By Paul D. Wheatley

Life lived on this side of eternity is beset with an awareness of its finitude. We live with a quiet sense of life’s fragility. From the hushed moments at grandmother’s bedside, to youthful drive to achieve one’s goals, to new parents’ sleepless gaze at a baby monitor, we recognize this life as mortal, that is, subject to the encroachment of death. Since at least the Middle Ages, Christians have chanted the words Media vita in morte sumus [In the midst of life, we are in death] as a part of their prayers.

Jesus heals many afflicted people throughout his earthly ministry, but his encounters with the dead are rarer in the Gospels. Aside from Jesus’ resurrection, he raises Lazarus (John 11:1–44), a widow’s son (Luke 7:11–17), and the daughter of a synagogue official named Jairus, a story recorded in Mark 5:21–43, Matt. 9:18–26, and Luke 8:40–56. In these brief glimpses of the extent of Jesus’ power, we see that he has authority not only over evil, sickness, and forces of nature, but even over death itself.

We often separate these categories in our lives. A headache, seasonal allergies, or even prolonged battles with illness do not garner the same response as the death of a loved one or a terminal diagnosis. Likewise, a spiritual director handles a person’s besetting sins differently than a crisis operator handles a caller under threat of death. However, the Gospels treat these categories more like differences of degree, or perhaps even a constellation of symptoms all stemming from the same disease.


Mark’s version of the raising of Jairus’s daughter takes place in a context shot through with references to death. The story is a frame that surrounds another healing. As Jesus goes with Jairus to heal his daughter as she still lay ill, a woman interrupts him on the way. This inner story, and the events just before it in Mark 4:1–5:20, share a rich tapestry of connections with the raising of this young girl from the dead that provide a meditation on the fragility of humanity, our mortal finitude, and Jesus’ identification with our weakness.

Mark narrates the events of chapters four and five of the Gospel in a continuum. Jesus enters a boat to teach the multitudes in Mark 4:1, and he stays in this boat throughout chapter four. There, “seated upon the sea” (4:1, my translation), Jesus reveals to his disciples this cryptic “secret of the kingdom of God,” a mystery hidden in parables (4:11, NRSV) for those who look to perceive and listen to understand (4:12). He and his disciples crisscross the Sea of Galilee in chapters four and five of Mark as Jesus performs miracles on both shores (5:1–20; 5:21–43), and even in the middle of the sea (4:35–41). The sea, more than just a setting for the stories, comes to represent something greater, related to Jesus’ triumph over death.

These stories share common themes. When Jesus and his disciples come ashore after healing the man tormented by the demonic legion (Mark 5:21, cf. 5:1–20), Jairus comes to him and falls at his feet (5:22), much like the possessed man in the prior story (5:6). His little daughter is ill, approaching her end. All he asks is that Jesus lay his hands on her, that she may be made well and live (5:23). As they walk together to Jairus’s home, pressed by a large crowd, a woman afflicted by hemorrhages manages to come behind Jesus to touch the fringe of his robe. Mark pauses the narrative to give the woman’s history and open the thoughts of her heart to the reader: “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well” (5:28, NRSV).

Mark draws connections between the woman and Jairus’s daughter. Jesus addresses the woman as “daughter” (Mark 5:34) just before people arrive from Jairus’s house to tell him, “Your daughter is dead” (5:35). The narrator says the woman suffered from her affliction for 12 years (5:25), a significant figure in the story. When the narrator informs us that Jairus’s daughter was 12 years of age (5:42), the constellation of similarities come into view: Jesus did with the woman what he does with Jairus’s daughter: her womb, hemorrhaging for 12 years, like this sick girl, 12 years from the womb, was dying. Jesus has restored her to life from the inside.

This inner healing is the subject of the narrator’s attention at the center of the story. In the center of the narrative, Mark gives us an internal view into Jesus’ and the woman’s perspectives. Touching Jesus’ garment (Mark 5:27) incites a shift, disclosing the inner thoughts and perceptions of the woman: “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well” (5:28, NRSV). The touch — or is it her faith? — leads to sudden change. The narrator tells, and then shows, the woman’s inner condition: “Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease” (5:29, NRSV, emphasis added).

The focus then switches from the inner sensation of the woman to that of Jesus. “Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him” (Mark 5:30a, NRSV), Jesus looks around and asks who touched him. We have a privileged view to a set of sensations in the woman and in Jesus that correspond to her healing. Jesus feels the inverse of what the woman feels, but he feels it in the same way, at the same moment, “immediately” (5:29, 30).

The ensuing discussion is shot through with language about perception. When Jesus asks who touched him, the disciples respond, “You are looking at the crowd pressing together with you, and you say, ‘Who touched me?’” (Mark 5:31, my translation). Jesus does more than look, though. Jesus “was looking around to see who did this” (5:32, author’s translation).

The difference between looking and seeing is crucial in Mark 4:11–12. There, Jesus tells his disciples that they had been given “the secret of the kingdom of God,” a mystery disclosed to “those outside” in such a way that “everything comes in parables” (4:11, NRSV). The reason for this? So that “they may indeed look but not see” (4:12a, my translation).

