The Gospel passage on 1 July looked at two very different people who approached Jesus because they were in desperate need. Many contrasts can be drawn between Jairus, the ruler of the synagogue, and a poor woman who had been ill for twelve years but something they had in common was that each gained was an insight into Jesus’ love for all and his willingness to answer needs. Both saw Jesus’ power to restore life when it was ebbing or had ebbed away.
The Bible passages were Psalm 130, Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-15; 2:23-24, Mark 5:21-end. My reflection follows.
Today’s Gospel reading introduces us to two very different people who had one thing in common: they were in desperate need, turned to Jesus in their desperation and found that Jesus’ love included them.
The one we meet first is Jairus, a ruler of the synagogue. He would have been a lay person whose role was to look after synagogue administration and supervise the worship. He would have been a man of standing in the community and probably wealthy. The second person is an unnamed woman – a nobody – whose medical condition meant she was shunned by the community and was penniless. I would like to concentrate on the second of these, the woman who was suffering from haemorrhages.
By looking at the background to this story it’s possible to appreciate further what this woman might have experienced before approaching Jesus. I’m sure many of us have been in hospitals where there is an emphasis on not bringing infection into the hospital backed up by regular stations which provide gel for cleansing the hands. In biblical times there were no such gels of course, but there were hygiene laws which helped to protect the community in a similar way. Certain activities rendered a person ritually unclean until the evening and required them to wash their clothes and bathe in order to restore their purity. Those activities were coming into contact with: a corpse or the carcass of an animal; bodily discharges including semen, menstrual flow and blood lost after childbirth; skin diseases and with some spaces and objects. In a hot country where people lived in large groups in close proximity this made a lot of sense as infection could spread very quickly. The difficulty is that there was not enough knowledge to be able to differential between a physical problem and an infection.
As Leviticus specifies, while the woman had her haemorrhage she should be quarantined from the rest of society. Anyone who touched her or her bed or anything she had sat on was rendered unclean also until the evening. This had the effect of isolating the woman from society. No one would want to touch her as that would prevent them being able to go about their life until after the evening. If the woman had a husband, once the haemorrhages began her husband would no longer be able to have sexual relations with her as that would make him unclean. The likelihood is that she would soon have been divorced. Had she remained married her condition would no doubt have left her infertile. So we can see how her condition excluded the woman from the status she should have enjoyed as wife and mother. The need to keep away from people also excluded the woman from meeting with the worshipping community either in synagogue or temple. Effectively she was cut off from God. Apart from the physical symptoms she had to deal with, the woman would also be severely anaemic and was obviously becoming more so. Her life was draining away and it seems likely she wouldn’t have had long to live.
It’s easy to understand why this woman was prepared to spend all the money she had in seeking a cure. No doubt she met some genuine doctors and some charlatans. Treatments were limited and very strange indeed! There were various potions and words suggested such as: “Set her in a place where two ways meet, and let her hold a cup of wine in her hand; and let somebody come behind and affright her, and say, Arise from thy flux.” Other ideas seem like superstitious nonsense: eating grasshopper eggs; carrying the fingernail of a man who had been hanged; carrying a grain of wheat from the dung of a white female donkey; standing over a ditch in which vine cuttings had been burnt; carrying the ashes of an ostrich egg in a linen rag around one’s neck in summer and in a cotton rag in winter. There would have been precious little dignity left to the woman after enduring a selection of such ‘cures’.
Somehow this woman heard about Jesus and, despite all her disappointments and her deteriorating health, she summoned enough faith to believe that if she could touch Jesus’ garments she would be healed. That really is amazing faith in the circumstances, although it may have been tinged with a little superstition.
We can’t know why she decided to come up behind Jesus and touch his cloak or, possibly, the tassel of his prayer shawl. She may have considered she was too unimportant to matter to Jesus, that if she asked for healing she would be refused. Perhaps she was afraid that he would have nothing to do with her because she was unclean, although he had already healed a leper by touch. Or possibly her condition was so embarrassing she didn’t want to talk about it in public. Whatever her reasoning, she was taking a huge risk. She should not have been in contact with other people but the act of pushing her way through a throng of people who were jostling around Jesus would inevitably cause her to touch many. Any who recognised her could have turned on her in their anger at being rendered unclean. In extreme circumstances she might even have been stoned to death.
As we know, the woman’s faith was rewarded with instant and complete healing. No doubt her plan had been to disappear as soon as possible after her touch, anonymous and unnoticed, but she hadn’t accounted for how Jesus dealt with people. He was not content to let her slip away because he had something to give her that was more wonderful even than her physical healing.
We can understand why the woman came forward with such fear. It’s not difficult to imagine the muttering of disapproval from the crowd as they realised an unclean woman had been among them. No doubt they were trying to work out which of them had been touched by her. Even worse, the woman had touched a rabbi while unclean. However, as my RL priest is fond of reminding his congregation, when Jesus came into contact the defilement and exclusion did not flow from the unclean person to him. Instead his wholeness and inclusion was given to the person.
Having listened to the woman’s story Jesus gave her his gift, one she would have missed had she been allowed to melt into the crowd and disappear. He spoke to her, calling her ‘Daughter’. As she looked into Jesus’ face she would have been able to see the love he had for her. She, who had been excluded from all family relationships and from the people of God, was spoken to by Jesus, the Son of God, and restored fully to relationship with God. She was commended for her faith, for believing enough in Jesus to reach out to him for help, thus bringing herself into the kingdom of God. And in the hearing of everyone she was assured of her healing, thus restoring her to society. In one sentence the pain and exclusion of twelve years were swept away. To her physical healing was added spiritual healing.
And what of poor Jairus? The delay caused by the woman meant he experienced the anguish of hearing that his daughter had died; Jesus was too late. Actually, this gave Jairus a gift also. He had the opportunity to exercise faith despite the news he had been given. Somehow he managed to put aside his fear and hang on to some vestige of faith. He was rewarded by seeing his ‘little daughter’, a girl on the cusp of womanhood and obviously so dear to him that he was prepared to do anything to help her, restored to full life and health at the word of Jesus. She would be doubly precious to her father from that time on.
Both these stories of healing are wonderful to listen to, but what can they say to us today?
Jesus makes no distinction between people. Whether you are rich or poor, male or female, a pillar of society or an outcast, Jesus’ love is for you. If you’re one of the important people in your church or feel excluded and on the edge as the result of prejudice and misunderstanding, Jesus includes you. If the problem you are facing is huge and apparently beyond remedy, the tiniest grain of faith on your part is enough for Jesus to restore wholeness in your life and in the lives of those you love.
We who follow Jesus are called to be like him. This week let’s look on those around us with the eyes of Jesus who embraces all, even us!
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor