The Revised Common Lectionary gospel lesson for Sunday, June 28, 2015 is Mark 5:21-43. The reading has what some call Mark’s bracketing technique, otherwise known as a ‘sandwich,’ or some other way of identifying an initial story that is begun, then interrupted with another story, then completed. The intertwining of these two stories is evident in some ways, subtle in others. I will share some reflections below. If you want more detailed attention to the text, I have updated my translation and verse-by-verse notes from three years ago, which you can find here.
I want to play with an idea, that sounds a little Girardianesque, but I make no claim of knowing Rene Girard’s work well enough to claim this as a “Girardian Interpretation.” For great insights from James Allison and others on the weekly lectionary texts, see girardianlectionary.net. My idea is simply my idea: I don’t want to claim more than that or deny that Girard’s work has been very informative in my own studies.
My idea centers on how one daughter is healed while another dies. Jairus’ daughter, 12 years old, at the age of puberty, growing up in a relatively affluent and privileged home, is near death. As Jesus is accompanying Jairus to his home, the hurried journey is interrupted by a woman who, for 12 years, has been ritually unclean, beset by the “scourge” (see my exegesis) of bleeding, victimized by physicians, and impoverished by seeking help. The fact that she has lived with this scourge for 12 years means – among other things – that she will not die from it. Rather, it will continue to debilitate and impoverish her. It is ‘a living death’ if you will.
Within the bracketing of the stories, the bleeding woman is healed and Jairus’ daughter dies simultaneously. Whether there might have been lead time or lag time in real time is beside the point, because when Mark uses the bracketing technique it is proof that story-telling is the thing. One could say, then, that in terms of Mark’s formulaic composition, one dies so that others may live. I do not claim that this is a community-enacted ritual of appeasing resentment, such as Girard’s Generative Mimetic Scapegoating Mechanism describes. But, it does reflect a kind of rationalization of the necessary death of one in order that another may live, which often happens under the Myth of Scarcity, which posits unlimited need and limited resources. Jesus can’t be two places at once, so the death of Jairus’ daughter is the price for his healing of the bleeding woman. The other alternative would be to outpace the bleeding woman in order to get to Jairus’ daughter in time, and her perpetual suffering would be the necessary sacrifice in order for the young girl to be healed. Perhaps it is more akin to Sophie’s choice than Girard’s theory, but Myth of Scarcity seems related to Girard’s work on scapegoating.
By positing one story within the other and making them simultaneous stories, Mark is – at least formulaically – positing an either/or for the healing of the two “daughters.” But, of course, we know – much to the derision of the ancient wailers and modern skeptics alike – that Jesus visits Jairus’ daughter, declared her death to be more like sleep than a mortal end, and raises her. In doing so, the either/or is overcome. The Myth of Scarcity is overcome. The daughters both are made whole – one with a daring act of desperate faith; the other amid scorn and skepticism.
But, this is more than a formulaic way of heralding Magic Jesus or Super Jesus, able to leap tall buildings and heal two daughters in one story. Something happens to Jesus in this story. If I’m reading my Old Testament correctly, Jesus becomes ritually unclean when the bleeding woman grabs his garment. Jairus’ daughter becomes the same when Jesus takes her hand. I am revising this earlier thought: Taking the hand of a dead person is also an act that leaves one ritually unclean. Jesus, in both cases, defiles himself in order to bring healing. All the shabazz about ritual purity and impurity is the first casualty of this story.
I would suggest that ritual purity laws – not their original intention, which I suspect was intended for sustaining community health and limiting infection – became something that impedes the reign of God and requires overturning if we are ever to break out of the cycle of the either/or thinking of the Myth of Scarcity. I would argue that for Mark not just the intertwining, but the order of these stories is important. The need of the daughter of privilege – Jairus would have been among the upper crust of Jewish society – yields to the need of the impoverished, unclean daughter of suffering. That is not how the Myth of Scarcity usually works. The young one has everything to live for while the older one is much farther along the road - that’s what appeases our conscience about choosing one over the other. How radical, then, that Jesus interrupts helping Jairus’ daughter – a fatal decision, it turns out – to be in impure solidarity with the bleeding woman, also a daughter, whose fierce faith and desperation drives her.
Solidarity with the suffering, even at the price of becoming ritually impure, is the cost of overcoming the Myth of Scarcity. That’s a heavy message to ponder this week.