In these verse Mark uses one of his favorite techniques, sandwiching one story between two parts of another. Today’s devotion focuses on the middle story of the woman who touched Jesus’ garment. I’ve included in the reading the first part of the other story for context. The two stories are closely linked, and in this ‘Markan sandwich’, as Tom Wright suggests, “The flavor of the outer story adds zest to the inner one; the taste of the of the inner one is meant in turn to permeate the outer one” (Mark for Everyone 2004, p. 58). The ‘sandwich’ stories of Jairus (one of the few named characters in Mark) and the unnamed woman are a lesson about some of the social norms of the kingdom of God. Today’s teaching on kingdom norms doesn’t come in the words Jesus uses (he speaks only 42 out of a total of 464 words in my English NRSV), but in how he treats the two main characters in the story. Jesus upends social norms, ignores religious barriers and taboos, and makes compassion the central guiding rule.
In Leviticus 12, women’s menstruation was listed as unclean and during it the woman was not to be touched. Constant haemorrhages was related to menstruation and thus unclean, and the haemorrhaging woman would be avoided and treated as an outcast. The woman in today’s lesson lived with the stigma of being unclean for 12 years.
Prepare to listen. Sit still, take a few deep breaths then pray: Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. (Psalm 25:4)
Read Mark 5:21-34
21 When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered round him; and he was by the lake. 22 Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet 23 and 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. 25 Now there was a woman who had been suffering from haemorrhages for twelve years. 26 She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. 27 She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, 28 for she said, ‘If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.’ 29 Immediately her haemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. 30 Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, ‘Who touched my clothes?’ 31 And his disciples said to him, ‘You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, “Who touched me?”’ 32 He looked all round to see who had done it. 33 But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. 34 He said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.’
In most societies, if not all, there is something like an honor and shame social system. In some societies it’s very rigid, as in the Indian caste system or the apartheid years in South Africa. In many societies it’s an unwritten code that assumes certain people, because of status, wealth, gender, ethnicity, etc., are deserving of more than others. We don’t use the terms ‘honor’ and ‘shame’ but, let’s be honest, we do practice something similar. That’s how life worked in the Palestine of Jesus’ day. Thus, a man who was one of the synagogue rulers expected to be treated with honor and respect, while a woman with an unclean disease would expect to be shamed, ignored and chased away.
This explains Jairus’ bold approach to Jesus. He confidently fell on his knees before him, as was appropriate for a man asking a favor, and 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.’ The fact that he begged Jesus ‘repeatedly’ suggests Jesus’ reluctance to conform to the accepted social norms, even though, in the end, he let Jairus interrupt his plans for the day.
The woman, on the other hand, approached Jesus secretly, too ashamed to hope for a welcome. She lacked Jairus’ boldness to interrupt an important and popular rabbi, Jesus, and beg for healing. Her only chance, she fearfully yet courageously thought, was to secretly touch his robe. You’ll notice how Mark highlights the reversal of social norms. He merely states that Jairus was one of the synagogue rulers, but describes the woman’s condition in detail, with five descriptive phrases (vv 25-26). In doing so, he has placed the woman, rather than the man at the center of the story.
Silently approaching Jesus, the woman made one hesitant touch and ‘immediately her haemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease.’ And immediately Jesus was aware power had gone from him and stopped dead in his tracks. He asked, ‘Who touched my clothes?’ He ignored his disciples somewhat sarcastic comment about a crowd crushing in on him and kept looking all round until the woman came forward. She ‘came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth.’ Expecting a rebuke, because a woman in her condition must not approach a rabbi, let alone touch him, she was surprised to hear Jesus loudly commend her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.’
Jesus broke all social norms when he paused for the sake of one person relegated to the bottom of the social ladder because of her gender and ritually unclean disease, rather than pushing on to attend to the urgent need of Jairus’ daughter. This upending of social norms is the significance of these two stories. Mark is showing us the new ways of the kingdom of God where the so-called ‘honor’ class (whatever that may be in your culture) isn’t given priority over the so-called ‘shame’ class. In fact, Jesus gave priority to someone many would sideline, even today. He has reversed the expected and acceptable norms. The woman came from the bottom of the honor scale, intruded on Jesus’ mission to heal the daughter of one who was at the top of it.
Her story has a surprising ending, which shouldn’t surprise us. It’s not her healing, as great as that was, that forms the climax but Jesus naming her daughter, (a woman probably old enough to be his mother!) and commending her faith for all to hear. In doing so, he gave her a “status superior to that of Jesus’ own disciples, who are ‘without faith’ (4:40)!” (Myers 2015, p 201-2). The public pronouncement of her healing was also intended for the crowd. They now knew she was no longer unclean to be rejected and avoided. Instead, she was to be treated with dignity and respect. She could walk home through the crowd; touch people as she went, and they could no longer push her away in anger. Jesus’ compassion restored, not only her physical health, but also her social and emotional and spiritual health.
Step into this nameless woman’s shoes and imagine her thoughts and emotions before and after her extraordinary encounter with Jesus. What do you now think of Jesus?
Who are the ‘honor/shame’ class in your society. Choose to live Jesus’ way by refusing to pigeonhole people into honor or shame.
Respond to Jesus in prayer
Lord Jesus, help me today be a good citizen of your kingdom by rejecting social norms that treat people differently based on wealth, race, creed, gender, education, etc. Help me give priority to whom you would give priority. For the sake of your kingdom, Amen.
Go and live obediently in the world as a kingdom citizen.