The disciples want Jesus to look, but Jesus’ sight leads to true perception. Jesus’ “looking around to see” has another effect: the woman gains knowledge and something more: “knowing what had happened to her, [she] came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth” (5:33, NRSV). This knowledge, this “whole truth” the woman perceives and tells, Jesus sees as the sort of saving faith that makes a wearied woman into a child: “Daughter, your faith has saved you” (5:34b, my translation).

When the people from Jairus’s house arrive, Jairus, who just heard Jesus say, “Daughter your faith has saved you” (Mark 5:34b, my translation), now hears, “Your daughter is dead” (5:35, NRSV). As Jesus arrives to the grief-stricken scene, he shoos away the mourners, and only the girl’s family, Jesus, and the disciples are allowed to see the healing take place. Again, the healing takes place with a touch: “He took her by the hand and said to her, ‘Talitha cum,’ which means, ‘Little girl, get up!’” (5:41, NRSV).

Early readers might have shuddered at each of these events. In the religious understanding of the day, based on the Law of Moses, the objects of Jesus’ healing touch are not only unclean, but they convey their uncleanness to any who touch them. According to Numbers 19:11, touching the dead girl should render Jesus ritually unclean for seven days. Moreover, according to Numbers 19:14, anyone who enters the dwelling where the girl died is rendered unclean.

Yet Jesus takes his disciples, and Jairus and his wife, and draws them into the room where the dead girl was. So too with the hemorrhaging woman. According to Lev 15:25–27, she and anyone who touches her are rendered ceremonially unclean, unable to enter the Temple until they have undergone a purification ceremony, involving a ritual bath. The rationale for the woman’s uncleanness, like the young girl, is that the loss of fluids associated with procreation (for males and females, see Lev. 15:1–30) symbolizes the loss of life.[1] As Jairus’s daughter was dying at the beginning of the story, the woman was dying inside.

In the broader context of Jesus’ miracles around the Sea of Galilee in Mark 5, the hemorrhaging woman, and the young girl fit alongside the man possessed by the legion in Mark 5:1–20, in the sense that he too was overtaken by forces of death that rendered him unclean. He was possessed by “an unclean spirit” (Mark 5:2b, NRSV) that left him living among the dead, the woman was ceremonially unclean for twelve years because of an inner death, and the 12-year-old girl was just plain dead. “In the midst of life, we are in death.”

In each of these stories, Jesus not only shows his power over death; he identifies with the dead. This is clearest in the way the narrator mirrors the woman’s internal perception with the look into Jesus’ sensation of power going out from him. Jesus and the woman are united through her touch in a way that reverses the deadly erosion of her womb, her very source of life-giving. The unclean spirits, who had tormented the Gerasene man, drowned in the sea that Jesus had just rebuked in the previous scene.

In Mark 4:35–41, just before he arrived on the shore with the possessed man, Jesus rebuked forces in the wind and the sea that threatened to drown them in their boat. Jesus, in other words, had already been subject to the threat of death in the sea that overcame the unclean spirits, and he prevailed. This miraculous calming of the storm also foreshadows the raising of Jairus’s daughter. Like the girl, Jesus is “sleeping” in the boat, and the disciples “woke him up” (4:38, NRSV). This sleeping and rising, like the girl’s death and raising, is a foretaste of the resurrection: as Paul says, “Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:19, my adaptation). Jesus reverses the powers of death through his sleeping and rising beneath the boat, that metaphorical tomb from which he would rise to rebuke the wind and seas that threaten to swamp the church’s boat. “The child is not dead, but sleeping” (5:39, NRSV) … “Little girl, arise” (5:41, my translation).

And this is good news for all of us beset with an abiding awareness of our mortality. Jesus’ incarnation, his life, his ministry, and even something as seemingly mundane as a nap during a bad boat ride, is an identification with the finitude of humanity that transforms it with the radiance of his life. In our uncleanness, our inner deaths that we try to keep from polluting those around us, in those places where we dwell among the tombs, and even in the hour of our death, Jesus comes to us, reaches out to us, calls us. Just as Jesus passes through the water with his disciples and rises from his sleep to rebuke the chaos of the storm, he drowns the unclean spirits in the sea, and returns across the sea to bring inner and outer resurrection to these two daughters, united by their 12-year march toward death, through his healing touch.

As we walk through the preparatory purgations of Lent to arrive with joy at the baptismal waters of new life at the Easter Vigil, we do well to meditate on how Jesus’ baptismal triumph over the waters brings the cleansing we need from our uncleanness. We need Jesus to drown our sin in the waters of baptism. We need Jesus’ anointing touch to dry up the death that hemorrhages from within us, and save us. We need Jesus’ hand to grasp us, like Adam and Even awaiting in the grave, from death into life. We need the one who passed through the waters and slept to rise, rebuke the chaotic seas, and bring us safely to shore. Jesus subjects himself to death that he might call us back to life.

[1] See Jacob Milgrom, “The Rationale for Biblical Impurity,” Journal of the Ancient Near Eastern Society of Columbia University 22 (1993): 107–11, esp. 110. See also Matthew Thiessen, Jesus and the Forces of Death (Grand Rapids, Baker Academic: 2020).

About The Author

The Rev. Dr. Paul D. Wheatley is assistant professor of New Testament at Nashotah House Theological Seminary.

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