again conflicted, wondered if law-breaking in this instance was okay? He desperately wanted it to be.
Jesus spoke to the dead daughter saying, “Talitha koum”–a term of endearment, a phrase meaning little girl or little lamb–get up. Jairus couldn’t help but think about the words of the prophet Isaiah who said: “He will tend his flock like a shepherd, he will gather the lambs in his arms.” (Is. 40:11) . His daughter rose, got out of bed, walked around, and Jesus asked them to get her something to eat. Jairus doesn’t understand what has just happened, he certainly can’t explain it, but all of a sudden he knows that he wants to be a lamb of Jesus too.
Jairus begins to understand, though not yet clearly, that everything he’s built his life on is being challenged. He’s beginning to see that all daughters are precious to Jesus, none is unclean, not the dead one, not the one who was bleeding. He remembers how Jesus healed a demon-possessed man, how he healed someone on the Sabbath. Could it be that no one is untouchable? Could it be that no one is unimportant or less-than in God’s kingdom? Could it be that their entire understanding of God is skewed–the understanding that leads to people becoming outcasts and being mistreated, the understanding that the people of Israel are superior to other people groups because they are the chosen people of God? He remembers that God told Abraham that through his offspring all people of the earth would be blessed. (Gn. 22:18) What does it all mean? His twelve-year-old daughter is alive. The woman who had been bleeding for twelve years is healed. Jairus begins to question his interpretation of the law. What will he do from this point forward, how will he teach, how will he rule, how will he handle the previously “unclean” after what he’s experienced on this day?
What will we do when Jesus reinterprets our traditions, our understanding? What will we do when he tarries with the oppressed, when he gives us an opportunity to join our stories with the stories of those we’ve previously dismissed or haven’t made time for? In order to receive healing from Jesus, the woman had to summon up incredible courage and put herself at great risk, Jairus had to humble himself and put himself at great risk. Neither one cared what anyone else thought–they just knew that they needed an encounter with Jesus, and I imagine, once they experienced the authority of Jesus displayed through his healing power, his resurrection power, his compassion, his kindness, his love–the walls fell down and they wanted everyone else to experience Jesus too.