Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Woman Who Bled

One thing I find striking about the miracles recorded in the Gospel accounts is how much variety we find in them. Some instances are dramatic: Jesus commands the storm on the sea to be still; he tells the cripple to arise and walk; he calls out to Lazarus, four days dead in the tomb, to come forth. In others, he doesn’t seem to do anything at all, as in the case of the Centurion’s servant or the Canaanite woman’s daughter: he just tells the person requesting help that their loved one has been healed. In yet other cases, Jesus tells someone to do something completely mundane and seemingly irrelevant, and in the course of doing it the miracle just seems to happen, as in the Wedding at Cana, or the various miracles involving St. Peter and fish.

Then there’s the story of the Woman Who Bled, which might be the most peculiar one of all.

The story occurs as a kind of interruption in the middle of a completely different miracle. A man named Jairus, one of the administrators of the local synagogue, comes to Jesus with an urgent request. His daughter is dying and he pleads with Jesus to come lay his hands on her and heal her. (Mark 5:21-23). Luke’s telling of the story adds the details that the girl is only twelve years old and is Jairus’ only daughter. (Luke 8:40-42) Matthew’s version does not name the father and says that the girl has already died, but I think Matthew is anticipating things here. (Matthew 9:18).

Jesus arrives too late; the girl has already died and the Professional Mourners have already arrived, weeping and wailing fit to wake the… well … the dead. When Jesus says that the girl is not dead but merely sleeping, the mourners laugh at him, perhaps mistakenly believing him to be quoting a Monty Python skit.

Jesus elbows his way into the house to the child’s bedside, just him, the girl’s family and a couple of his closest disciples. He takes the girl’s hand and says, “Little girl, arise,” (Mark gives it to us in Aramaic: “Talitha koum.” ) And the girl gets up and begins to walk around.

That, briefly, is the story of Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:35-43); but as I mentioned, there’s another miracle inserted in the middle of the story; one that sometimes gets omitted in the telling, but which appears in each of the three versions from the Gospels. It seems irrelevant to the story of Jairus, except maybe to build some suspense, and one could look at it as a minor miracle compared to Jesus’ demonstration of power over Death. Yet to me this other, digressive story carries a sense of mystery, possibly even greater than the other.

So, backing up a bit. A crowd had gathered around Jesus when Jairus got to him -- heck, just his disciples alone were already a crowd – and the crowd grew into a veritable parade as they followed Jesus to Jairus’ house. In that crowd was a woman who was suffering from a terrible condition causing excessive bleeding.

When I was a kid, I assumed this must be something like hemophilia, because back then people really didn’t talk openly about menstruation; at least not to pre-adolescent boys. The text doesn’t give us much specific information, but we can guess that it was The Menstrual Period From Hell, except that it had lasted for twelve years. Mark tells us, “She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better, she grew worse.” (Mark 5:26)

(Some commentators have noted that this woman had been suffering for twelve years, and that Jairus’ daughter was twelve years old. A coincidence? Or was the number chosen symbolically to link the two stories together? I couldn’t say.)

I suspect that a lot of guys don’t really understand menstruation. As I said, it’s not something that’s really talked about openly. It’s mysterious to us, maybe a little bit freaky, and it makes women crabby once a month. Yeah, guys tend to only understand the aspects of it that directly affect us. But I understand from the people I know who do experience it, that a menstrual period is at best, agonizing, and at worst can be incapacitating. In Jesus’ day, it was even worse for women because of the Jewish Laws regarding blood.

A goodly chunk of the Law of Moses deals with cleanliness issues. Certain things were considered Unclean and contact with them would render a person contaminated and they would be required to undergo ritual purification These things included pork, dead bodies, “discharges” of various kinds, and semen, but a biggie was blood. Several verses in the Book of Leviticus are devoted to avoiding contact with blood and purification should you, by necessity become contaminated by it. When I first tried slogging through reading Leviticus, I thought all these cleanliness regulations were rather excessive, until years later when I had to sit through OSHA training seminars on Blood-Borne Pathogens.

So was Moses trying to establish principles of hygiene and sanitation couched in religious terms for a culture that didn’t understand the germ theory of disease? Or were these rules simply based on the idea that there was something sacred or mystical about blood? Or was it a little of both? I couldn’t say.

