Healing a Deep Hatred
Week of Sunday June 28
Bible Mark 5:21-43
21 When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered round him; and he was by the lake. 22Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet 23and begged him repeatedly, ‘My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.' 24So he went with him.
And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. 25Now there was a woman who had been suffering from haemorrhages for twelve years.26She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. 27She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, 28for she said, ‘If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.'29Immediately her haemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. 30Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, ‘Who touched my clothes?' 31And his disciples said to him, ‘You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, "Who touched me?" ' 32He looked all round to see who had done it. 33But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. 34He said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.'
35 While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader's house to say, ‘Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?' 36But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, ‘Do not fear, only believe.' 37He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. 38When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. 39When he had entered, he said to them, ‘Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.' 40And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child's father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. 41He took her by the hand and said to her, ‘Talitha cum', which means, ‘Little girl, get up!' 42And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. 43He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.
My colleague Anne Butler brought this story alive one morning in college chapel. She read verses from Leviticus, about bodily secretions, which I have never heard read in church, before or since. These verses deal with the uncleanness of women. Then Anne read the story of the woman with the flow of blood from Mark. By healing her, she proclaimed, Jesus made all women clean.
After twentyfive years I remember few other chapel services from college days! I remember that as we left this one, the Old Testament lecturer was delighted. Other people were very offended. Some things just shouldn't be mentioned in church. Even if they are in the bible.
I have seen the pain hatred toward women has caused in my own family. It distresses me to find that I too, as a man, still have it deep within me. The reading in Mark seems to me to strike a profound blow against views of women as inferior. I have posted a sermon from my past. There is not much more to say...
.... I was down the beach one beautiful still morning when I met a really nice, gentle bloke, who often swims too. We both watched someone swimming right out past the pontoon, over the blue line, toward the pellet plant jetty. "I hope you don't go swimming out there," said the man. "You take your life in your hands out there. If he gets a cramp, he's dead."
"If it's up to my chest, that's deep enough", I said. "Besides, then you can still run ashore if a shark turns up!"
Sharks.... He began to tell me of a boating friend who once found a large white pointer lurking under the pontoon. We talked of the common fear all beach swimmers have in the back of their mind. What really struck me when the subject changed to sharks was not the depth of his feeling; I shared that! It was the way he expressed it. His fear, his anger, his loathing of sharks, was all expressed in terms of female genitals.
I'd heard it before in the pubs. Men hate women, it seems. And they are afraid of them. Their deepest anger and loathing is expressed in terms of female genitals, sexual union, and especially by the language used to describe menstruation. And there it was again, that morning on the beach. Not from some yobbo in the pub, but in a well spoken, gentle man. I had thought I would have liked him in the congregation.
I have begun to learn that this hatred is very deep, and very common. It is endemic in our society, although usually hidden below the surface. And again and again at its roots it seems to be linked to the reproductive biology of women. Our society is rife with the hatred of women; it's not just the yobs.
It shows up in the church. It is within living memory that some of our mothers were churched after child-birth. That meant they were made clean after childbirth! The blood of childbirth was seen to make them un-clean. That comes from the Bible.
Speak to the people of Israel, saying: If a woman conceives and bears a male child, she shall be ceremonially unclean seven days; as at the time of her menstruation, she shall be unclean. On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. Her time of blood purification shall be thirty-three days; she shall not touch any holy thing, or come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purification are completed. If she bears a female child, she shall be unclean two weeks1, as in her menstruation; her time of blood purification shall be sixty-six days. When the days of her purification are completed, whether for a son or for a daughter, she shall bring to the priest at the entrance of the tent of meeting a lamb in its first year for a burnt offering, and a pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering.2 He shall offer it before the LORD, and make atonement on her behalf; then she shall be clean from her flow of blood. This is the law for her who bears a child, male or female. Leviticus 12:2-7
Even today people get worried about women ministers. What happens if she is pregnant and taking communion? A major concern for many people in the debates about ordination of women was what it meant if a woman were menstruating when she celebrated communion.3 And I have to bear witness to the fact that I have heard and read hostility toward women expressed in many places by the men of the church, which has been barely more restrained and less degrading, than the hatred of the pubs. And always at the root seems to be the woman's ability to bring new life into being, and the fact that they bleed.
What is it, I wonder, that causes the means of reproduction, and the cleansing of the womb for new life to begin again to be abused and hated? What is it that causes the gift of being able to conceive new life to be abused and hated? And what violence does it do to a woman to live with that all her life, sometimes having it repeatedly drummed into her that she is a slut because of it?
