The healing of a bleeding woman, Rome, Catacombs of Marcellinus and Peter
“Take away the possibility of offense…and then Christianity is done away with, for it has become an easy thing, a superficial something which neither wounds nor heals profoundly enough; it is the false invention of human sympathy which forgets the infinite qualitative difference between God and man. “ -Søren Kierkegaard
We once again have a powerfully visual narrative from the gospel. There are two intertwined stories and they help illuminate each other. I want to touch on this narrative, especially as it brings out the nature of faith.
There is a synagogue official, called Jairus whose daughter is at the point of death. The mention of his name and his title indicates his importance in the community. His importance would indicate that he has money, and certainly influence. That his daughter has reached this dangerous state means, he’s tried different things and they’ve not worked. Now he comes to Jesus. This is his last hope. We do not really know what he made of Jesus but his coming and falling at Jesus’ feet is certainly an act of real humility. Please lay your hands on her and she will live. Most things in life, we rely on our efforts; we are comfortable, we don’t need to be involving God in it. It doesn’t mean we don’t care about God; but our prayer can just be another activity of our life. But sometimes, we are faced with an event which is beyond our powers and we know that only God can help. For Jairus, this was still part of his plan as he comes to Jesus. And Jesus goes with him.
We need to imagine this scene. It’s pre-pandemic Oxford Street magnified a hundred times. This crowd does not move fast. And mid-way, Jesus stops, because something has happened. He turns around and starts asking who has touched him. If the question sounds senseless to the apostles, we have to imagine Jairus’ position. It is costing this man to be here, rather than by his daughter, as she is dying. At least they were moving; now, they’ve stopped. Finally, the woman turns up.
She is of completely different social status to Jairus. She is poor, an outcast, a woman of no importance. The constant flow of blood would be suffering enough for anyone. But it meant that she was ritually unclean. Clean and unclean – which might sound strange to us – had to do with life and death. Leviticus says the life of the animal is in the blood (Lev 17:4) and therefore, blood was holy. To lose blood meant that you were losing life. She was an image of the living-dead, which is a symbol of sin. Anyone who came into contact with her would likewise become unclean. Such people, therefore, had to stay clear of crowds. To act as this woman did was a social violation with severe consequences. But this woman has heard of Jesus. She has faith. She decides to obtain her healing in the only way she can figure out. She touches Jesus, and even without Jesus explicitly doing something, she is healed as the power of God flows into her. As Jesus looks for her, she comes forward in fear and trembling. And it says, she told him the whole truth – in other words, her whole story. She’s received her physical healing, but Jesus needs her to do something more for it to be complete, spiritually: she has to bear witness before the people of God. In doing so, she has to re-interpret her life, especially the last twelve, painful years, through this event of grace which has happened to her. This is true for us. God is constantly good in our lives. But we have to notice it and bear witness to this as possible. This is what causes us to grow in our faith, it leads to deeper healing. Otherwise, these events can pass us by and we miss the graces that we could have received.
All this time, Jairus is still waiting: the crowds were slow, but this is a nightmare. Jesus is listening to a story of twelve years! Even the highlights would take time. As she finishes, his greatest fear comes to pass. His daughter has died. What can anyone do anymore? Now, Jesus turns and speaks to Jairus. This is the first time he has spoken to him. He gives him a word: Do not be afraid, only have faith. Faith in what?! What can happen anymore? His whole world has collapsed. But he has been given a word: in front of it, Jairus has two options. He could receive it, impossible as it might be to believe; Jairus probably didn’t know what to believe. Or he could reject it. He could have shouted at Jesus, for having stupidly wasted precious time, while his daughter was dying and walked away, angry. Angry at himself for having left his last moments with his daughter for the risk of faith. But this was a moment of transition to real faith. Jairus receives this promise. He holds on to it, no knowing what it meant. And as he does, Jesus clears the roads. After the girl’s death! Why? He is making space to move. Fast. As long as Jairus was in charge, things were moving, but slowly. Now that Jairus had surrendered to the Word of God, Jesus had space to act. He reaches the house immediately, unhindered by the crowds. Jairus follows, bewildered. He is subject to further ridicule, as Jesus tells the mourners that the girl is not dead and puts them out. But after all that, in his room, the secret place of God’s action, he witnesses first hand, the glory of God.
We have two different people, but they both have to reach the same place of faith, through their very different lives and events, before God could act. The Danish philosopher, Kierkegaard wrote a lot about the element of offence in Christianity. Jairus had to go through repeated moments of offense, till his hope was all shaped by the Word of Jesus. The woman, on the other hand, had lived through twelve years of offence: she had been excluded by everyone, she had lost everything. But through all of it,God had uniquely prepared her for an encounter with him. Having lost all, she was ready to risk everything to touch his glory. Our faith will encounter this same offence. It will, at moments challenge our pride, even offend our intelligence. It could be as small as making the sign of the Cross in public and ‘outing’ ourselves as Christian before friends. It could be a suffering which leaves us questioning how God could allow something like this to happen in our lives. The God who created the universe – and us – cannot be captured by our reason, however lofty it might be. He will always lead us beyond our categories, sometimes acting in ways beyond our comprehension. But he will never leave us alone. He will give us a word of promise, if we will listen. He speaks to us in our prayer, he speaks to us in the Scriptures and even through others. And every Sunday, he most clearly speaks a word for our particular situations, during the Eucharist. It is faith to hold on to it, when we don’t even know what to expect – except that the One who makes the promise is true. But as we learn to let go of our conditions on God, we will also encounter his glory.