Pulpit Notes: The Woman in Mark 5:21-43

Michael J. Glodo
Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology
Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando

The aim of the expository sermon is to preach the meaning of a particular passage of scripture and apply it legitimately to the contemporary listener in such a way that the listener can see the source and authority of the application. One approach to expository preaching invokes the language of Isaiah 28:10 by advocating “line-by-line, precept-by-precept” preaching in which one preaches sequentially through the text providing explanation and application as one goes.

“For it is precept upon precept, precept upon precept,
line upon line, line upon line,
here a little, there a little.” (Isaiah 28:10, ESV)

Ironically, this verse expresses hard-hearted Israel’s burdensome perception of the prophet’s preaching. As E. J. Young explains:

“Such was the impression which Isaiah’s teaching made. The nation received no coherent picture, did not understand his proclamation in its fullness, but merely regarded it as incoherent, disparate bits of instruction cast here and there. Wherever one turned he encountered the prophet’s instruction, but he had no clear idea of the meaning and force of that instruction. What he heard seemed to him to be only broken bits.[1]

While the fault may have lain primarily with Isaiah’s hard-hearted listeners, the description itself was hardly commendable. Similar to the charge laid against Isaiah, the line-by-line approach, in an attempt to give attention to the individual trees, can easily fail to preach the forest. If the forest does come into the preacher’ view, it’s usually the result of his intuition rather than his method. Line-by-line may seem to work in the more prosaic genres of scripture than narrative and poetic genres of scripture, but only because the passage itself employs a linear form of meaning development.

There are two elements of meaning beyond the definitions of words and grammar of sentences which require the preacher’s self-conscious attention in order to faithfully proclaim the full meaning of a scripture text. The first is the text’s context, including immediately preceding, immediately following, and whole-book context. Just as a word’s context is determinative of that word’s meaning, so the context of a pericope as a whole constitutes a significant element of the pericope meaning. For example, the second feeding miracle in Mark’s Gospel (Mark 8:1-10) occurred before Jesus return to Judah, signifying that it would have been a Gentile crowd that he fed. Far more than just a repetition of the first miracle (6:30-44), the second reveals that Israel’s Messiah has also come to feed those outside Israel (as signified by the seven basket of leftovers in contrast to the twelve baskets of the first feeding).

The second element requiring awareness is text form. Since the form of the text (e.g. genre, structure) constitutes a vital component of meaning, Greidanus argues that sermon form should reflect the text form.[2] Insisting that sermon form follow text form may be more likely to result in novelty than clarity, attention to text form is still incumbent on the preacher who wants to represent faithfully the meaning of the text. This includes explaining and showing how the text form contributes to the meaning of a pericope especially when listeners are unfamiliar with the form and genre. Attention to text form should also inform the preacher’s goal or telos for the sermon by making it the same as the text’s telos.

Neither passage context nor text form lend themselves easily to insertion into a running commentary type of sermon and in fact may seem disruptive according to the stated approach of line-by-line, but both elements are necessary for a full understanding and explanation of the text. How then can an expository sermon incorporate contextual and formal aspects of a scripture text’s meaning and still maintain the proclamation form of a sermon and not be reduced to a sheer didactic form?

While not a template, the ensuing study provides an example of constructing just such a sermon. It illustrates a way of looking at sermon structure which is both committed to a passage’s contextual meaning and open-minded about how sermon structure can creatively and proactively adapt to both text context and form.

The text is Mark 5:21-43, the twin healings of the woman with the discharge of blood and Jairus’s daughter. This pericope is the most explicit in form of what Mark’s “interpolation” or “sandwich” technique. Interpolations occurs when Mark,

“[F]requently interrupts a story or pericope by inserting a second, seemingly unrelated, story into it… Each sandwich unit consists of an A1-B-A2 sequence, with the B‑component functioning as the theological key to the flanking halves. There may have been rudiments of the sandwich technique in the traditions that Mark received, but a comparison of Mark with the other Synoptics reveals that he employs the sandwich technique in a unique and pronounced manner to underscore the major themes of the Gospel.[3]

For clarity’s sake, the Mark 5:21-43 contains a sequence of three scenes.

