Text Study for Mark 5:21-43 (Pt. 4); 5 Pentecost B 2021

Another Markan Sandwich

This passage is the textbook example of Mark’s preference for intercalation – the placement of one story inside of and in connection with another story. This is often referred to as the “Markan sandwich.” “This method of storytelling invites the reader to compare and contrast the outer and inner stories,” writes David Malick, “resulting in a new story outcome that includes, but also transcends, the component stories. A key to interpreting an intercalation is to recognize the way in which the writer has brought the two stories together, and yet holds them apart,” Malick continues, “to produce an interpretation of the stories.”

We’ve looked at each of the stories separately and in some detail. Now, let’s look at these stories in connection to one another. Robin Branch’s 2014 article is a helpful summary of these connections.

Photo by Ahmed Rabea on Pexels.com

First, let’s look at a number of similarities in detail in the stories. Both stories involve women at the center of the drama. Neither of the women is named, although each woman is a “daughter” in either a figurative or literal way. Each story is a healing of some kind. The number 12 is significant in each story. Each situation is desperate and seems to be irresolvable. Both the woman and Jairus kneel in Jesus’ presence in fear and homage.

There is some sort of touch involved in the healing. Branch notes that the flow of life is from Jesus to the woman and the girl. Neither “contaminates” Jesus with uncleanness or death. In each situation, the response is immediate, but there is conversation that follows. Each story involves faith and some description of its role in the healing. There is also some measure of incredulousness in each story. There is fear and amazement in each story. In each story the woman is restored to a community. The woman is “saved” (the literal meaning of the word translated as “healed”).

Jesus shows compassion regardless of personal honor and status. Both women have been part of the Jewish covenant community but are in danger of being excluded. Both the woman and Jairus interrupt and deflect Jesus on his journey. Both the woman and Jairus receive discouraging advice or news from others, and Jesus discounts that advice in each case. Both have heard about Jesus and initially seek him out because of what they’ve heard.

Second, let’s look at the contrasts in the stories. The woman in the crowd is of low social status in several ways. Jairus is a person of relatively high social status in the village setting. As Branch notes, Jairus is easily recognized in the crowd, while the woman is able to move about incognito. The woman seeks to secure her healing covertly, while Jairus requests healing for his daughter “publicly” and repeatedly. The woman has waited for twelve years. Jairus needs to wait for a few minutes more.

As I’ve noted previously, commentators disagree about the ritual purity status of the woman in the crowd and the impact of that status on how we read the text. But there is some difference, certainly, in how Jairus and the woman in the crowd interact with the synagogue community. Branch notes that Jairus would be sought after and included because of his position of power. The woman was likely ignored and thus excluded from communities.

The woman in the crowd gets Jesus’ immediate attention. Jairus, on the other hand, has to wait (and wait and wait) for anything to happen. We get to listen in on the thoughts of the woman in the crowd in great detail. We don’t get that information regarding Jairus’ internal state. Instead, we hear him speak publicly. Jairus approaches Jesus face to face. The woman comes up to Jesus from behind.

Jairus has a home, a family, and a daughter he loves. The woman in the crowd appears to be not only alone but also isolated and alienated. She is, as Branch suggests, perhaps homeless and likely in quite poor health overall. Jairus asks Jesus to come and lay hands on his daughter. The woman in the crowd touches Jesus on her own. Jairus is likely to have been well-off financially. The woman in the crowd is destitute, having spent all her resources on failed attempts to be made well.

The woman in the crowd is healed in public, and Jesus publicly commends her faith. Jairus’ daughter is healed in private, and Jairus is gently reprimanded in public for his faltering faith. The woman in the crowd has only heard reports of Jesus’ healing power, and she comes to him on the basis of those reports. Jairus witnesses that healing power firsthand and is still shaky in his response to Jesus.

Mark uses the story of the woman in the crowd to instruct and encourage Jairus in his faith – his resilient reliance on Jesus in the face of despair and death. We see, as Branch notes, that the woman wanted to get healed and melt back into the crowd. But she was “saved,” not merely healed. Her interaction with Jesus was about transformation, not merely transaction. She walked away a different person, not just a healed body. Jairus watches and learns to expect the same outcome.

