Brief synopsis of the readings: We begin with the Book of Wisdom (an Old Testament Book that Catholics include but Jews and Protestants do not). The author speaks of how death is not God’s doing and that harm holds no power on the earth. We humans are made imperishable, in God’s image. But the devil’s envy brought death into the world. Mark’s Gospel is a long one. It began with Jarius, a synagogue official, who approached Jesus and asked that Jesus heal his daughter who was sick. While Jesus was on his way to heal this child he caught the eye of a woman who had suffered from a hemorrhage for the last twelve years. In those years she sought treatment, spending all she had, and only got worse. Seeing Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, believing that would heal her. It did. She immediately stopped bleeding, but then Jesus felt his healing power leave him and demanded to know who touched him. Frightened, she confessed it was her. Jesus then told her that her faith had restored her to health. Shortly after that a group approached and told Jarius that his daughter had died. Ignoring them Jesus continued on his journey and brought the girl back from the dead.
This was a busy Gospel, and I’m going to preach only on the woman with the hemorrhage. My apologies to Jarius and his daughter.
Where does death come from? When I was a child I was told that death came through Original Sin. Had Adam and Eve not eaten from the forbidden fruit, none of us would die. I remember thinking that the earth would get pretty crowded pretty quickly, but it speaks to a larger reality: where does evil come from?
Some Christians feel that God created both good and evil as a test to see if our destiny lies in Heaven or Hell. Others feel that God created good and Satan (who created evil) and we are pawns in a larger battle between good and evil. Finally, some think that God created good and our fear and selfishness created evil.
I don’t wish to tackle this problem, but I do find something to think about in the woman with the hemorrhage. I think we can all agree that this woman’s disability centered on menstruation. Jews at the time of Jesus, and Orthodox Jews today believe that when a woman is having her period she is unclean. She cannot be touched by her husband for seven days after the end of her period, and then only after taking a ritual bath called a “mikvah bath.” We don’t know why these laws were made but perhaps they noticed that if a couple refrained from intercourse until 7 days after the end of the woman’s period it often ended in a blessed pregnancy. It’s also possible that men are just grossed out by this whole thing. Some women have a much harder time with this and experience spotting between periods and each time this happens the seven day clock resets.
The unnamed woman in our Gospel probably experiences something like this. They tell me it’s not common, but certainly not unheard of. I’ve spoken with a few women about this and it’s hard to imagine that she experienced her period continually for seven years, but perhaps she had enough spotting during her cycle that the clock was continually reset.
In any case, she was someone who experienced phenomenal isolation. We don’t know if the woman was married but we do know that she was expected to have no physical contact with anyone. Given this, it took no small amount of courage for her to do what she did. When we read about healings done by Jesus they follow a pattern: the afflicted person approaches Jesus and asks for healing. This was different.
Perhaps she was afraid that Jesus would refuse to touch her because she was unclean or perhaps she was afraid that she would be scorned by those around Jesus. Regardless, she decided that if only she touch a piece of Jesus clothing, this might (might) give her the healing she so desperately needed.
And so she gathered the courage to do what nobody in her society would expect her to do: she pushed herself through the crowd, through her friends and neighbors who knew she was unclean and grabbed Jesus’ clothing. She hoped that she would be able to do this anonymously but it didn’t work. Jesus felt his healing power leave him and demanded to know who did this. Again, this woman could have easily disappeared into the crowd, but again she chose courage and admitted it was her. This must have surprised everyone there, but this newly clean woman was praised by Jesus for her faith.
When we think of courage, when we think of those who act courageously, we admire them. We admire many things: generosity, kindness, and originality. But when people act with courage they do this with something unique: they often don’t think of themselves as courageous.
In my experience when people act with courage they feel scared, or desperate, or trapped. They do what they do because they don’t feel they have any choice. This woman grabbed at Jesus’ clothing not because she felt courageous but she felt desperate. Her life as an outcast became so intolerable that she didn’t care about the consequences, but instead did what she needed to do.
I think we can learn from her. She wasn’t an outcast because of God’s laws or natural circumstances. She was an outcast because of a law developed by us. Regardless if this law’s purpose came from a misguided understanding of fertility or a prejudiced view of women, this women did not deserve to be isolated. And in fairness there were things men could do to be unclean (develop leprosy touch a dead body, for example) but being unclean for several days per month was to women of childbearing age.
As disciples we are called to be obedient to the law, but we are called to much more. We are called to be faithful and when these values conflict, we need to choose faithfulness over obedience. The woman in the Gospel found healing in grabbing healing instead of asking for it.
Today we live with rules and laws and most of the time they conform to our faith. But when our laws don’t value life, when they see immigrants as dangerous, when they choose fear over safety, they run against today’s Gospel.
I look at this woman who grabbed Jesus’ clothing as heroic because she didn’t ask for healing or wait for healing. She grabbed healing and that made her courageous. I like to think she made it easier for the rest of us to grab healing when we are confronted by the injustice we make.