After Lent, Paschaltide and several solemn feasts the Lectionary now returns to the continuous reading of Mark, with two of the most vivid miracle stories of that Gospel. Through the familiar technique of sandwiching, two stories are interwoven in a way that enriches both.
The narrative begins with Jairus, a synagogue official who throws himself at the feet of Jesus, begging him to heal his daughter, who is near death. Jesus goes off with Jairus, and the second story begins. In the crowd is a woman, whose suffering Mark vividly describes. She has been afflicted for 12 years with a hemorrhage, most likely some form of vaginal bleeding that ancient medical writers describe as involving great suffering from both the malady and its treatment. She has spent all she had on physicians without any improvement (sounds hauntingly contemporary) and is growing worse. Yet she is a woman of faith and courage and moves through the crowd to touch Jesus.
When she touches him, she is immediately healed, only to hear Jesus ask, Who touched me? Perhaps fearing a rebuke, she comes in fear and trembling, only to hear Jesus’ words: Daughter, your faith has saved you. Go in peace. Salvation and peace are both the actual physical healing and the gifts of the Messianic age.
The first story then resumes with the report of the death of Jairus’ daughter and Jesus’ commands, Do not be afraid; just have faith, reminiscent of the faith embodied in the woman just healed. After a short and vivid description of the wailing mourners, Jesus says, improbably, she has not died but is asleep, and the mourning turns to ridicule. With great tenderness Jesus then brings the child’s parents, enters the room, takes the dead child by the hand and says simply, Little girl, I say to you arise. The young woman arose immediately and walked around. There is then the interesting note that she was 12 years old, which provides the key to the linking of the two stories, since the woman in the crowd had suffered for 12 years.
In the culture of that time 12 was thought to be the marriageable age. The little girl, then, has died before she could become a wife and mother. The woman had suffered an illness that prevented her from bearing children. Jesus not only rescues these women from death, but restores to them their life-giving capacity. Both can bring forth life from their bodies, one racked with disease, the other deprived of life itself. Bringing forth children was seen in Judaism as an imitation of the life-giving power of God and a fulfillment of the command to make the earth fruitful.
The Jesus who emerges from these stories is one who is compassionate in the face of human suffering and who makes the needs of these sufferers the norm for his action, to the disregard of social taboos and conventions. He talks to a woman in public and violates the stringent taboo against touching a corpse.
Faith, especially as embodied by the bleeding woman, can exist in the face of seemingly hopeless situations. These narratives also challenge the church universal to recognize the courageous faith of women and to be on the side of women throughout the world whose human dignity and ability to give and sustain life are threatened by war, disease, abuse and poverty.