Healing Faith

ἡ πίστις σου σέσωκέν σε. Your faith, your trust, has rescued you and made you well. Jesus says it to the woman with the hemorrhage. The woman who has just provoked an involuntary (on his part) exercise of divine power. The woman who had been, until that moment, afflicted for twelve years. And to bowdlerize the problem, all we have to do is translate it without the parallel to Leviticus 15:25, so we don't say out loud what the audience knows, which is that this is a reproductive health issue. Twelve years of abnormal genital bleeding. Twelve years of it, in a society where one avoids social contact with a healthy woman for the days each month when she's menstruating normally. And the medical apparatus of the time has done nothing but take her money and exacerbate the problem. But her faith will make her well? What can that mean?

What is faith? I routinely explain it as the quality of being in relationship with God. But it is also the quality of that relationship. And it is that relationship and that quality of trust, even when the relationship is with some other object or person or deity. It is, moreover, a difficult sort of relationship to enter into if one feels no need for it. It is not a relationship between equals. Socially, the word refers to allegiance, loyalty, reliance, dependence, and their concomitant responses from the other side. It is the relationship in which those responses are characterized by grace, charis, and the obligations of faith are responses to grace. You might say that faith requires inequality. Really, what it requires is need, and the ability on the other side to meet that need. Trustworthiness and trust.

Desperation isn't necessary for that kind of trust, any more than a life-and-death situation is, but it certainly doesn't hurt to have the need magnified and the options reduced drastically to reveal the quality of faith. And surely it is easier to trust in God when everything else has proven untrustworthy. Jairus has come to Jesus because his daughter is dying. A man who leads one of the worship assemblies of the Decapolis—a man with other resources, presumably. A man to whom others are loyal. A man whom others trust. His daughter is terminally ill. At the point of death. And he comes to Jesus and prostrates himself—the posture of worship, not mere humility—and begs. And Jesus demonstrates gracious responsibility as Lord and goes. There is prayer, there is answer, and there will be healing.

But this is only the frame for a story of a woman whose suffering has lasted longer, and who has no other resources—not even a name. An invisible, untouchable woman. Indeed, invisibly untouchable, because she can disappear in a crowd. She's not covered in sores, or anything that would mark her out as obviously unclean in Judean society. As the pudenda are in polite society, her disorder is hidden away as well as it may be. But she is permanently unclean, nonetheless, because her condition is medically incurable. To identify herself is a risk; certainly people who know her, know her problem.

It's interesting to note that Judaism is exactly this kind of "problem" in the Hellenistic world of the story. It isn't like one goes around displaying one's circumcision. Covenant obedience is just as pub(l)icly invisible, unless you go around announcing it in other ways.

Now, I'm not going to do this woman's situation the metaphorical injustice of saying that every one of your brothers and sisters is fighting a hard battle, under the surface. This is not Steve Martin preaching that all of us have an El Guapo, and her personal El Guapo happens to be a worsening vaginal hemorrhage that's going to kill her. But I do want you to realize that this woman is a deeply sympathetic character as an example of what real salvation looks like.

Mark's audience can identify and understand Jairus as a character, with a name and a position and a household, but they aren't going to identify with him to anything like the degree possible with this nameless woman. And the fact that she is not named actually helps this. "Defective" characterization frequently serves this function. Consider the female protagonist in Twilight. Sure, she has a name, but she's missing most of her character, leaving her as a placeholder to be filled by the intended reader. An infuriatingly badly written placeholder—unless you read romance novels much—but at least some of the gaps in her characterization work to a point.

Which isn't in any way to diminish the reality of this woman in the gospel, who is as well-characterized as Jairus, if more briefly—and whose name was probably not asked or given by those around her. Surely she had one, back when she had the resources to spend hoping for a doctor who could heal her. But while her anonymity does serve to draw in the reader, she is also genuinely invisible to the crowd. Only the narrator sees her; only the narrator knows her story. A woman who no longer has the status to approach her social superiors, even in desperate prostration, and speak to them as Jairus does. A woman who draws no attention to herself because of the oppression of her social shame. A woman whose ailment has lasted as long as Jairus' daughter has lived, and who has already lost everything she had to lose, save her life. If Jesus is Jairus' last hope, out of his recent desperation, he is this woman's only hope. Desperation is a temporary posture just the other side of embarrassment for Jairus—but she has long since sunk permanently into embarrassment.

