Today we meet two women, one entering into her femininity, the other older than her years for all she had suffered. The young had a powerful father to defend her. The latter, anonymous and ashamed of her condition, seemed caught between the need to hide and her desire to flourish.
Jairus, the father of the 12-year-old, fell before Jesus begging him to lay his hands on his daughter. The older woman slipped behind Jesus, convinced that any contact with him would be enough to heal her.
Rarely do the Gospels so blatantly place one complete story within another, but Mark recorded these incidents this way, and Matthew and Luke followed suit. In larger inclusions, such as the healing of blind people in Mark 8 and 10, the difference between the two stories illuminates the material between them. Here, the story of the woman takes center stage as a subtle commentary on the other.
In the incident with Jairus’ family, everything was clear: Jesus took the young woman by the hand, told her to get up, and she got up. Jesus fulfilled Jairus’ request. It is reminiscent of Mark 2 when some men took down a roof to position their paralyzed friend in front of Jesus. In both cases, the petitioners went to great lengths to bring Jesus’ attention to someone in dire straits.
Jairus’ story was simple and clear, complete without the interruption of the woman with the bleeding. Nonetheless, the gospel presents this boldly hopeful woman in the story of Jairus. What does Mark want us to see in this woman?
Despite our translation, Mark did not use the term “affliction” to describe the physical condition of the woman. He simply reported that she had been bleeding for 12 years. According to Mark, his suffering came from doctors who drained his finances as his condition worsened physically, socially and religiously. (Her physical problem made her ritually unclean, a condition that denied her the right to enter the temple and required her to stay away from society.)
But one day she heard about Jesus. A novice evangelizer led her to believe there was hope. Unlike the crippled man or the little girl, who each had their lawyers, she literally took matters into her own hands.
Perhaps someone had told him that the Book of Wisdom teaches that God formed human beings to be imperishable, imagining the divine nature. Perhaps she had the intuition of a mystic.
Whatever the reason, she put more faith in Jesus and the God of life than in the ritual restrictions she was supposed to observe. Everything she had heard about Jesus affirmed her determination and made her believe that he would not be offended if she broke the rules in pursuit of the fullness of life.
She reached out in hope of a cure and could never have imagined Jesus’ response. Not only was he aware that a touch of great importance had occurred in the midst of the stampede, but when she introduced herself to him, he called her “girl”, claiming a relationship with her that he did not attribute to anyone else – neither woman nor man. By using this name, Jesus effectively adopted the role of being his father-advocate, implying that his faith in him and the God of life created a unique bond between them.
None of the evangelists tell us about Jairus’ fear and impatience as Jesus paused to interact with the woman. We also don’t know how Jairus later understood the events of that afternoon or what he explained to his daughter. But as Jairus suffered from anxiety about his child, Jesus called attention to the woman who was a living parable of faith in action.
This woman, known to us only as a “daughter”, was Mark’s equivalent of the people for whom Jesus prayed in John’s account of the Last Supper (John 17:20). She believed in him before she saw him. She met Jesus, the meeting changed her life, and she witnessed it in front of everyone.
At the end of their dialogue, Jesus summarized a theology of prayer in the three things he said to the woman: Your faith has saved you, go in peace and be healed.
While some might approach prayer as if they are ordering from a menu, the purpose of prayer – whether it is petition, praise, or penance – is to bring us to an encounter with God. of life which desires the meeting more than us. Whether we begin by imploring God for help for another or through our own needs, the real point of prayer is the encounter with God – and all that results from it. The inner story is simply that faith leads to action that generates greater faith.