It’s impossible to overestimate the radicalness of Jesus’ actions
Liz Stuart, 27 June 2021
Lamentations 3: 22–33; 2 Corinthians 8: 7–15; Mark 5: 21–43
Touch. A pandemic has taught us to be fearful of touch. We might now understand a little better than we previously did why for many religious traditions touch presented a risk – a risk of contamination, of uncleanness – and why those who presented a particular risk should be avoided at all costs.
Our gospel today is in some sense about the complex power of touch, but it’s about so much more than that. In a carefully crafted narrative, the author of the gospel of Mark positions Jesus amid the narratives of two women, two women who were strangers to him. That in itself was not a comfortable place for Jesus to be, or any Jewish male of his time and culture. Strange women always presented the possibility of contamination. But here is Jesus willingly caught up in the stories of two very different women: one young and of status, the daughter of the ruler of the synagogue; one older, fated to a life of isolation and shunning because of a serious gynaecological problem which rendered her perpetually unclean and therefore her touch a risk to all she met. Both are nameless. Both are ciphers for all women under patriarchal structures, defined and interpreted by men, and rendered both powerless and dangerous by these definitions.
The first person to touch is the woman with the bad bleeding. She seeks to do so secretly, in a crowd. But this is not a timid woman. This is a woman who has had enough. She’s had enough of an illness which drains her and which is impossible to manage. She is tired of doctors and the indignity that comes with trying to treat an illness like this. And anyone listening to this sermon who has or who has had a womb knows what I’m talking about. And most of all, she is tired of a religion that labels her unclean and in the process denies her full humanity and ability to flourish. She has had enough.
She can’t enter the Temple or a synagogue, so she takes her destiny in her own hands and calculates how to lay claim on God. Perhaps she remembered the passage that we’ve just heard from Lamentations about God’s mercy being new every morning, about his abundant compassion, and it emboldens her. She touches the hem of Jesus’ garment. And he who is love without remainder cannot control the flow of that love any more than she can control the flow of her blood. And it flows from him unconsciously, the flow of his love meets the flow of her blood, and she is transformed. She knows that she is healed; he knows that the power has gone forth from him and he turns, he turns towards her to find her. Technically she has rendered him unclean by touching his garment, but he doesn’t care, and in this great throng of people he affirms her faith and her status as a true daughter of Abraham.
Then the scene changes: the ruler’s daughter is dead. She is now also unclean, a corpse. But he still goes to her, out of the public sphere into the private, from the bustle of life into the terrible stillness of death. He doesn’t care about the boundaries between life and death. This time it is he who touches unbidden. He who is life touches death, again rendering himself unclean; again he does not care. His life flows into her death and she is transformed.
How are these stories good news for us today? First, they teach us that Jesus’ healing touch can reach us beyond death. He doesn’t recognise the binary between life and death. Death does not take us beyond his love. Second, these stories are good news if you have just had enough, enough of illness, enough of not being able to touch, enough of being treated as a second-class citizen in the world or in the Church. Jesus is on your side. He wants you to be bold. To lay claim to his love. He turns towards you. He doesn’t care that he’s not supposed to. He doesn’t care about the consequences.
Jesus’ healing touch can reach us beyond death. He doesn’t recognise the binary between life and death. Death does not take us beyond his love.
These stories I think cast a light on what is going on in the Roman Catholic Church in America at the moment, with debates about barring people from Holy Communion because of their views on certain issues. If these stories that we’ve heard today teach us anything about the body and blood of Christ it is, in the words of Pope Francis, ‘The Eucharist [which is the body and blood of Christ] is the bread of sinners, not the reward of saints’. How dare anyone seek to bar a soul from Jesus, Jesus who gave himself in bread and wine even to Judas?
And these stories are good news if you’re a woman. It’s impossible to overestimate the radicalness of Jesus’ actions in a patriarchal context. He sees women as equals, as having an equal claim on God’s salvation, desirous of their wholeness and flourishing. He doesn’t recognise purity systems that perpetually disempower women.
So, the lesson for all of us is to be bold in our faith, to lay claim to Jesus and to be hopeful because he will reach us even beyond death. And we can be sure that if we have had enough – particularly enough of discrimination in the name of religion – he is more than fed up with it. We serve him by following his example, by just not acknowledging the barriers that others put up between people and their God. We do not acknowledge them and we gleefully smash through them. Amen.