And so, while Jairus comes with his retinue, and his own crowd because of the cause célèbre of his daughter's illness, and still others waiting at home who have enough pride to suggest that he not embarrass himself and the teacher because the opportunity has passed and the girl is dead, the unnamed woman has nothing but herself and her hope. And yet both of them have very specific ideas of what has to be done, what precise thing will bring about the healing they each need. For Jairus, it's the laying on of hands. If Jesus comes, and he does this, the thing will happen. The sickness will depart, and his daughter will not die. His trust takes this very tangible, instrumental form. Which it often does, in the bargaining stages of grief.

But Jairus' instrumentalization of Jesus comes in a context in which Jesus' consent matters. He is able to ask for his miracle, and so Jesus is consulted, and wills to respond. The unnamed woman cannot approach Jesus in public, nor could she approach him in private. It would be impossible for her to do what the lame and blind (and male) beggars do in Mark: to cry out and invoke his help. She cannot ask Jesus to do something for her. She dare not interrupt him and draw his holy attention. But her faith is every bit as strong, her trust that God will heal and save. Her trust that God will do so through this man, this messianic figure of saving help.

But to do so, she has no choice but to treat him as an object, and a dangerous one. All holy men are dangerous objects to unclean women. And so she has concentrated her hope into the smallest possible interaction, one that will do what God knows must be done, but without (as Jairus' people will say later) "bothering the teacher." "If I just touch his overcoat..." It is as though she prays that God will heal her, but without stopping to notice or pay attention to her. There is a sort of pickpocket's lightness to this, though from a very different fear of discovery. This is how far her faith, strong though it remains, has been crippled by her social situation. She dares to come far closer to God than her world would ever allow, to violate the cultic protective distance that is supposed to keep God's holiness intact—but she dares not be noticed doing it. In this way she risks something Jairus does not, because it is far easier for Jairus to find a gracious God. He risks only the derision of men, and not the wrath of God.

Through all of this, for all of her earned distrust of holy men, she remains deeply motivated to trust God. And she is so successful in this trust that it happens for her just as she believes that it will. Jesus never notices the touch. He's not a man on his guard against human contact, nor does he need to be. And there is no loss here, no offense committed; it isn't as though she had stolen something. There is no crime committed here—at least, not by her. But while he was paying attention to the rich man and his crowd, Jesus missed being himself, just for a moment. God didn't fail to meet the need of this faithful woman—but Jesus almost did.

Notice how the text reads. The narrator gives us the touch, and the mind of faith behind it, and then the immediate bodily healing—and then, Jesus notices. He realizes that, in spite of his inattention, he's done something powerful here. But he hasn't finished the job, and he must find this woman. You see, it is not enough for Jesus—it is not enough for God—that you have "healing faith," and that the thing works. God insists on more than just healing your bodies. Jesus insists on finding this self-effacing, invisible, fearful, oppressed and terrifyingly brave woman and completing the task by beginning the healing of her faith itself. Because, you see, she knows now that God is beneficial, but she does not know that God is good. Not to her, not personally, not in love and kindness. She does not yet know that she has always deserved God's attention, and that nothing truly separates her from the love of God. Surely she knows that she is a child of God as a Judean—but she does not know that she is God's beloved and worthy daughter.

And so, as she "faces the music," and comes forward, and cowers, terrified, at Jesus' feet confessing everything, the only music to face is pure gracious love. The text does not say that he raises her up, and I wish it did, much as it would spoil the rhetorical parallel in which he raises up Jairus' daughter. But you must understand that he does, because these two stories are one. What he says to her cannot be received in cowering reverent fear, and understood. It is the beginning of the gracious undoing of the terror she has lived under. "Daughter, oh my daughter, your trust has truly healed you. Go your way in peace, and be safe from from that which beats and scourges you."

Beloved people of God, sons and daughters all, do not let them scourge you or beat you for what they suppose makes you unclean, and unworthy of the holy love of God. Do not beat and scourge yourself. God requires no distance from you, nor can God's holiness be diminished by anything that God has made. In fact, God insists on being holy precisely in touching you, in loving kindness toward you, in lifting you up, and in healing not just your bodies. God, in Jesus Christ, insists on also healing your faith from all the sinful abuses that seek to force you to have to trust God "in spite of," if they permit you to trust God at all. You are God's beloved children by adoption. Therefore go your ways in peace, whatever the world may say, because God rejects none of you.

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