This principle that contact with blood rendered one ritually unclean necessitated special rules for those subject to menstruation:

“’When a woman has her regular flow of blood, the impurity of her monthly period will last seven days, and anyone who touches her will be unclean till evening. “’Anything she lies on during her period will be unclean, and anything she sits on will be unclean. Whoever touches her bed must wash his clothes and bathe with water, and he will be unclean till evening. Whoever touches anything she sits on must wash his clothes and bathe with water, and he will be unclean till evening. Whether it is the bed or anything she was sitting on, when anyone touches it, he will be unclean till evening.’” (Leviticus 15:19-23 NIV)

A large section of the Mishnah, one of the foundations of the Jewish Talmud, is devoted to elaborating on the Levitical laws regarding menstruation, considering various contingencies, and even case studies of rulings made by rabbis based on the evidence of stained article of clothing.

Things were even more complicated for a person like the woman in Mark chapter 5, whose period lasts longer than usual. In such a case, the woman was required to remain quarantined for seven days past the last day of menstruation, and also to bring two doves or young pigeons to be offered as a sacrifice in addition to the standard ritual washing; something not required after a normal period.

So what with the unending bleeding, (no doubt accompanied by cramps that felt like her uterus was trying to eat her from the inside); the isolation from the rest of the community; the worthless doctors who didn’t know squat about women’s health but nevertheless charged her up the hoo-hah; not to mention the expense of having to buy two young pigeons each time it looked like the bleeding had finally ceased… well, this woman was pretty desperate. But she’d heard about this teacher who could heal people…

She makes her way through the crowd around Jesus and comes up behind him. If she can just touch his cloak, she thinks – the hem of his garment, Luke’s telling of the story says in the King James Version – she’s certain she’ll be healed. And so she does.

Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering. (Mark 5:29)

When I was little, I wondered how she would know; but if her uterus had been tying itself in knots, and then suddenly the pain ceased, that’s something she certainly would notice.

Jesus notices too:

At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and asked, “Who touched my clothes?” (v.30)

Let’s stop here and take a look at this. I usually think of Jesus’ miracles as him doing something: rebuking the winds, and they obey him, commanding demons and driving them out; laying on his hands, and curing the illness; even just saying that something will be so and it is so. Like a Fifth Level Wizard saying “I cast Magic Missile.”

But in this case, the miracle just sort of happens, without his active participation at all.

There’s an old doctrine in Christian theology which states that Christ was both True God and True Man, but even Christians who hold this doctrine don’t really think about it a whole lot, nor dwell on what this might mean. It means possessing both limitless Divine Power, yet also human limitations. How can this be? I have trouble wrapping my mind around it. This is truly hot ice and wond’rous strange snow.

And yet perhaps it’s what we’re seeing here, where Jesus seems unaware of the miracle he’s just performed; or rather, that the miracle performed itself without his conscious participation, as if he were merely the conduit of Divine Power and not its wielder.

The only active party in this miracle is the woman herself, who takes the initiative to grasp his garment and draws the healing power into herself. It’s a mystery.

As far as the Disciples are concerned, though, the only mystery is what Jesus means. After all, he’s in the middle of a crowd of people, all jostling and bumping into each other, trying to get close to him; and he asks who touched him?

No doubt Jairus was annoyed by the interruption too. His daughter was dying, and Jesus stops to ask such a stupid question?

But no, the question was an important one. Jesus wants to see and to talk to the person he had healed. 

he woman is scared. Was she going to get in trouble? After all, she was considered “unclean” and wasn’t supposed to go around touching other people. Would Jesus be mad at her for stealing a miracle from him? The woman falls at his feet and admits what she has done.

Jesus isn’t mad at her at all. He commends her for her faith: “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.” (v.34)

We don’t hear what happened to the woman after this. Jesus has this brief moment with her to reassure her and affirm her healing; then he gets yanked back to the other crisis at Jairus’ house. We don’t even learn the woman’s name. Then again, the text doesn’t say if Jesus had to take a bath to purify himself afterwards either. Healing the two women who needed help was a higher priority for him.

But although I called this an atypical miracle for Jesus, in one way it’s not unusual at all. Jesus often showed the most warmth and affection for those who took the initiative: the guys who opened a hole in the roof of the house Jesus was staying in so they could bring their crippled friend in for Jesus to heal; the Canaanite woman who, when challenged by Jesus on her right to ask for help, refused to be intimidated and gave a ready answer; the leper who, finding that he and his nine comrades had been healed of their disease while going to see the priest as Jesus commanded, took the time to return to Jesus and thank him.

And then this woman, denied contact with the rest of the community, who just wanted to touch him.