Progressive reflections on the lectionary #24

Mark 5: 21-43 - death and the daughters

Progressive reflections on the lectionary #24

This week the gospel passage is the version of the famous story of the woman with ‘issue of blood’, interwoven with that of Jairus’ daughter, in the gospel according to ‘Mark’.

I think it’s helpful, mainly, to remember these authors are not ‘just one person’. A book like Mark’s gospel has passed through a host of hands before reaching us. Even if we can make a claim that it was written, originally, by a unique individual it’s subsequently been written down and rewritten down, and read out loud and then transcribed, it’s been ‘edited’ and of course translated multiple times over the last two thousand or so years, so it’s not one person’s work (if it ever was). Having said that… I’m going to make a couple of claims about the word play in Mark’s account which might carry more weight if we can claim that the authorial voice can still be heard in some of the minutiae of the writing.

Although Mark is written with an immediacy that gives it the feel of a tabloid newspaper at times, it is, nevertheless, a very sophisticated piece of writing. The author’s clever use of story telling devices means there is lots of space for exploration of the underlying meaning of famous stories like this one.

A brief recap: Jesus gets off a boat (fresh from delivering the Gerasene demoniac) and is asked to go and heal a girl who’s about to die. As he makes his way a crowd pushes in on him and a woman reaches out and touches his cloak - she’s been bleeding for twelve years and in the instant she touches the cloak, she is healed. Jesus exchanges some words with her, then pushes on to the girl who is already dead when he gets to her. He brings her back to life and everyone is astounded - we learn she is twelve years old.

This is another story which takes place on the shore of the sea of Galilee, aka Lake Tiberius, a symbolically important place in political terms.

One of the many interesting things about this particular story is the way that the writer(s) embed one story in the other - they aren’t separate, they’re part of the same narrative. The female body - a piece of property really - is central to this tale in this place of economic contest.

Another interesting thing is the way language is used here. There are linguistic clues like the repeated use of twelve years, and the words that are used for blood, and for suffering, which point the reader in specific directions.

Twelve is such an important number in terms of messianic symbolism. The job of the Messiah was, after all, to restore the twelve tribes, rescuing the chosen people from their imperial domination. But Jesus notably doesn’t do this (in numerous ways its impossible), and instead points to a more global sense of restoration. Anyway, I am arguing this repeated use of twelve is a not very coded referent to the messianic expectation.

Another word that is repeated, and comes through clearly in the translation is ‘daughter’. Both of these women are called daughter - one by Jesus, the other by Jairus. When they are healed they are restored into the complex relationship that daughterhood implies. This word, then, implies a profound sense of relationality: Jesus’ type of restoration is one of relationship. There’s lots one could go at there - what salvation means, for instance, or healing - the nature of womanhood at the time, etc.

Then you have words in the narrative which point to the story of Jesus’ own death. The word that ‘Mark’ uses for blood, for instance, is one that he uses only to refer to the flow of blood from the woman in this story and from Jesus - (he uses it here in verses 25 and 29, and then again to the ‘pouring out’ of Jesus’ own blood). Similarly the way the people are ‘amazed’ when the young girl is resurrected is described in a word (ekstasis) only repeated to describe the scenes among the women at his tomb. It would suit my argument to claim that the writer uses these Greek words very carefully and deliberately, and that they somehow survived the copying and editing process to reach us intact - because I want to say that “Mark” is identifying Jesus with the bodies of these women - perhaps because Jesus is not ‘master of his own destiny’ in that sense.

What I think of as the main ‘thin’ reading of this text is one in which Jesus is seen to have the power to heal - Jesus has ‘the magic touch’. But this is a very surface reading indeed - because a closer examination reveals a more complex, dense piece of writing which is all about relationships. Jesus’ messianic mission is not about the return of the lost children of Israel to the promised land, as so many of his contemporaries will have hoped, rather ‘Mark’ gives us a Jesus who embraces the grander messianic role of restoring broken relationships everywhere.

No more reliance on the divisive, militaristic rule of kings or emperors! Love one another - love your neighbour! This is the way to the promised land - when we live together in harmonious unity, then we are God’s people in God’s place doing God’s work. This restoration extends beyond people too - restoration of relationship with all that lives.

At the same time as telling this story the writer gives us a picture of Jesus’ own sufferings and struggles - ‘Mark’ tells us that the mission of trying to restore broken relationships in the face of imperial tyranny is one which is distinctly costly in physical terms - it is interlinked with the flow of blood and with death itself.

This blog is taken from Simon's Substack email series, to subscribe please go to https://simonjcross.substack.c...

Image: Photo by Lisa Forkner on Unsplash


You must be logged in to comment.

Back to Blog