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Stranded at a Tropical Resort

Mark 5:21-43 is a “frame story,” two stories, one of which forms a frame around the other. The outer story, the frame, is about Jesus healing Jairus' daughter, and the inner story, which is in the frame, is a about a second healing, which happened after Jesus left for Jairus' house and delayed His arrival.

Jesus had just returned from the other side of the Sea of Galilee and because of His growing reputation, a crown gathered around him. By this time in His ministry, He had developed a reputation as a great rabbi, who could teach, heal, and exorcise better than the rest.

A man named Jairus begged Jesus to come to his house to heal his twelve-year-old daughter, so Jesus went with him. Jairus, as one of the leaders of the local synagogue, was a prominent citizen of the community, and his daughter had some status as a “preacher's kid.” Because the crowd had the chance to witness the healing of the prestigious child of a prestigious man in a prestigious place, a large crowd followed Jesus to Jairus’ house. The crowd was so dense it pressed in on Jesus on all sides.

At that point, a woman who had been suffering persistent menstrual bleeding made her way through the crowd to Jesus. Now you might ask, how did the woman get through such a dense crowd? Since there were rabbis constantly teaching Torah to the people, their social norms were governed by it. The answer to my rhetorical question is in Leviticus:

If a woman has a discharge of blood for many days, not at the time of her impurity, or if she has a discharge beyond the time of her impurity, all the days of the discharge she shall continue in uncleanness; as in the days of her impurity, she shall be unclean. Every bed on which she lies during all the days of her discharge shall be treated as the bed of her impurity; and everything on which she sits shall be unclean, as in the uncleanness of her impurity. Whoever touches these things shall be unclean, and shall wash his clothes, and bathe in water, and be unclean until the evening.
—Leviticus 15:25-27, NRSV

Since the woman was unclean, the crowd had to give her wide berth, stepping away from her to avoid becoming unclean themselves. The crowd parted before her like the sea before Moses, which gave her a clear path to Jesus. How did they know she was unclean? It would be better to ask how they could possibly not know. She was a local resident, she had spent a lot of money on doctors, and, of course, people talk. At that point, she was a nobody compared to the synagogue leader's daughter.

From the description of the crowd, there was no particular taboo attached to touching other people, so it took some effort to avoid it. In the United States, people have a lot of personal space. If it even appears that you might accidentally touch someone, you have to apologize. We say “excuse me” as often as Canadians say “sorry.“

In other cultures, casual touching is much less a taboo, and it can even go unnoticed. I was once on a streetcar in another country. The streetcar was blocked by an automobile accident, but it was so crowded that most of the passengers could not see what was going on. A man who was curious to see casually put his hand on the shoulder of another person to support himself so that he could look out the window. The person he touched didn’t even notice.

Is it cruel for society to consider some people unclean? Not really. In a society that is largely indifferent to causal touching, making sick people untouchable can prevent the spread of disease, but menstrual bleeding is not contagious.

Women had very little downtime. They had to tend to their children night and day. After not much sleep, they had to get up early to fetch water from the well, gather firewood, and prepare a meal their families, they had to maintain a cooking fire all day long, and they had to clean house. When a woman was unclean, however, her husband could not place any demands on her. She could sleep in a separate bed without anyone gossiping about it, and she was exempt from all her housework. Her neighbors brought food for her family, watched her children, and cleaned her house. Being unclean had two great advantages for women: it gave them a monthly vacation and a much needed rest, and it bound the community together, because it created a need for people to help each other out.

As side note, the same provisions applied to men when they had nocturnal emissions (that is, “wet dreams,”) so the Torah is even handed.

Jesus said that the Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath, so we can generalize that by saying that that principle applies here as well. Declaring people unclean gives them respite from work and from the demands of society.

It’s a huge crowd. It is so dense, and since people are ignoring the unclean woman, it seems unreasonable for Jesus to ask who touched Him. After all, anyone next to Him was bumping into Him. Jesus did not need to call attention to the woman who reached out to touch His garment or to proclaim that she was healed. No one noticed the woman, no one would have noticed her healing unless Jesus called attention to it.

Jesus feigns not to know who touched his garment to call attention to her, her plight, and her healing—and this causes a sort of social healing also, since everyone can see that she is cleansed.

A few things that should be obvious: The woman was not starving, so her neighbors brought her food. She wasn't poor—at least not in the beginning—because otherwise she would not have had money to pay to the doctors. She suffered from the difference between vacationing in a resort and being stranded in one. If you can't leave, the resort takes on the character of a prison. For example, Tahiti is a nice place to visit, but not if you are stranded there for a month because you can't get a flight home. The woman with the chronic bleeding was like someone stranded at a resort. Her main problem was social isolation.

Since Jesus is the Word who created the universe, the universe must conform itself to His will. Normally, if a sick person touches a healthy person, the healthy person becomes sick. In Jesus’ case, He is so healthy that if a sick person attempts to touch Him, the sick person becomes well right before contact. Hence the woman was cleansed between the time she reached out and the time she touched His garment. If it were in some unimaginable way possible for her to make Him unclean, He would have been unable to enter Jairus’ house or heal his daughter. The people, steeped in the Torah, would not have permitted such a thing.

By calling attention to her, Jesus not only cleanses her, He reinstates her as a member of the community, and cures, not just her bleeding, but her social isolation.

Mark shows us that Jesus fulfills the law that applies to judges deciding cases in court:

Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.
—Leviticus 19:5, NRSV

The grace, goodness, and kindness of God is for everyone, regardless of anything.