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Published Date: October 30, 2009

Published Date: October 30, 2009

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Four Females Who Encounter Jesus

Amid many texts in the gospels that provide more lengthy interactions of women with Jesus, there are four brief stories, often overlooked, that express Jesus’ concern for women. Jesus provides healing or life, particularly for those in an unclean status, expressed through the language of the taboo. In the first three contexts, the person is in an unclean status either due to the loss of blood, having an unclean spirit, or being in the sphere of death. The last story notes the male objection of the synagogue official with respect to the time of the woman’s healing; she lives in the sphere of the unclean (“having an unclean spirit,” Luke 13:11) and is exorcised/healed “on the Sabbath.” In each situation, Jesus is unresponsive to the objections concerning religious and social taboos; he abrogates such distinctions and critiques.

Jairus’s daughter and the woman with the hemorrhage (Mark 5:21–43 par.)

There are two miraculous encounters with females in this paragraph, expressed through a beginning (Mark 5:21–24a), interruption (vv. 24b–34), and sequel (vv. 35–43).

Jairus’s daughter is present for the agonized and desperate plea of her father, a local synagogue president. He requests that Jesus lay his hands upon the girl in order to heal her. Jairus underscores her desperate condition through the expression “at the point of death.” This daughter comes from the highest rung of the Jewish social and religious ladder, while the interrupting narrative informs the reader of a nameless woman who stands on the lowest Jewish rung: she is religiously unclean, discouraged, socially and religiously ostracized, and financially destitute. Bonnie Thurston notes,

[T]he woman is marginalized on four counts. She is female, without a male relative to be her advocate (we know this because she is not identified by male kin), without financial resources (she has spent her money on doctors—first-century gynecologists?) (v. 26), and she is subject to the blood taboo. Leviticus 15:19–30 sets out the limitations on menstruating women. Not only is this woman considered “unclean”; she makes “impure” anything or anyone she touches.1

Continuity is evident in the two stories in that, while Jesus is in the midst of a great bustling crowd, he nonetheless takes time to respond to two desperate needs of individuals. In fact, there are three situations of extreme need within three paragraphs in Mark 5: (1) 5:2–5, desperate condition of the demoniac spelled out in detail, “a man from the tombs in the sphere of an unclean spirit, superhuman physical strength, masochistic, unable to be tamed, crying, gashing himself with stones”; (2) 5:23, “my little daughter is at the point of death” . . . daughter died (5:35); and (3) 5:25–26, “flow of blood for twelve years, and who had suffered much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and was no better but rather grew worse.”

Due to the woman’s gender and the nature of her “unclean” condition,2 she approaches Jesus in a covert manner. She hopes that she can receive healing from Jesus’ garment without having to identify herself: “She had heard the reports about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his garment. For she said, ‘If I touch even his garments, I shall be made well’” (5:27–28). As a result, the woman and Jesus both perceive some sort of change from within, without any verbal interchange or recognition of each other: “And immediately the hemorrhage ceased; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. And Jesus, perceiving in himself that power had gone forth from him, immediately turned about in the crowd, and said, ‘Who touched my garments?’” (5:29–30, italics mine).

Jesus is not directly involved in the healing, a fact underscored by his revealing question, “Who touched my garments?” noted in three verses (29, 30, 31). No direct intercession is made to him; if the woman makes intercession, God—not Jesus—is the person to whom intercession is made. Jesus is aware that power had gone forth from himself (v. 30), but he does not know who had touched him so as to be healed. The personal power of Jesus is also the power of a personal God. While Jesus does not make a decision for the healing of a woman, God does; God controls his own power by his free and personal decision. In this case, God is concerned for wholeness of life for a poor and desperate woman; God acts on the basis of her need and internal reasoning.

When Jesus responds to her, he does not reply in a way that the woman would ever suspect. Instead of reproof, Jesus interprets her covert action as faith, blesses her with peace, and declares long-term health instead of suffering (5:34). This woman models the faith response that Jesus looks for—a trust that God is acting in a special way in Jesus. While her initial trust may be a superstitious belief in Jesus’ cloak, nevertheless, she does manifest faith in God coupled with a trust in Jesus’ power that could be found in his cloak. As such, the exemplary woman is contrasted with the male disciples, who ridicule Jesus’ question (5:31). The disciples’ query to him about the futility of such a question in the midst of a pressing crowd is noteworthy “because it indicates that the woman’s touch was one of faith, an action distinctly different from the jostling of the crowd.”3 This woman is a barometer for measuring the male disciples’ “unfaith.”

In a similar way, Jesus’ response to Jairus and the hopeless situation of a dead daughter also reveals the deep-seated misunderstanding of the mourners. They disbelieve; they believe that Jesus can heal, but, once a girl has died, she has passed into a sphere in which they regard Jesus as impotent. From their standpoint, this is surely no occasion for faith—she has passed the point of no return. By his double entendre, Jesus states that, though the girl is dead, from his perspective, her death is but a mere sleep from which he would awaken her. As with Simon’s mother-in-law, Jesus takes the young girl by the hand (a condition of “defilement”) and raises her. He speaks to her in Aramaic.