A1  Jairus’s urgent request and Jesus’s initial response, vv 21–24a
B    Jesus’s distraction and diversion by the woman, vv 24b–34
A2  The resumption of the girl’s rescue, report of the girl’s death, and the girl’s resurrection, vv 35–43

Once we understand that the interrupting narrative of the ailing woman is the “theological key” to the interrupted story of Jairus and his daughter, we are precluded from preaching two different sermons on the two different stories as is sometimes done. Awareness of form will prevent the preacher from disassembling the text, and therefore its larger meaning. Rather, we are compelled to preach the two stories as one unit of meaning.

Besides the fact that the inner story occurs in the midst of the outer story, there are several key terms that overtly connect the two stories.

  • The woman is ceremonially unclean due to her condition; the daughter due to her death.
  • Jarius appealed to Jesus to heal his daughter by touching her; the woman is healed by touching Jesus; and the daughter is raised by Jesus’s touch, all of which would have made Jesus unclean under the law.
  • Jairus and the woman fell as Jesus’s feet.
  • The woman fell at Jesus’s feet in fear and Jesus exhorted Jairus’s household not to fear.
  • The woman is commended for her faith (pistis); Jesus exhorted Jairus’s household to believe (pisteuo). This connection is obscured by English translation, but is clear from the shared Greek root.
  • The little girl was Jairus’s daughter; Jesus called the woman “daughter.”
  • The woman had been afflicted for twelve years; the little girl was twelve years old.

These explicit elements serve as literary “stitches” binding the two stories together into a single cloth. However, these “stitches” might go unnoticed until we are told, only at the very end of the pericope, the daughter’s age. This seemingly unnecessary fact, to the perceptive reader, evokes the twelve years of the woman’s illness and invites a full-scale comparison of the two stories which turns the middle story from a seeming interruption into the interpretive key for the enveloping story.

Herein lies the problem with insisting upon a line-by-line or even a section-by-section approach to sermon structure. Once the key fact of the daughter’s age registers in section A2, sections A1 and B must now be reread in that light. Mark requires us to read Jairus’s assertive plea and the woman’s humble plea side-by side for comparison and contrast. The demand that an expository sermon consecutively explain a text must yield to this text’s demand to be reread. To return to a point previously made, the form of the text, not just the sum of its parts, must be accounted for in exposition.

Since the normal sequential sermon structure can’t give a full account of the meaning of Mark 5:21–43, how might full explanation be accomplished? The following sermon main points offer a solution. Brief commentary elucidates the aim of each point.

I. The petition: a summons based on status, vv 21–24a

Explanation: Word of Jesus’s works has spread such that desperate Jairus commendably “fell at his feet” and implored Jesus for help. This is a worthy appeal, though the details of the “great crowd” and Jairus’s title as “one of the rulers of the synagogue” clearly imply that his status has something to do with gaining access to Jesus.

Application: Jesus’s wonderful works make him a worthy object of faith. Desperate circumstances are often those moments when we decide to put our faith in him. We must turn to God in Christ in times of trouble.

II. The interruption: a diversion due to desperation, vv 24b–34

Explanation: Jesus’s response to the unnamed woman’s desperate appeal show that Jesus is full of compassion for those most in need. Christ not only healed her affliction, but ended her social and religious alienation caused by her uncleanness. In doing so he pronounced her “daughter” and commended her humble, whole-hearted, desperate appeal. While important Jarius is mentioned by name, this woman’s name is not mentioned. Jesus’s unnecessary acknowledgement of the woman both a) drew attention to her exemplary faith and b) raised tension regarding Jarius’s dying daughter.

Application: Our unclean condition before God should be the reason, not a barrier, for appealing to God in Christ for mercy. God commends unfettered, unashamed appeal to Christ. We must appeal to God for mercy no matter how unworthy we might seem.

