When illness lingers on and on with no relief or when death looms at the threshold of a child’s life, it can cause sufferers to take measures that are out of the ordinary. In today’s Gospel, a synagogue official pleads with Jesus for his dying daughter. This scene is unusual in that most other religious leaders in the Gospel are painted as opposing Jesus and ultimately trying to do away with him. This leader, however, is a desperate father on the brink of losing his beloved 12-year-old daughter. Ordinarily he would not humble himself at the feet of an itinerant healer, but because his daughter’s life hangs by a thread he will try anything. The crowd surrounding Jesus parts for Jairus, as he implores Jesus to come and lay his hands on his daughter, hoping beyond hope that he can make her live.
As Mark is wont to do, he intertwines a story of another person whose interminable suffering causes her to step beyond her normal behavior, too. This woman has gone to doctor after doctor, only to have her hopes rise and be dashed yet again, as her illness kept growing worse. For 12 long years she has been seeking a cure. Having exhausted her monetary resources and her dignity, she forsakes the professional doctors and follows after a popular healer. Exerting her last energy, she wriggles through the crowd that presses in on Jesus and grabs his cloak from behind. With hope almost gone, she will try anything.
In both cases, people with status and resources take the unusual step of leaving their accustomed social circles and reaching out to an itinerant preacher and healer. Jairus was a well-respected leader of the faith community. The hemorrhaging woman had once had money to spend on doctors. In desperation, both cast off their last bit of reserve, risking trust in Jesus. Both beg for his healing touch, and they are not disappointed.
God’s power to heal flows freely through Jesus into the bodies of these two suffering females. Both are restored as beloved daughters. The Gospel healings are dramatic enactments of God’s will for life to the full for all, as the first reading asserts. God does not rejoice in death; rather, God formed humankind to be imperishable.
The Gospel story leads us to grapple with a mystery: Why does God, whose love is so visible in healing touch, not prevent the death of beloved daughters and sons? With his choice of words in describing the hemorrhaging woman, Mark draws her in lines parallel with Jesus, pointing toward the mystery of his suffering and death. Mark uses the verb paschein (v. 25) to describe her suffering, the same verb that Jesus uses to speak of his own passion (8:31; 9:12). In the third passion prediction Jesus says he will be scourged (10:34); she is healed of her “scourge” (mastix, vv. 29, 34; translated in N.A.B. as “affliction,” in N.R.S.V. as “suffering”). Finally, she tells the “whole truth” (v. 33) to Jesus, the truthful teacher (12:14, 32). Just as her faith both saves and heals her (the verb sozein in v. 34 has both connotations), so Jesus’ faithfulness to God brings salvation and healing through and beyond death.
This Gospel does not focus on the boundaries Jesus crossed by letting an unclean woman touch him. Many have read this story in light of Lev 15:19-30 and its proscriptions concerning a woman with discharges “beyond the time of her impurity.” Yet the account in Mark does not say where on her body the woman’s hemorrhage was, nor is ritual purity made an issue in the text. In fact, as a healer, Jesus was always touching and being touched by people who were ritually impure. Most Jews would have been ritually impure most of the time. The only time when it was necessary to be in a state of ritual purity, was when one was going to the Temple. Then, ritual washing and waiting until sundown would remove most kinds of impurities.
Instead, the focus in the Gospel is on faith in the divine power to heal and save that flows through Jesus, which is sometimes manifest in physical healing, and which is mysteriously at work even when beloved daughters and sons pass through death.