Pardon The Interruption
(by Rev Paul Graham)
Read Mark 5:21-43
The reading today could not, in many ways, be more alien to us than it is at this current time. For a start, we aren’t under occupation by foreign invaders, contrary to what some of the more sensationalist press would try to make us believe. Equally, we have a health service that, though creaky at times and over-burdened by bureaucracy at others, is still amazing and an asset to the population in general. Finally, the idea of being in a crowded space to such an extent that any number of people would be crushed up against each other is something that is so removed from our present experience, even as we make those first faltering steps back into something resembling “normality”, that we have almost forgotten what it is like to breathe in someone else’s deodorant.
And that’s a final point: in Jesus’ time, there would have been no deodorant. I’ll let you ponder on that in your own time.
Jesus is a popular man and much in demand. So far in his Gospel, Mark has recorded a couple of healings, a handful of parables, a storm-calming miracle and the crowd have all lapped it up. In the region where Jesus is based, on the banks of the lake in the region where he grew up, this is the sort of thing that is going to get you noticed. Let’s face it, what Jesus was doing would probably get him noticed wherever he was, but particularly in a provincial area of the country away from the excitement and busyness of the cities. For those away from the giddy delights of the urban sprawl, Jesus is certainly making a splash, in more ways than one.
So it’s hardly surprising that he’s come to the attention of the local religious authorities. But instead of seeing him as a threat to their power, he is approached as a helper and saviour of the synagogue leader’s daughter. And Jesus, out of compassion and full of mercy, is on his way to be the help that is requested, when there is an interruption.
As the disciples are quick to point out to him (and to us), Jesus’ popularity is such that going down the street is not a quiet affair. Jesus is accompanied by a crowd of well-wishers and supporters, far in excess of those he called by name to leave their fishing nets and follow him. This crowd will not be socially-distancing, probably because they’re used to the smell of rotting fish anyway, and there will be many who pushed against the Saviour’s clothes and jostled him in the melee.
But there is one that makes Jesus stop and pay attention. Mark helpfully describes it as Jesus knowing that power had left him, and it might be that it was accompanied by a flash of light as in any superhero movie, but that’s unlikely. Certainly, if there had been a visible demonstration of the power flowing from Jesus to the woman who touched him, it would have made the job of identifying her far easier. You know, she’s the one glowing like the Ready Brek kid, that sort of thing. But alas, no, so Jesus has to ask, mindful that it could have been any number of hands that touched him.
Mark describes the encounter between Jesus and the woman as one of desperation and pleading. If the woman’s intention had been to melt quietly into the crowd, healed and whole again, then this was not to be the case. Jesus calls her out, she confesses, and he blesses.
Now, why does this happen?
After all, she’s already been healed. Does this confrontation have to happen? And what business is it for the crowd that one of them got more than just a brush of Jesus’ cloak? Surely Jesus is just inviting trouble. There is a troubling scene in the Rice/Lloyd-Webber musical Jesus Christ Superstar that has Jesus literally overwhelmed by the many sick and destitute who are calling out for him to heal and restore them; isn’t Jesus opening himself up to this sort of scene by making it plain that healing is possible just by the touch of his clothes?
But, no, the woman comes quaking before Jesus to confess her crime, as what she had done constituted a crime. Not the touching of Jesus’ cloak, but her very presence in the crowd. Culturally, she was unclean; Levitical law is clear on this (check out Leviticus 16:19-25 for more details). With her blood-related disorder, she should have been at a distance from the crowd; had they known about her condition she would be pilloried, jostled and ejected, possibly permanently.
Because she had such a long history of this disorder as well, she would probably have been used to being the outcast, shunned from a society that celebrated bodily purity even at the cost of neighbourliness and compassion. That was her lot in life, so she took a huge risk in even being present in the crush. And, whether she banked on the sheer weight of numbers to guarantee her anonymity, that was shattered once Jesus continued his demands and she knew that she ought to confess and face the punishment that her misdemeanour warranted.
Of course, who knows how the conversation could have turned out? The woman could have been called out for who she was in the eyes of the crowd: an unclean trespasser invading their space with her condition that should have kept her apart. She could have suffered far more from her presence than for the healing – I’m not convinced that the draconian courts of rural Galilee would have been dissuaded from handing down some form of punishment, even if her body was now clean. Admitting her presence before Jesus also announced her identity to the crowd – what follows could be disastrous for her.
But rather than be met with approbation and condemnation, she is welcomed, encouraged and affirmed by Jesus. She believed that in touching his clothes she would be made well; Jesus granted healing in this manner. She was not only healed in her body, but also restored to the community. A public declaration of cleanliness would bring her back into the fold after so many years in the wilderness.
We can draw parallels between this encounter and the one between Jesus and Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10), where Jesus publicly drew the hated tax collector into his circle of friends, bringing transformation to one man’s life and restorative justice to many others. We can also draw a parallel to the challenge that Jesus faces only a few chapters later in Mark’s gospel about defining cleanliness after his disciples are seen eating without ritually washing their hands sufficiently (Mark 7:1-13), where Jesus challenges those who set down the rules whether they were getting it right (quick answer, they were getting it wrong).
But for us the encounter brings a different challenge.
There may be those of us who are like the woman, afraid that the “uncleanliness” we carry could be brought into the light of judgement and condemnation were we to ask Jesus for healing and forgiveness. How many of us would rather keep things secret, lest we open the door to public disgrace when we meet Jesus and what he might ask of us? How many dare not risk reaching out to receive the healing and grace of Jesus for fear of the crowd?
But the lesson of this story (and indeed of Zacchaeus) is that Jesus isn’t so much interested in what happened in the past, but that the encounter with him leads to a brighter, better, more grace-filled and free future. Trembling, the woman approaches Jesus, her mind racing with the possibilities (few of them good) that will result from this exposure. She leaves Jesus a changed woman, healed, restored and with her dignity as intact as her body.
How many of us would benefit from just a touch of his cloak to heal us, to hear those words of comfort, and to know that the future is going to be different: “Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.” In some way, I hope that you can experience that for yourself today. Tomorrow will be better for doing it.