“The two stories of Jairus’ daughter and the woman in the crowd show this: an encounter with Jesus changes a person, Branch (2014) writes, “and tangentially changes many people.” Branch notes that both the woman and the daughter are returned to their communities. The woman becomes a member of Jesus “kin-dom,” a royal gesture. The healings will have ripples that resonate in the community for the rest of the lives of each of the women.

What sorts of homiletical bites can we take out of this Markan sandwich? This is certainly a story of the last being first and the first last – that God shows no partiality to human status and hierarchy. Death is the great equalizer.

This is another Markan story about the nature of faith as resilient reliance on Jesus in the face of despair and death. The woman in the crowd is a picture of persistence, courage, initiative, and hope. Jairus, for his part, asks Jesus repeatedly for help, not just one time. There is no condemnation for their fear and despair, but there is the invitation to move beyond that fear into trust.

That resilient reliance on Jesus has a “pushy” edge to it. In her 2014 article, Branch describes the woman in the crowd as having chutzpah – the willingness to put herself forward. She may have feared the possible response, but she was not to be put off. I’m struck by how often Jesus commends what we would consider “pushy” or aggressive behavior and calls it “faith.” I think of the story of the assertive widow in Luke 18. What if our own experience of relating to Jesus had a bit more of that edge to it – wrestling with God until we receive a blessing (like Jacob in Genesis)?

This is another Markan story about the power and reality of witness in the community. We know these stories because they were told. And they are not merely stories of healing and resuscitation. They are stories of transformation and salvation. I know people who have experienced genuine healing and transformation in their meetings with Jesus. I think that our worship services need more times for such testimonies to encourage us all not to fear but just to keep on trusting.

Speaking of transformation, we can see that authentic encounters with Jesus cannot be merely transactional. That’s an important word for us, perhaps. Too often we disciples come to Jesus with our part of the bargain well in hand. We expect to do our part – whether in piety, practice, or payment – and to get our reward in return. We may expect our circumstances to improve, but we don’t really wish for our lives to be changed.

What if we come knowing that any and every genuine encounter with Jesus changes us in body, mind, and spirit? What if we come expecting to be challenged and changed whenever we meet Jesus? How would that impact my experience of hearing sermons and receiving the sacrament? How would that affect the way I pray? How would that change my interaction with God’s Word in Scripture? How would that change my expectation of what happens when I meet Jesus in my neighbor?

The word to Jairus is clearly the word to us as well – do not be afraid! Just keep on putting your faith in Jesus. In that relationship Jairus is changed, as is the woman in the crowd. What if we come to our encounters with Jesus expecting never to leave the same as we arrived?

Oh, so much to preach, and so little time! Certainly, we preachers will need to pick and choose wisely from this rich and rewarding text. We haven’t even gotten to the contrast between the woman in the crowd and the crowd at Nazareth in chapter 6! Fortunately, this text comes back around again, so keep good notes on the ideas you have that don’t make it into this year’s message. You will likely get another whack at this one in three years!

Resources and References

Branch, Robin Gallaher. (2013). A study of the woman in the crowd and her desperate courage (Mark 5:21-43). In die Skriflig 47(1), 319-331. Retrieved June 16, 2021, from http://www.scielo.org.za/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S2305-08532013000100032&lng=en&tlng=en.

Branch, Robin Gallaher (2014). ‘Literary Comparisons and Contrasts in Mark 5:21−43’, In die Skriflig 48(1), Art. #1799, 9 pages. http://dx.doi. org/10.4102/ids.v48i1.1799.

Gaiser, Frederick J. “In Touch with Jesus: Healing in Mark 5:21–43.” Word & World, Volume 30, Number 1 (Winter 2010), pp. 5-15.

Malick, David. “An Examination of Jesus’ View of Women through Three Intercalations in the Gospel of Mark.” Priscilla Papers, Vol. 27, No. 3 (Summer 2013), pp. 4-15.

Moss, Candida R. “The Man with the Flow of Power: Porous Bodies in Mark 5:25-34.” Journal of Biblical Literature 129, no. 3 (2010): 507-519.

Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

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