JESUS AND WOMEN
Sunday, March 8, 2009
Deborah K. Blanks, Guest Lectionary Commentator
Associate Dean of Religious Life and of the Chapel, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ
Lection – Mark 5:25-34 (New Revised Standard Version)
(v. 25) Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. (v. 26) She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. (v. 27) She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, (v. 28) for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” (v. 29) Immediately her hemorrhages stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. (v. 30) Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” (v. 31) And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’” (v. 32) He looked all round to see who had done it. (v. 33) But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. (v. 34) He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”
I. Description of the Liturgical Moment
This very familiar passage of scripture is appointed in the lectionary cycle during Ordinary Time.1 Ordinary Time is that season during the liturgical year that falls outside of Advent, Christmas, Easter or Lent. The name comes from the word ordinal, meaning numbered, because the Sundays of Ordinary Time are cited numerically. Some scholars assert that Ordinary Time, especially the Sundays, are devoted to the mystery of Jesus Christ in all its aspects. The lectionary’s creator, Martha Simmons, has said in public, “Given the history of African Americans, the fact that we are still here and often thriving and, given how often we’ve cried and knew no one but Jesus heard us, explains why there is no ‘Ordinary Time’ in The African American Lectionary cycle. For us, there is no such thing as ‘Ordinary Time’.”
And when Jesus and the women in Mark’s gospel encounter each other, it’s not an ordinary moment either; mighty miracles take place. A unique and distinctive relationship is evident in this particular passage as the persevering power of faith encounters the mercy of God in Christ to heal, save, and ultimately transform. Jesus breaks down the barriers of exclusion and marginalization to indicate that all are welcome into God’s circle of promise and possibility. The Jesus of the ancient text continues to extend agape love of God to women of the twenty-first century who dare to persevere in “the press” and, in so doing, be reminded that nothing can separate us from the love of God. In the services for this Sunday, the love of Jesus for women is highlighted and celebrated while all believers are encouraged to press on in faith towards the Savior.
II. Biblical Interpretation for Preaching and Worship: Mark 5:25-34
Part One: The Contemporary Contexts of the Interpreter
March is Women’s History Month. Whenever I reflect upon Jesus and women, I embrace in a deeply personal way the reality of One who personifies eternal egalitarianism. In Mount Vernon, New York, the city of my childhood, I attended an independent Pentecostal church under the leadership of a woman who was the pastor, Mother Richardson. Each Sunday, this very tall woman with a deep resonant voice thundered forth the message of God with power and authority. She had one recurring question that permeated her sermons, “Didn’t he do it?” There was a sense, as I sat in the pew and listened intently, that this woman knew God and was known by God, and as I listened, I knew that I was known, too. She emphasized in her preaching that God was real and revealed personally through Jesus Christ. As a young African American girl being reared by my grandfather and cared for by two wonderful sisters, I was hearing firsthand that I was not unknown or unnamed in the eyes of the Eternal. I was a daughter with kingdom access, and all things were divinely possible in life. Jesus’ spirit of inclusion speaks to people of the African Diaspora, reminding all that we should never be barred by gender, confined by culture, or pulverized by patriarchy—God through Christ welcomes all.
Part Two: Biblical Commentary
Mark’s gospel, written in the late 60s CE, is thought to be the oldest of the New Testament gospels. Scholars have differing opinions regarding an exact date, but they believe that the persecution of Christians during Nero’s reign and the Jewish revolt against imperialism was the likely period in which this biographical source on the life of Jesus was penned. Mark writes vividly with great intention and purpose. He wants the reader to see Jesus in action as he encounters those who need divine deliverance.
This pericope in Mark’s gospel is expanded (5:21-43) and is essentially a miracle story within a story. There are two narratives about two persons of female gender who intersect as Jesus transforms the situation and circumstance for both. The two people are a persevering woman who suffered for twelve years with an incurable bleeding disease, and the unnamed daughter of Jairus, a ruler, who is a twelve year-old critically ill girl causing her father to seek out Jesus to heal her. Each one is in need of something supernatural to change the course of their lives. Both are faced with the expert opinions of physicians and doomsayers declaring that their situations are beyond help. Suspense in the narrative is heightened, because Jesus is en route to the home of Jairus, the ruler, to bring healing to the afflicted body of the young twelve year-old. The significance of Jesus’ ministry, to the ritually unclean woman, is heightened by the fact that he allows it to interrupt his service to Jairus a synagogue leader. Laws in the book of Leviticus had rendered the bleeding woman unclean (Lev. 12:1-8; 15:19-30), which meant that she lived a life of segregation and marginalization. There was excommunication from her ethnic heritage, social isolation, and separation from her spiritual birthright. Her physical condition stigmatized every aspect of her life.2
What makes the story of this sister who is not named in Mark’s gospel so compelling is that she will not be deterred or dissuaded from obtaining the blessing that she sought from the revolutionary Rabbi from Nazareth. Through enormous crowds she presses to touch the hem of a garment. The intense conviction that if she only touches Jesus’ garments she would be made whole was undoubtedly part of the whole truth, which the woman declared before Jesus (v. 33). She may have known that others had touched him and been made well (Ch. 3:10: 6:56). At the exact moment that she reaches out in faith, the seemingly impossible becomes possible—she experiences the cessation of her hemorrhage and knows that she is healed.3
The heart of this text is evident in the boldness of faith resident in the bleeding woman and the infinite compassion of Jesus to be sensitive to the surge of God’s power that went out of him. Amid the hurrying to Jairus’ house, he takes time to stop and converse with the woman who is unnamed in scripture. His message is clear -- that the unnamed woman is of no less importance than the ill daughter of a person of power. She becomes a perpetual reminder that the socially marginal have a conspicuous place in the realization of God’s reign.4
African Americans in the United States of America know firsthand the exclusion, marginalization, and systemic segregation which have rendered a disproportionate number of the African Diaspora to have limited equity and access—we too are bleeding. If the reality were different, countless members would be able to live God-ordained and American-dreamed abundant lives. The reign of God as revealed in the text suggests that when we make a “by any means necessary” move by executing a radical, courageous, and bold move of faith (press!), we are enabled to find miracles in unexpected places. The audacious reign of God will not be deterred, so that the kingdom might come on earth as it is in heaven.
Jesus called a woman unnamed in scripture from the shadows of anonymity. He called her “daughter,” a designation that signifies kinship, relationship and lineage. Her touch of the hem of his garment in faith, healed her bleeding. His words healed her soul. With Jesus, the bleeding that ravages humanity can be stopped as we press beyond what is to what should be. As we press, heaven and earth will exchange a holy kiss. As we press, divinity will perform a dance on the stage of eternity. As we press, grace and mercy will give thunderous applause – and the kingdom will come!
The descriptive details in this passage include:
Sights: A large crowd following and pressing closely to Jesus (v. 24); the woman pressing her way through the crowd; the woman pulling the hem of Jesus’ garment; the woman falling before Jesus when it is realized that something supernatural has transpired (v.33); the look on Jesus’ face when he realized that something supernatural has happened; and
Sounds: The disciples questioning Jesus about his reaction to a touch (v. 31).
1. For more information about Ordinary Time related to the Revised Common Lectionary, see Bennett, David. “Ordinary Time: All About Ordinary Time.” Online location: http://www.churchyear.net/ordinary.html accessed 12 December 2008
2. Williamson, Lamar. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1983. p. 108.
3. Lane, William L. The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel of Mark. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974. p. 192.
4. Gaventa, Beverly R. Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV-Year B. Louisville, KY: Westminister/John Knox, 1993. p. 410.