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Pastor Glenn McDonald: If I Just Touch His Clothes

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Every day during this season of Lent we’re looking at the miracles of Jesus – his spectacular displays of supernatural power that are reported in the Gospels.  

Among the documents that archaeologists have recovered from the ancient world is this personal letter from a Roman official to his pregnant wife:  

“I ask and beg of you to take care of our baby son… If you are delivered of a child [before I get home], if it is a boy, keep it.  If a girl, discard it.  You have sent me word, ‘Don’t forget me.’  How can I forget you?  Do not worry.”  

For modern readers, this is emotional whiplash – marital tenderness mingled with unthinkable parental callousness.  Tragically, few people in classical times batted an eye at the discarding of newborn girls.   

Demographers have noted that for every 140 men in the Greco-Roman world, there were only 100 women.  Where were the females?  Two centuries before Jesus, the Greek poet Posidippus observed, “Everyone raises a son even if he is poor, but exposes a daughter even if he is rich.”  Exposure meant abandoning baby girls on the city dump, or perhaps throwing them into a local river.  

In Athens, a woman was considered a “child” no matter what her age.  At every stage of life, females were treated as the legal property of males.  Female testimony in court was generally considered worthless, since women were assumed to be unable to discern or describe reality. 

Attitudes in Israel, fortunately, were considerably more enlightened.   

Rabbis noted that according to Scripture, women are co-bearers of God’s image (Genesis 1:26-27), which means they are endowed with inherent dignity.  

But strong anti-female sentiment was always lurking just beneath the surface, as evidenced by popular rabbinical sayings like this one: “He that talks with womankind brings evil on himself, neglects the study of the law, and at last will inherit Gehenna.”  In other words, educated men who stoop to talking to women are heading straight for hell.

No wonder Jesus was trashed by his critics. 

Bible scholars have noted that virtually every time he interacts with women on the pages of Scripture, he violates a cultural taboo.  He talks with them.  He touches them.  He travels with them.  At Jacob’s well, he asks a Samaritan woman with a sketchy moral track record to fetch him a drink.  Such actions were stunningly subversive.   

It’s no surprise that women take center stage in a number of Jesus’ miracles - including a particularly desperate woman who feels the only way she can approach him is stealthily in the midst of a crowd.  

Here’s how Mark tells the story: 

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.” Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering. 

At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and asked, “Who touched my clothes?”  “You see the people crowding against you,” his disciples answered, “and yet you can ask, ‘Who touched me?’” But 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.” (Mark 5:25-34) 

As we noted earlier this winter, Luke reports the same encounter a bit differently.  He omits the observation that she has blown a chunk of her net worth on doctors.  Since we know Luke to have been a physician (see Colossians 4:14), he may well have been restraining himself from striking a blow against first century healthcare. 

Why does this woman tremble with fear in Jesus’ presence?   

Ancient Israel was an honor-and-shame-sensitive culture, and we can safely presume that her Shame-O-Meter is in the red zone.   

It was not unusual for women to feel afflicted by body shame, character shame, sexual shame, and what can only be described as gender shame – the simple and unalterable fact of being female in a man-oriented world.  Worst of all, for this woman, is the shame of ritual impurity.  A dozen years of bleeding have cut her off from everyone around her.

If she touches anyone, that person is automatically polluted with the spiritual contagion of ritual uncleanness.  And for a woman to reach out in public and touch a man to whom she is not married is relationally scandalous.  

If only she can put a finger on just one of those blue and white threads dangling from Jesus’ robe.  

She does it.  But she cannot escape.  Somehow he knows what has happened. 

“Who touched me?”  Now she has to do the one thing she’s been avoiding for years.  She has to go public with her weakness, her vulnerability, her shame.   

But she’s also just gotten the surprise of her life.  Instead of compromising Jesus with her touch, she recognizes that his fullness has overwhelmed her emptiness.  She is healed. 

Culturally, everything seems wrong with how this wonderful event comes about.  An impure woman has approached a man, and has actually touched him – in public no less.  And now she has been discovered.  Shame on her.  Yet he welcomes her.  He addresses her with tenderness.  “Go in peace, daughter, and be freed from your suffering.”  God alone knows how many levels of healing are happening in this moment. 

Here’s how the TV series The Chosen depicts the scene:  Jesus Healed a Bleeding Woman (excerpt from: The Chosen) ( 

So where does this story take us?  

Jesus knows our deepest shame.  We cannot hide or run away.   

Yet we can also bring our deepest shame to him, and he will not turn us away.  “Cast all your cares on him, because he cares for you” (I Peter 5:7).  His cloak is within reach, and he is willing to make us whole.  

What are we to make of the many stories in which Jesus goes out of his way to honor women?  Why does it so often seem that the Church remains twenty centuries behind the example of its Master?   

Attitudes have changed slowly.  But there is evidence that Jesus-followers, even at a very early date, were willing to address some of their culture’s most grievous blind spots. 

Infants – so many of them little girls – were routinely left atop piles of refuse at the city dump.  A child exposed to the elements wouldn’t last very long.  Unless, that is, someone claimed it.  Some of the girls were collected by brothels, where they would almost certainly live out the remainder of their short lives.  

But there were others who came to the dumps to retrieve abandoned babies.  

Some of the earliest Christians valued the lives of these children.  They took them home, offering the promise of a future.  Because their family origins were unknown, the little ones were often named Exposito, the Latin word for “exposed.”   

Amazingly, that legacy endures.  Do you know anyone with the surname Esposito?  It’s likely that person’s genealogy goes all the way back to an abandoned baby on a city dump.  

Why did those followers of Jesus do it?  

There was no precedent in the ancient world.  Historians are unaware of any culture that considered it virtuous to take care of someone else’s rejected child.  

But those who love the Lord are called to express sacrificial love for every man.  

And that definitely means every woman. 


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