There are three stories in this segment in which Jesus does not hesitate to involve himself with situations of uncleanness: (1) 5:2, a male demoniac in the sphere of the tombs; (2) 5:24b–34, a woman with an unclean hemorrhage; and (3) 5:35–43, a daughter who has died. Jesus allows himself to be “defiled” in situations of uncleanness by a man (for his daughter) and by two unclean females (from the Jewish perspective); he affirms the full worth and dignity of women and their place within his new community. The family of faith and the physical family are not mutually exclusive categories; they are both affirmed. Jesus expresses a parent’s concern for a little girl and celebrates with joy as he gives this young girl to her parents. We find the familiar “silence” charge in Mark—but, with the witnesses inside the house, it is impossible to imagine that this event would have remained secret. With the woman healed of her hemorrhage, there is no silence charge; rather, it is an event that needs to be made public, although the healing has been in secret.

The widow of Nain’s son (Luke 7:11–17)

In Luke 7, we find another instance of paired stories: a male centurion’s concern for a slave (v. 2) and a widow’s supreme loss of an only son (v. 12). In the case of the widow, Jesus sees a funeral procession, is filled with compassion for the widow, and then interrupts the procession, approaches and touches the coffin (thereby incurring defilement), and speaks to the young man, who sits up in his coffin and begins to speak. Jesus gives him back to his grieving mother. This is surely a genuine act of compassion for a widow, whose only source of hope was her son—now dead; the son would have been able to provide support for her needs. Not only is she bereft of a husband, but her family line has been severed. This raising of a dead son does not involve forgiveness or faith; however, the motive is clearly “compassion” (v. 13). The outcome is reverential fear, praise to God, the resulting affirmation that a great “prophet” has arisen and that God has surely visited his people (v. 16), and a widespread fame (v. 17).

The story clearly demonstrates Jesus’ concern for women, especially widows. Through this encounter, Jesus illustrates his rejection of false distinctions between clean and unclean; he eliminates the idea of prejudicial treatment for those in need, especially women. More than once in Luke’s gospel, the stories are knit together as they express Jesus’ mission to the “outsider.” In this chapter, as elsewhere, Jesus tampers with the religious, racial, and social taboos of Jewish particularism. As he also defends the ministry of John the Baptist, Jesus is recognized as a friend of tax collectors and sinners (7:18–35), as well as a great prophet (v. 16). Thus, Jesus responds in such positive and warm ways to a Gentile centurion and his needy slave, a Gentile, a widow, tax collectors, and sinners—the people most aware of their broken condition.

Healing a woman on the Sabbath (Luke 13:10–17)

While Simon’s mother-in-law is healed on the Sabbath with full approval, a woman is healed on another Sabbath and thereby criticized by a synagogue president. This male synagogue official, in response to the Sabbath issue, directs his comments, not to Jesus, but to the crowd. While he vainly solicits their response to the “when” of her healing, Jesus answers the Sabbath question. This woman has suffered with a “spirit of sickness,” “being bound by Satan” for eighteen years (13:11, 16). The woman is unable to stand erect, which does not prohibit her from entering the synagogue—on the Sabbath. The woman rejoices (v. 13), for now she has a new reason for rejoicing, i.e., her healing even in the midst of her opponents’ opposition. She is also called “a daughter of Abraham” (v. 16) even in her demon-possessed condition. Nowhere else does this specific term occur in the gospels, much less when referring to one who is demon-possessed. Jesus reveals his opponents’ hypocritical treatment and their resultant shame. By way of contrast, the crowd (like the woman) was rejoicing (13:17) at his wonders—on the Sabbath. The woman’s response is contrasted with that of his male opponent—the synagogue official—and the other “opponents.” In English, the word opponent refers to both masculine and feminine adversaries; in Greek usage, either in the New Testament or Septuagint, not only is opponent a masculine gender word, but is also only used of male adversaries in the New Testament.


Jesus nullifies religious and social taboos as he responds to the needs of four females who are in the sphere of the “unclean.” A hemorrhaging flow of blood, death, having an unclean spirit—these are no barriers to his life-giving responses. He even raises people from the dead when there is no intercession; it is simply Jesus’ observation of a funeral procession that causes him to intervene. He sees that the creation celebration means a joyous festival, which now finds realization in acts of healing, e.g., the woman “having an unclean spirit,” who is unable to stand erect. Far from considering her unclean, he calls her a “daughter of Abraham.” Further, three of the four occasions narrate how certain male figures are the ones who object to Jesus’ open stance toward the female gender. Jesus heals women; he takes them seriously. He openly affirms their worth and dignity through miraculous encounter. He neither trivializes nor patronizes these women, but models his acceptance and affirmation of these females and easily dismisses social and religious taboos.


  1. Bonnie Thurston, Women in the New Testament: Questions and Commentary (New York, N.Y.: Crossroads, 1988), 71.
  2. Due to a loss of blood, there is a loss of life (Lev. 17:11), thus rendering a person unclean.
  3. Mary Ann Tolbert, “Mark,” Woman’s Bible Commentary, ed. Carol A. Newsome and Sharon H. Ringe (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 268.