A Tale of Two Daughters

Readings: Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-15, 2:23-24; Psalm 30; 2 Corinthians 8:7-15; Mark 5:21-43

You may have noticed that Jesus sometimes commands people not to tell others about him, and especially about the miracles that he does. Mark is the gospel that contributes this theme to the tradition. In Mark, when Jesus casts out a demon, he silences the creature before it can spill the beans about His identity. He heals a leper, then commands him not to tell anyone. After Jesus is transfigured in front of some disciples, He commands them not to tell anyone until after the resurrection. Now that strikes most people as odd, because we’re used to thinking of Jesus’ life-work as sort of like a Billy Graham crusade with its goal being to convert as many people as possible. The other gospels say that after Jesus’ resurrection He commands His disciples to spread the Gospel far and wide; but by way of contrast, Mark presents Jesus as keeping his head down, trying to go unnoticed … as he goes about doing all kinds of crazy things which are not exactly designed for stealth. It raises the question: if Mark’s Jesus is so keen to keep a low profile, why is he constantly on the move, healing and casting out demons everywhere he goes?

Scholars over a century ago dubbed this the “Messianic secret” in Mark, and developed two explanations for it, one historical and one theological. Historically, if Jesus was as obviously the Messiah as he is made out to be in the Gospels, then why didn’t most Jews at the time believe it? To that question Mark provides an answer: maybe Jesus commanded His disciples to keep his true identity a secret until after the Resurrection. This explains why Jesus’ following during his lifetime was negligible, but afterwards quickly spread. More important than the historical reason, though, is a theological concern. Mark wants to reveal one of the central mysteries of faith: that the power of Jesus is already at work in the world, secretly, bringing life and healing and salvation. Usually Jesus goes unnoticed, working behind the scenes, underneath perception, almost like it’s a secret. Like a little yeast that works its way into the whole batch of dough and voila, the whole batch is leavened! Or like a farmer who scatters seed in her field and waters it, and then it just grows; it’s a mystery. Actually it shouldn’t be too surprising that Mark’s Jesus stays hidden: He comes to us hidden, too, in sacramental forms of bread and wine and in the persons of our fellow Christians; He comes to us hidden whenever we meet people who seem of no account — the sick and the dying, the poor, the hungry, prisoners. The whole world regards such people as dismissible. Only with eyes opened by God’s Spirit do we begin to be able to see Jesus walking in our midst; only with the ears quickened by the Holy Spirit can we hear and obey Jesus’ voice.

The two “daughters” in Mark’s story constitute the yin and yang of Christian life, the passive and the active reception of Jesus’ presence. Jesus tenderly calls the daughter of Jairos “talitha,” “little girl” or “sweetie.” She’s either dead or so close to it as to fool everyone, so clearly she does nothing to receive Jesus’ gift of new life. Her father, though, humbles himself before Jesus and pleads with him to come and heal his daughter.[1] Oddly, Jesus does not commend the man’s faith. Here's another oddity, Jesus does commend the faith of the woman in the little story that interrupts the narrative flow, inserting between the beginning and end of the Jairos-and-his-daughter story this story about a woman who has battled not only the physical hardships of twelve years’ blood loss but also the religious impurity that a flow of blood produces. As a practical matter, this woman would have been unable to move among other people without causing hardship, and would almost certainly have been shunned as a result. Yet she brazenly steps forward and touches Jesus’ clothes in the belief that doing so would cure her. And she’s right. Jesus immediately senses power go forth from him and uncovers the truth of her action. Then he speaks a word of such grace to her, “Daughter, your faith saved you.” Think of it! Instead of relegating her to the status of just some random person in the crowd, Jesus calls her “daughter,” a close family member, someone important, establishing with one word a whole relationship of care. I imagine them embracing as Jesus tells her to go in peace.

Such a structure where one story is sandwiched inside the beginning and end of another story, is called an inclusio. It’s quite common in Scripture and Mark is an acknowledged master of the form. The key to understanding these inclusios is to look for ways in which the two stories explicate and comment on one another. The inclusio is set up in the first place by the change of location, crossing the sea at the beginning and then returning to His home end of the narrative. The parallel is highlighted by calling both women “daughter.” Jesus is to heal Jairos’ daughter by laying his hands upon her (5:23), and the other unnamed woman reaches out and touches Jesus’ robe. The little girl is twelve years old; the woman has experienced her affliction for twelve years. The young daughter is a passive recipient of mercy because of her father’s pleading and because of Jesus’ grace and power. The woman with the flow of blood actively presses her claim upon Jesus, not because she thinks she has a right but simply because her need is so deep. Both women, the passive and the active, receive what they need exactly as they need it. Both women receive from Jesus a term of endearment. The older woman is called “daughter” to remind us to look at the story of Jairos’s daughter. These two women symbolize the power death has over humanity. Both of them are saved by Jesus from death, literal death and figurative death in the form of debilitating sickness. Jesus invades the world and throws down its powerful evil rulers, who conquers them all with his Truth and his poured out lifeblood. That blood has been shed, that Truth proclaimed, that Kingdom of God is growing up secretly alongside the apparently powerful kingdoms of the world. But sometimes it sure doesn’t feel that way. We’re supposed to be the victors in this crusade, so why does it sometimes feel like we’re losing ground?

“In the midst of life we are in death,” says the Burial Office. All of us are somewhere on the path that our physical bodies are taking through the world, and death lurks we know not when or where, and so we seek the shelter of the God who walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death. Come back to the Gospel: both of these daughters were in the midst of death at the beginning and then are delivered from it by the end. In the midst of death, we find that Jesus is our life. When we’re stricken by terrors and wickedness and disease and war, we find that Jesus is our life. When we’re bleeding for twelve years straight and half starved and fully starved of human contact, and we feel like God is off somewhere listening to harp music, we see Jesus and we hear his cry from the cross and we know that he’s right there crucified beside us, showing us how to live. In the mist of death we are in life, if we are in God; but also in the midst of life we are in death, unable to provide life for ourselves, dependent absolutely on God’s bounty. Sometimes we may feel particularly energetic or focused, so we reach out in prayer and touch Jesus’ clothing; sometimes, though, it’s all we can do just to wait because we’ve tried every solution we can think of and now we’ve no choice but to leave ourselves and our world in God’s hands. And then he sends us out into the world to become part of his work. And what does that work look like in actual practice? “your abundance at the present time should supply their needs, so that their abundance may also supply your needs.” Not by converting others at big “crusades,” but by the slow, steady conversion of our minds and our wills to the claims of the Gospel. When others see the Gospel played out authentically in our lives, their own hearts and minds will begin the process of conversion. The secret is out: wherever you encounter goodness and beauty, wherever you witness acts of mercy and healing, whenever you find yourself aware that you have succeeded in being kind, where refugees and families endure uncertainty and hatred, and especially when we gather ourselves together in this place and especially around this altar, in all our brokenness and neediness, Jesus is right here among us doing what he always does, and showing us how to do likewise. Pay attention, and I bet you’ll meet Him soon; keep paying attention and Lord knows what can happen.


[1] Mark and Luke record that she was still alive at this time, though Matthew (9:18) has Jairos telling Jesus from the beginning that his daughter was dead.