III. The resolution: God in Christ is not slow to save, vv 35-43

Explanation: Though too late in the view of all observers, Jesus’s delay serves to show his power and authority in an even greater way. He didn’t simply heal a disease, but raised the dead. He did so by touching the unclean body of the dead girl just as the unclean woman had been healed by touching Jesus.

Application: God in Christ does all things well in his time, both for our good and his glory. While our circumstances may at times be severe and our faith tested by God’s seeming delays, we must not begrudge God his timing but instead trust in his wisdom. We must trust Christ to have power even over death.

IV. The juxtaposition: a contrast of faiths.

Explanation: At this point the curious mention of the girl’s age provides the opportunity to point out the parallels, the “stitches” mentioned above. To have done so earlier would have required looking back and leaping forward and would have precluded making the previous three points clearly on their own terms. The summary of this comparison is that, while all faith in Christ is commendable, Christ particularly commends desperate dependence over privileged presumption. While he provided healing for both needy parties, the nature of the woman’s faith was more commendable.

Application: We are to emulate the humble faith of the woman by recognizing the desperate need we have for God’s mercy in Christ and we are avoid privileged presumption in thinking that God is at our beck and call.

In this example, the addition of the non-sequential fourth point which points out the total effect of the “sandwich” narrative brings out the extra layer of meaning that the text’s form conveys. Insistence upon a strict sequential definition of expository preaching doesn’t allow or possibly perceive the fourth main point because such an approach treats meaning as the sum of word definitions and sentences rather than seeing text meaning as more organic, drawing upon context as well as text form. Such was the wisdom of the Westminster divines in the Westminster Directory for Public Worship as they wrote concerning preaching:

Let the introduction to [the preacher’s] text be brief and perspicuous, drawn from the text itself, or context, or some parallel place, or general sentence of scripture.  If the text be long, (as in histories or parables it sometimes must be,) let him give a brief sum of it; if short, a paraphrase thereof, if need be: in both, looking diligently to the scope of the text, and pointing at the chief heads and grounds of doctrine which he is to raise from it.  In analysing and dividing his text, he is to regard more the order of matter than of words; and neither to burden the memory of the hearers in the beginning with too many members of division, nor to trouble their minds with obscure terms of art.[4]

Relatedly, in Geerhardus Vos’s list of the practical uses of biblical theology he states that “Biblical Theology relieves to some extent the unfortunate situation that even the fundamental doctrines of the faith should seem to depend mainly on the testimony of isolated proof-texts.”[5] Though addressing larger doctrinal matters in this practical use, Vos is reflecting the same general principle as that expressed above which is the meaning of scripture is not constrained to the words only, but to the sense of a passage.

One issue not developed explicitly in this example is how the theme of clean and unclean is reflected in and elaborated upon in this text. This is a broader theme in Mark 1–9, mentioned eight times explicitly and implicitly in this text. A future study will offer an example of how a broader contextual theme can be integrated into a particular sermon’s structure.

Even though no single sermon can exhaust the richness of a passage of scripture, to be expository, preachers must preach the meaning of scripture holistically, including accounting for the context and form of a sermon text. The necessity and responsibility of doing so will not allow limiting the sermon’s main points to strict linear development. Therefore, the “line-by-line, precept-by-precept” criterion is insufficient for judging whether sermons are faithful expository sermons. The proper criteria must be whether a sermon preaches the “order of matter.” This is not to say that an expository sermon cannot self-consciously focus on a particular aspect of a text’s meaning. A future study will consider what the relationship of a sermon’s subject should be to the principal subject of the scripture text.

[1] E. J. Young, The Book of Isaiah: The English Text, with Introduction, Exposition, and Notes (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965), 1:276.

[2] Sidney Greidanus, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1989) 16-20.

[3] James R. Edwards, The Gospel according to Mark, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI, 2002), 11.

[4] Westminster Directory for the Public Worship of God. Emphasis added.

[5] Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1948), 17.