I found the picture above very moving, perhaps even haunting. The woman pictured is crouching and her head is covered by a hood. You cant see her face, only her bare hand stretching out to touch what we know is the hem of Jesus clothing. It could have been a picture of humility, but its not. It is a picture of a woman pressed down and outcast within her society and perhaps even her family; a woman who is desperate. She is ostracised from those around her. Why? Because of ignorance and religious beliefs that diminish life rather than enrich it. It is not easy in the 21st century to completely understand the ancient mind and why laws and codes were established in a particular way; but they were used to control and diminish the lives of women.
The book of Leviticus, which is much quoted in the debate about homosexuality, is a book of rules and laws. In fact, of the 613 rabbinical laws in the Hebrew Scriptures, 247 come from the Book of Leviticus. I saw a picture this week on a friends Facebook page. It was a picture of a heavily tattooed man. On the top of his right forearm were tattooed the words, from the King James Bible, "Thou shalt not lie with a man as with woman: it is an abomination to the Lord, Leviticus 18:22." Unfortunately the poor fellow hadnt read the next chapter of Leviticus, where it says, "Thou shalt not make any cuttings in your flesh nor print any marks upon your body: for I am the Lord. Leviticus 19:28."
It is a bitter pill for most of us to swallow, but religion, even our religion, can be as oppressive as it can be enriching. And as I have mentioned, when it comes to religion, women, while not exclusively, have often been treated as second class citizens. There are many reasons that have been put forward for this cruel truth. There was a programme recently - I think it was "Sunday Night", and the segment was called Behind the Veil - where a group of women were interviewed about wearing the burqa. One woman was quite clear: she said it was so she would not be a temptation to men. Friends, I am well aware of the cultural and religious validation for certain kinds of dress, but something like the burqa, which is so oppressive, must be challenged in the name of "good" religion and men need to liberate women from this oppression. However, banning its wearing as in France I dont think is appropriate.
The woman in the picture on the front of our order of service could have been dressed in a burqa. And in this healing story from Marks gospel, she is an oppressed woman in at least two ways. First, she has to live with the debilitating effects of her physical condition and secondly, her religion, the faith that should be showing her care and compassion, treats her as an unwanted member of the community, as an outsider.
Healing and Wholeness
I want to be careful not to push this too far, but there is a difference between healing and wholeness. It is possible to be whole, complete and to have a disease. Perhaps the ancient world of Jesus time was not yet able to see that. Human disability or human "imperfections" were seen as either punishment from God or as moral failure on the part of the individual or their parents; or even their grandparents. There was fear that those who were different would "infect" the rest of the people. Now lets be fair here. Without modern medicine or modern sensibilities it may have been the best thing to isolate the "unhealthy" from the healthy. But something changed in the ancient world in and around Jesus. Some greater moral force was unleashed and I would suggest that it was the power of love and the spirit of compassion. There was a deep desire in the hearts of those who embraced the message of Jesus to invite the outsider in and to draw those who were out in the cold into the warming centre of care and compassion.
So today, twenty centuries removed from the days of Jesus and those followers, we still long for healing in the bodies of those who are in pain, or whose lives are shortened by illness and disease, but we know that the greatest gift in life is to be whole! And wholeness has everything to do with the quality of life and not only the quantity.
The Woman comes to Jesus
The book of Leviticus has clear instructions about what should happen with a woman during her menstrual cycle:
"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." Leviticus 15:19
Unfortunately for this woman it was a serious gynaecological disorder, that had been a part of her life for 12 years. The story clearly states her distress at the physical condition and her separation from normal everyday life. In the tradition of the healing stories in the gospels, she comes to Jesus to be made well to be restored to good health. Who wouldnt? Desperate people reach out for any relief from their suffering. But how she came to Jesus and what she did has intrigued preachers for centuries:
A large crowd followed and pressed around him. And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years. 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. When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, because she thought, "If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed."
There is a hint here of what I mentioned a few weeks ago about the secret followers of Jesus. As Nicodemus comes by night, she comes to Jesus anonymously. And we came to the conclusion last time that it doesnt matter how or when or where you come to the source of life just come. But how do we live into this story that is framed in an ancient belief that the mere touching of the hem of this mans garment will cure someone? While there always remains a mystery in life about why one person survives a deadly cancer, say and another does not, we know that we need more than touch to heal us.
Perhaps part of the answer is in Jesus response to her:
Jesus kept looking around to see who had done it. Then the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told him the whole truth. He said to her, "Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering."
Maybe the most important thing was that Jesus brought her in out of the cold. He acknowledged her and treated her as a valued part of her community. I do know that the narrative highlights her cure and in the ancient world that would have been important, but for us today we surely know that when a person has an incurable illness they may not be healed, but what we want is to embrace and nurture them. Even when unshackled from physical healing, the words of Jesus remain a powerful encouragement to the human spirit: "Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering."
It is interesting that he gives her, this outcast woman, all the power when he says, "Your faith has made you whole." They are not the words of an itinerant miracle worker who wants the kudos that comes from being a successful healer. He puts it fairly back into the human experience and the human condition. And his final words emphasise a form of freedom: "Go in peace and be freed from your suffering."
I recall a comment a parishioner once made after a sermon I had preached. He wasnt being critical, but rather he was trying to understand what I had said in the sermon. He said, "Ive noticed that you talk much more about liberation and freedom than you do about salvation." He was right. For me there is no salvation, unless there is liberation. The only purpose of faith and religion in the 21st century is to make your life better, richer, freer, fuller and more alive. If to be "saved" is to live a lesser life; to be bound by purity codes which isolate us, or legalistic interpretations of how we should live which limit the abundant life, then why would we ever embrace that? Why would we as a community impose on others what we dont want for ourselves?
Was this woman freed, liberated from her debilitating condition? Was she cured of something that her community, or more accurately the religious authorities, said she should be ashamed of? Who really knows! But what I do know is that two people stepped over the religious regulations and ignored the received code of behaviour; there was an encounter that was life-giving and that we are still talking about today, 2000 years later.