The touch of God’s love
Trinity 24 BCP
18 November 2007 11:00 | Fr. Roderick Leece
In 23 years I have never preached on today’s version of the gospel story from St. Matthew but rather on St. Mark’s account. All three synoptic gospels report on the raising of Jairus’ daughter and the healing of the woman with bleeding. Matthew Mark and Luke are called ‘synoptic’ because they are so similar, and a translation of the word simply refers to the fact these three gospels were ‘seen through the same eyes’, despite the differences. In general terms St. Matthew leaves out some details he might think unimportant, and St. Mark’s fuller account is the one used in the revised lectionaries by most Christians the world over. Today’s story is rather interesting in that Mark tells us that the woman with an issue of blood for twelve years had suffered much under many physicians. St. Luke, not surprisingly, since we believe he was a doctor himself, chose to omit this detail for obvious reasons – and this loyalty to his profession brings me a little smile. Though some manuscripts add the detail in later versions. If you are interested in going deeper into the differences in the synoptic gospels then today’s story makes a fascinating study. It takes up 22 verses in St. Mark, 16 verses in St. Luke and just 8 verses in St. Matthew who doesn’t even tell us the Jewish official’s name – Jairus. He doesn’t mention the doctors, and that even after spending all her money on them she didn’t get any better. In fact she got worse. He does not tell us that Jesus felt that power had gone out of him and had to ask the crowd who had touched his clothes.
But all accounts record the woman had suffered severe bleeding for 12 years and also the raising of the girl who had just died. Consider what it would have meant to have a menstrual disorder on and off for twelve years. According to Leviticus (the same book which is used often to justify condemnation of homosexuality) the woman would have been ritually unclean (Lev. 15:25). We might presume that the woman was married, and this means, according to the law, her husband would not have been allowed to have sexual relations with her. Touching her in any way would have made her family ritually unclean. Eating anything she cooked would have the same effect. Her whole family, her household and even where she lived – the house would share the same predicament. Not only them – but everybody else they touched. So people would have avoided the whole family. What presents as a medical problem in fact would have become a social tragedy.
The woman would have known all this, and be fully aware of the effect on Jesus that touching him would bring. He too would be made ritually unclean. The original story is perhaps emphasising this when we are told Jesus felt the power going out of him. Hundreds…thousands of people were touching the Lord…but he specifically felt this particular woman’s touch. St. Mark records she was fearful and trembling and told the whole truth after being healed – presumably scared that Jesus might condemn her for touching him whilst being so unclean. But he didn’t get angry. Rather he listened to her story with compassion and love, and simply corrected her on one point. The truth was that he had not healed her. It wasn’t her touch…it wasn’t his garment…none of this. Rather it was her faith. Her faith in God had healed her. God healed her, and this is something which Jesus constantly had to point out to people throughout this ministry.
Finding himself in a state of being ritually unclean, the story then reinforces the point when, at the home of Jairus, Jesus then touches the body of a dead child. By this, he incurs yet further defilement.
These should be rather more shocking stories to all of us were we more acquainted with Jewish law. Jesus behaves in an extremely radical manner. And his actions should lead us to face the implications of our own behaviour and practise when it comes to including all those on the margins. How do we become communities in which the most excluded can feel included and welcome? How willing are we to let all those who are excluded touch us…and have power over us…drain us of our own power. How willing are we to let those who are excluded help to create our agenda?
Shortly we do more than just touch the Lord. We commune with him in the form of bread and wine. We receive body and blood - his risen life and love in the blessed sacrament. The Holy Eucharist and all other sacraments we know have an outward and visible dimension, and employ tangible elements. Water in baptism, laying on of hands and anointing with oil at confirmation…and during the ordination of priests. Different oil is used for anointing sick people. Then there is holding of hands and a ring at a wedding. These are all tangible ways of touching and being touched by the mystery of God’s love. Following on from today’s story there are other memorable moments involving touch in the bible. The woman who washed the feet of Jesus with her tears, and then dried his feet with her hair. Mary Magdalene who reached out to touch the risen Lord whom she supposed to be the gardener – only to be told on that occasion ‘Noli me tangere’. There was also Thomas who demanded to touch the wounds of the risen Lord before he would be convinced of the resurrection.
We soon commune with the risen Lord and pray that the power of his life will fill us and nourish us on our pilgrimage home. But we also commune with one another. This is a reminder that the Lord touches us through other people, and wants to use us for the same purpose to do his work on earth. For he is within them as he is within us. The good news is that in being touched by divine love we can ‘Be of good comfort, for thy faith hath made thee whole’.