Mark 5 (NRSV). 35 While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” 36 But overhearing[b] what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” 37
Sunday’s gospel reading, for the fifth Sunday after Pentecost according to the Lutheran way of numbering the pericopes in ordinary time, is one of the most complex stories of Jesus’ healing ministry in Galilee. It’s sometimes known as the miracle of the healing of Jarius’ daughter, and this year we’re reading St. Mark’s account of it. But the good news I take away from it is as simple — and as hard to fully comprehend — as anything in all of scripture.
The story features two healings — one of a woman whose hemorrhaging had rendered her unclean for 12 years and one of a 12-year-old girl, the daughter of a local religious leader named Yair — and it invites us to make comparisons. It reflects on Jesus’ interactions with his crowd of admirers and the religious establishment, since Yair, known in Christian scripture as Jairus, is “one of the leaders of the synagogue,” and it comes at an inflection point in the gospel story.
Immediately before the healing of Jairus’ daughter, Jesus has healed a gentile possessed by demons on the opposite side of the Sea of Galilee, and immediately afterward he will be rejected by the people of his home town of Nazareth. (Everything in Mark happens immediately.) It’s in the early days of Jesus’ ministry, when he’s followed by large, and sometimes unruly, crowds. Today we might say he’s experiencing his 15 minutes of fame, and the real work of his ministry will come later.
But the moment that stands out to me is when Jesus overhears the crowd — other ancient manuscripts suggest he ignores them — and quietly turns to Jairus. “Do not fear,” he tells him, “only believe.”
Which is exactly what I need to hear.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic hit town and upended everything, my parish church held Saturday evening “dinner church” services that featured a meal, communion and group discussion of the gospel reading for the day. The discussion questions were:
- What in this text catches your attention?
- Is this text Good News to you? Why or why not?
- What might this text be asking of you?
Since the pandemic hit, we ask pretty much the same questions in Zoom sessions exploring the gospel readings as we go through the church year. It’s been a lifeline, and it’s deepened my faith and my understanding of scripture.
What catches my attention in this story? “Do not fear, only believe.” (Since I taught freshman English for 10 years, the comma splice in the New Revised Standard Version also catches my attention, but I’ll let it go. I commit worse in my own writing. Sentence fragments, too.) is it good news? Yes. In fact, I think it’s the entire gospel. The Greek euangelion, the Old English godspell, the good story, the good news. The whole New Testament in five little words. I’ll go farther than that — for me it sums up everything from Genesis through Revelation.
And what does it call me to do? Fear not, only believe. Asked and answered in five words.
With these questions in mind, let’s set the scene of Mark’s story of the two healings in more detail. Mark is maddeningly vague about the location of this miracle, but I’m reasonably sure it’s Capernaum. After all it was Jesus’ base of operations during this early stage of his ministry. Mark just says that Jarius pleads with Jesus to heal his daughter as soon as he sees him returning from the east side of the lake. Immediately, no doubt. But St. Matthew’s gospel says Jairus approaches Jesus during a meal at Matthew’s house, and according to tradition, Matthew was a tax collector in Capernaum. So I’d say that’s where the circumstantial evidence points.
Capernaum was a very small town by today’s standards — St. Peter’s house, where Jesus stayed, is less than a modern city block from the synagogue and about the same distance from the waterfront. The total area, now an archaeological site and an adjacent Greek Orthodox monastery, is about the size of downtown Springfield. But far from being the sleepy village I would have imagined, it was a border town with a customs office and a Roman garrison. The taxes Matthew collected would likely be tariffs on goods exported from Herod Antipas’ Galilee to the adjacent Tetrarchy of his half-brother Herod Philip II; or Herod Antipas’ tax on royal fishing rights. Hard by an especially good location for fishing at Tabgha (where Jesus often preached, according to tradition), Capernaum would have been quite busy even without the crowds drawn by Jesus.
When Jesus gets back from the other side of the Sea of Galilee, he is greeted by a “great crowd” on the lakeshore. The way Mark tells the story, as soon as Jairus sees him, he falls down at his feet and pleads, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” So Jesus starts out with him, but the crowd follows along, jostling and pressing in on them. At this point, the way I imagine the scene, the “woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years” presses forward and touches the hem of his robe. In his Augsburg Commentary on Mark, Donald H. Juel of Luther Seminary notes the hemorrhaging would render her ritually unclean and unable to worship at the synagogue.
There’s a lot going on in this passage, and I can relate to much of it — I spent enough years away from the church to identify with the outcast woman — but, again what stands out to me here is her faith. She’s desperate, too, and I certainly know what that feels like. When she touches Jesus’ robe, the bleeding stops. But Jesus turns around and says, “Who touched my clothes?” Now she’s really desperate. Just when she thought she was healed, now it looks like she’s going to be cast out again. She falls down before him — just like Jairus had just a couple of minutes ago (things move fast in Mark, and there are lots of these little parallels to think about). In great fear, she ‘fesses up. But she hears something entirely unexpected.
“Daughter, your faith has made you well,” Jesus says, “go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”
In the meantime, several people rush up to Jairus. Everything’s always in a rush with Mark. Wham, bam, thank you ma’am. “Your daughter is dead,” they say. “Why trouble the teacher any further?” And that’s when Jesus overhears this — or possibly ignores it, according to a footnote in the New Revised Standard Version — and draws him aside.
“Do not fear, only believe,” says Jesus. And from this point on, at least for me, the rest of the story is an anticlimax. Jesus will tell the crowd to stay behind while he goes on with Peter, James and John to heal the girl. At Jairus’ house he will bicker with another crowd as he says the girl’s only sleeping and they laugh at him. Juel suggests they’re paid mourners, and they know dead when they see it, or think they do. So Jesus throws them out of the house, and Jairus’ daughter will indeed be healed. She even gets up and walks around.
As he so often does, Jesus enjoins them not to tell anyone. Fat chance! Several centuries’ worth of Christian paintings show bystanders in the distance, and I think that’s true to the psychology of the moment. Privacy was hard come by in the first century of the Common Era, and anyone who ever grew up in a small town can’t help but realize the neighbors are watching and the word’s going to get out — as soon as that 12-year-old goes skipping down to the lakeshore.
There’s a lot to unpack here. The juxtaposition of the 12-year-old daughter of a synagogue leader. the outcast woman, hemorrhaging for 12 years. A comment on Jesus’ ministry to the pure and the impure alike? The boisterous, uncomprehending crowd, exasperating but desperate for what Jesus had to offer without knowing exactly what it was. How can I not relate to that? Isn’t that pretty much what I did when I rejoined the church?
Jesus must have looked like some kind of an upstart to the mourners. I think of the funeral directors I got to know as a police beat reporter writing obituaries. They know death, they know grief and they know how to console families. And when some guy blows in from Nazareth raising false hopes — “the child is not dead but sleeping” — it’s not just about turf. They’re doing what experience tells them is best for Jairus and his family. It’s just that what happens next is completely out of their frame of reference.
And Jesus, at this stage of his ministry, isn’t too inclined to explain it. He never is in Mark. Besides, it’s hard enough for us to figure out with 2,000 years of hindsight and biblical commentary. In fact, it’s impossible to figure out. It’s outside of my frame of reference, too, and I have to take it on faith.
And that, to me, is what the story is about.
Do not fear, only believe. How many times do we hear that in the gospel stories? Be not afraid, Mary, for you will conceive and bear a son. The angels tell the shepherds in Bethlehem, fear not, we bring you glad tidings of great joy. (When I think of these things, I tend to think of them in the language of the King James Version, or the Episcopal collects and epistles I grew up with.) Then there’s Isaiah: Do not be afraid, for I am with you. I’ve been told that reassurance, or something very much like it, occurs 365 times in the bible. One for each day of the year.
Which, come to think of it, is just about exactly how often I need it.
[Published June 28, 2021]
“Capernaum: The Site,” MFA Archives, Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, March 7, 2000 https://mfa.gov.il/MFA/MFA-Archive/2000/Pages/Capernaum.aspx.
K. C. Hanson, “The Galilean Fishing Economy and the Jesus Tradition,” Biblical Theology Bulletin 27 (1997) 99-111 available online at https://www.kchanson.com/ARTICLES/fishing.html.
Donald H. Juel, Mark: Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1990), 82-89.
John C. H. Laughlin, “Capernaum: From Jesus’ Time and After,” Biblical Archaeology Review, 19, no. 5 (Sept.-Oct. 1993) https://www.baslibrary.org/biblical-archaeology-review/19/5/10.
“Raising of Jairus’ Daughter,” Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raising_of_Jairus%27_daughter.