Bloody Redemption
  • Sunday, July 1, 2012

Pentecost 5
First reading: 2 Sam. 1:1, 17-27; Ps. 130
Alternate: Wis. 1:13-15, 2:23-24
or Lam. 3:21-33; Ps. 30
2 Cor. 8:7-15 • Mark 5:21-43

Blood. For twelve years it had been blood, day after day, without any hint of relief. All her clothes were stained by it, its stench always hung about her body. It had cost her all her money, all her friends. No one would share a meal with her, no one would hold her tenderly with love. It was all the world could see in her — an outcast, marked indelibly by this curse.

The law of Moses ruled clearly, if ruthlessly, on the subject. A flux of menstrual blood made a woman ritually unclean. Her touch spread contagion. Her clothes, plate, bench and bed all carried the germs of uncleanness. She was like the leper, or the corpse. Once it has become clear that Jairus’s daughter is truly dead, her father bids Jesus go his way. He does not want the well-meaning rabbi to risk contamination by touching the corpse of his child.

It’s easy for modern people like us to despise the purity laws. They seem to represent all that is repressive, cruel and backward in Israel’s religion. We are quick to applaud the pluckiness of the unnamed woman, sneaking up in the press of the crowd to snatch a forbidden cure — a kind of first-century Rosa Parks who would not be daunted by the ignorant customs of men.

But those laws testify to an intuition rooted deep in the faith of Israel. Human touch is rarely indifferent or innocent. It carries the heavy weight of sin, a curse handed down from our first ancestors. A gray pallor hangs about life and death and those activities that create them, and we cannot shake free of it as quickly and simply as we would like. Sin is worked deeply into it all, and calls out from the ground for redemption, not merely a more enlightened viewpoint.

The Book of Wisdom proposes an alternative way of understanding the natural world: “He created all things that they might exist, and the generative forces of the world are wholesome, and there is no destructive poison in them.” As a testimony to the faith of Israel, it falls a bit short, more a word from the acropolis than the temple, as so much else in this most deracinated book of Scripture. It has the flavor of a pious hope, though perhaps one not so grounded in fact as the author would wish.

But when the woman touches the hem of Jesus’ robe, the blood stops. He takes the hand of a corpse and raises it to life again. His touch is more powerful than the contagion of sin; in him, at least, “the generative forces are wholesome.” The King James Version captures the sense of it well: he perceived that “virtue had gone out of him.” This is not mere power that conquers disease and death, but the essence of the Man, that which gave him singularity and meaning. Even here, as his ministry is beginning, we see hints of what is to come. Today he stops the flow of unclean blood, another day his blood will wash clean the garments of the saints. Today he raises a child who will die again, another day his body will rise in unconquerable glory. He is the Second Adam, the first Man of the new creation, and his virtue is the only new thing under the sun.

Look It Up
Read Acts 19:11-12. Why are the clothes the measure of the man?

Think About It
Isaac Williams wrote: “If the hem of his garment had such power to heal and cleanse when touched without, what shall be his Body and Blood received within?”

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