The graphic detail of this exorcism, along with the dialogue and spectacular events described, may have led the Church to omit this substantive text on the grounds that given the confines of the Sunday Mass, there would simply be a lack of time to adequately explain all the questions raised. In brief, Mark 5:1-20 describes Jesus’ encounter with a possessed man (generally interpreted today as a form of mental disorder.) This unfortunate man wandering among tombs (demonic haunts), having broken his chains, apparently was a well-known and feared figure in his territory. Mark gives significant detail, including the man’s self-cutting to release his demons. Jesus addresses the demons within him, who identify themselves as “legion,” either many or possibly 100 such spirits. Jesus expels them into a herd of swine, who run down the hillside and hurl themselves into the sea and drown.
The locals are terrified. Commentators in the Jerome Biblical Commentary add, ironically, that they may have been upset about the monetary cost of their herds. Quite a crowd gathers, and in unison they ask Jesus to go away. The possessed man is now cured, communicative, and evidently moved by this dramatic turn of events, and asks the departing Jesus if he can join the Twelve! Jesus instead blesses the man’s own preaching endeavors to the region of the Ten Cities. As Mark has constructed this narrative from a much more modest narrative, it is worthwhile for those of you reading the entire Gospel of Mark to study the text and commentary at close range.
It is upon this incident that Jesus returns to Jewish territory, and here our Sunday reading begins with Jairus’s request on behalf of his seriously ill (but not dead) daughter. Jesus agrees to go to the home in the company of a large crowd, reflecting the importance of Jairus in the community. What makes this narrative so memorable is what happens on the way. Unknown to Jesus, a woman is seeking him out. She is suffering from a hemorrhage that has afflicted her for a dozen years. Mark inserts some catty observations about her doctors, (5:26) observing that they have treated her for years, taken her money, and made her condition progressively worse.
The key point of this episode is the nature of the illness. Menstruation was a time of periodic uncleanness for Jewish women; imagine the plight of a woman for whom this is a constant state. She demonstrates an understandable fear of announcing her condition in front of Jesus and a crowd; and yet, she manifests great faith, with the belief that just touching his garment hem anonymously will bring her the healing of the Kingdom of God.
Wondrous to behold, she is right! Mark emphasizes that the power of God goes forth from Jesus without his knowing it, leading his disciples in an exasperated state when Jesus asks, “Who touched me?” Mark notes that the woman herself was instantly cured, and instantly clean from a ritual standpoint, allowing Jesus to observe the Law while conversing with her and blessing her faith.
As Jesus is concluding this healing episode, word reaches Jairus and the crowd that the girl has in fact died. Jesus, in the face of probably a desolate crowd, indicates that “fear is useless, what is needed is trust.” In this respect Mark has linked the absolute faith of the previously hemorrhaging woman to a group whose faith is weak and eventually deteriorates into scorn. Jesus allows only Peter, James and John (the “A team” in numerous Gospel texts) to witness what happens next. Upon arriving at the house, Jesus must work himself through excessive mourners. Among the affluent, the custom was to hire “professional mourners,” and Jesus disdain for them is only slightly less than for the money changers in the temple.
In the presence of his disciples and the parents, Jesus takes the girl’s hand and commands, “Little girl, get up.” Mark immediately qualifies the term “little girl” by including the fact that “she was a child of twelve.” This is not a simple biographical observation. “Twelve years old” is the age of first menses, give or take, and the evangelist connects these two geographically distant miracles with a common point—the Kingdom of God has been extended to women, in this instance women of child bearing years. Paul may have put this theological principle with more elegance, when he writes that “in Christ there is neither male nor female, Jew or Gentile.” But Mark has made the same point that the Kingdom of God has indeed turned the world upside down, and that women as well as men are full partakers in the Kingdom, now and to come.
It is worth noting that Jesus bids those present not to tell anyone about this miracle (as if it could be hidden), but this is a common command of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel. For some years academics wrote extensively about “The Messianic Secret” characteristic of Mark’s Gospel, but that emphasis has declined significantly in the later twentieth century.