Jesus and Two Very Different Women (Part I)

Byzantine Mosaic,
Ravenna, Italy, 6th century

One of the most dramatic stories in the Gospels is Jesus’ encounter with two desperate people who are out to find him and two women, one young and one old, who have their lives changed by him. This story can be found in Luke 8:40-56 and Mark 5:21-43.

The context for these encounters is very important. Jesus and his disciples have just returned from “the other side” of the Sea of Galilee, an experience discussed in my last post (May 6, 2013). During this confrontation with the demon-possessed man, Jesus heals and restores him, but in the process has been “defiled” in the eyes of Jewish religious laws. Because of his exposure to a “legion” of demons and his time on pagan soil — particularly in a cemetery, Jesus needs to be “purified” according to local customs practiced by observant Jews.

Luke tells us that crowds of people were waiting for Jesus to return because the news of his miracles had spread and he was very popular in the area around Capernaum, his new base of operations in Galilee. As the crowds gather around him, a remarkable event takes place.

Jairus, the lay president of the Capernaum synagogue, who is probably very wealthy and very prominent, makes his way through the crowd and, to everyone’s surprise, falls at Jesus’ feet and begs him to come to his house because his twelve-year old daughter is desperately ill. Here is a desperate man, so desperate he is willing to risk his reputation and his standing in the community, especially among the religious leaders of this region, for the sake of his only child.

Mark tells us that Jairus pleaded with Jesus and said, “My little daughter is dying. Please come and put your hands on her so that she will be healed and live” (5:23). Despite knowing Jesus has been defiled and needs to be “purified,” Jairus asks defiled Jesus to touch his daughter. Jesus agrees to do so and starts on his way to Jairus’ home.

Then the unexpected happens. As the crowds is pressing in on him, another desperate person takes a dramatic action that stops everything. A woman who has been hemorrhaging for twelve years and who has spent all that she has on doctors who have been unable to heal her, also made her way through the crowd; her goal is to touch one of the prayer tassels on Jesus’ robe.

It is important to understand this woman’s circumstances. Because of her hemorrhaging, she is considered “unclean” and therefore prohibited from worshipping with others and from touching anyone else, since they then will be “unclean.”

Because of the prohibitions against her touching others in light of her disease, and similar prohibitions against a woman even touching men other than her husband, she decides that if she can touch one of his tassels, she may be healed and no one will notice. And she’s right! She touches the tassel on Jesus’ prayer shawl and immediately realizes that she has been healed, unnoticed by anyone, she thinks.

But then Jesus stops and says “Who touched me?” He turns around to face the crowd that is pressing on him, and the healed woman realizes she must identify herself. She comes before him, “trembling with fear,” and tells Jesus “the whole truth” (Mark 5:33).

As my colleague Doug Greenwold (Senior Teaching Fellow at Preserving Bible Times) notes, “Jesus is never content to just rescue a person. He also wants that person to be fully restored.” Jesus knows the answer to his question, but by asking he is making it clear to everyone that she has been healed and restored and can once again fully participate in this community of faith.

When Jesus speaks with her, he calls her “daughter” – a magnificent sign of affection toward someone who has suffered so much, but is now healed. And then he tells her to “go in peace” (shalom).

But what about the dying daughter of the prominent synagogue leader? Jesus was on his way to Jairus’ house when this interruption takes place. Yet Jesus does not criticize the woman with the hemorrhaging problem for bothering him while he is responding to the request of an important leader. Jesus focuses on her because he is a compassionate leader, who also wants to teach his disciples (and us) how to live a life of mercy and grace.

How about Jairus, whose heart must be breaking when Jesus’ approach to his house is interrupted? More on this in my next post – stay tuned!

So What?

  • One of the most powerful insights I gained from this dramatic story is how the “interruption” of the bleeding woman becomes a divine opportunity. Jesus is on his way to Jairus’ house, but he is willing to stop and deal mercifully with an unnamed woman whose life of suffering had gone on for twelve years. Jesus heals her, announces her restoration to the community for all to hear, and only then continues his walk to meet Jairus’ sick twelve-year-old daughter. This is a lesson I need to learn, because I do not like interruptions, especially when I am working on an “important task.” I am slowly learning to change my ways.
  • Another “take-away” is Jesus’ divine impartiality – this message comes through very dramatically in this story. One of the most powerful leaders in the Jewish community in Capernaum comes to Jesus asking for healing for his dying daughter and Jesus responds. But when a desperate unnamed woman who was isolated from the community because of her hemorrhaging touches him, he does not say, “Sorry, I am busy. I am helping a leader in this community where I have established my headquarters, so I need to make him a priority.”
  • The way in which Jesus values people is so unusual. His entire three-year ministry makes this clear. People, regardless of their social status, are equally valued, and Jesus especially treats women with dignity in a culture where they are normally second-class citizens. What an amazing teacher! This is truly the “Prince of Peace.”