This topic is hardly a common one for a sermon, but it is at the very centre of our reading today. The woman was bleeding. Her menstrual cycle was not working properly; the bleeding never stopped. This is what Leviticus (the Old Testament book of the laws), said about her:
Leviticus 15:7-28 If a man has an emission of semen4, he shall bathe his whole body in water, and be unclean until the evening. Everything made of cloth or of skin on which the semen falls shall be washed with water, and be unclean until the evening. If a man lies with a woman and has an emission of semen, both of them shall bathe in water, and be unclean until the evening. When a woman has a discharge of blood that is her regular discharge from her body, she shall be in her impurity for seven days, and whoever touches her shall be unclean until the evening. Everything upon which she lies during her impurity shall be unclean; everything also upon which she sits shall be unclean. Whoever touches her bed shall wash his clothes, and bathe in water, and be unclean until the evening. Whoever touches anything upon which she sits shall wash his clothes, and bathe in water, and be unclean until the evening; whether it is the bed or anything upon which she sits, when he touches it he shall be unclean until the evening. If any man lies with her, and her impurity falls on him, he shall be unclean seven days; and every bed on which he lies shall be unclean. If a woman has a discharge of blood for many days, not at the time of her impurity, or if she has a discharge beyond the time of her impurity, all the days of the discharge she shall continue in uncleanness; as in the days of her impurity, she shall be unclean. Every bed on which she lies during all the days of her discharge shall be treated as the bed of her impurity; and everything on which she sits shall be unclean, as in the uncleanness of her impurity. Whoever touches these things shall be unclean, and shall wash his clothes, and bathe in water, and be unclean until the evening. If she is cleansed of her discharge, she shall count seven days, and after that she shall be clean.
It is not hard to find similar loathing in the writings of the church fathers. If a woman feels such self loathing, or a man feels fear and hatred, it is hardly surprising. It has a long history in the church.
The law meant this woman had been cut off from the worship of God for 12 whole years. People would have avoided her for twelve long years, for the fear of being made unclean. People would have loathed her the way so many men hate women, the way so many women are taught to hate themselves, today.
But she came out one last time. She pushed through the crowd to Jesus. She should not have done that. It was sinful. She was making ordinary decent people unclean. And she could have made a Rabbi sin, because he would have unknowingly gone unclean to worship, because she had touched him. It is not surprising it says she owned up to him in fear and trembling. If he had reacted badly, it would have gone ill for her. She may even have been physically beaten up.
What happens though, is something like this. It's not the same, but it gets about as close as we can get in our society: It's as though a person with AIDS, and with bleeding sores, comes to Jesus, and touches him. And Jesus, instead of being hostile or disgusted, hugs them! .......... His response to the woman, would have jarred people's sensibilities to the very bone. Fancy encouraging and blessing a person like her! And yet he did. "Daughter," he said, "your faith has made you well."
The interesting thing about today's reading is that we have two stories, one inside the other. The story of Jairus' daughter begins, is interrupted by the story of the woman, and then continues. This is a sure sign that Mark intends us to understand that the two stories are related to each other. So we need to look at both stories to understand either of them. But there is one more thing we need to note about the woman's story. After she is healed and Jesus said, "Your faith has made you well," after that, he says, "Go in peace and be healed of your disease." He is adding something! We are being given the hint that there is some other disease around beyond her immediate symptoms! Let us remember that as we go on.
The woman has shown us a kind of faith which is dogged, impertinent, and ready to be humiliated. What a life story to have to tell in front of a crowd! We see the same kind of faith in Jairus. He copes with being humiliated. Mark cannot resist repeating over and over again "the leader of the synagogue" as he tells the story. What a humiliation for a Jewish religious leader to have to come to Jesus, a Rabbi of doubtful reputation. What a humiliation to have publicly come to ask help of a man who then publicly blessed a woman like this one. Yet Jairus is desperate enough to keep on going with Jesus, even when the word comes that his daughter is dead. And when they get to the house, Jesus humiliates him again. In the midst of all the mourners, Jesus stupidly says the girl is only sleeping. They knew she was dead. "What a fool Jairus is, to believe in this idiot Jesus," they must have laughed. "What sort of a synagogue leader is he?" He must have followed Jesus into the house humiliated and without hope. But he still followed Jesus.
Jesus said, "Do not fear, only believe." And the little girl was raised to life. He went and willingly reached out and touched a dead female body, a body that was supposedly unclean, and he made it whole. So in both these stories we see God's encouragement to dogged, impertinent, desperate, humiliated faith. We see in both the people a faith which is immense, but not because it is calm, confident, unworried, and sure of itself. We see a faith which is immense because it simply manages to keep on going in the faced of immense odds. It keeps following Jesus when it would surely be easier to simply give up. It keeps following Jesus when life is so hopeless, the only belief it has left, is simply to follow.
We are not called to calm, confident, unworried faith. It's a great gift if we should have it. All we are called to is the faith which will keep on following Jesus, even if we can scarcely believe.
Let's come back to the thing I said we should remember: the fact that after the woman was healed, Jesus then told her to go and be healed. What are we being hinted to look for here? One of the characteristics of Mark's gospel is that he never wastes words. He always has a reason for every last word. You didn't waste words in his time... there were no printing presses around. So if Mark has a little aside like... she was twelve years of age there is a reason for it.
Do you notice that the woman bled for 12 years, and the girl was 12 years old. For twelve years the woman had been as good as dead, because her bleeding was seen to make her unclean and cut her off from all of the life of Israel. She was utterly isolated, no one could even live in the same house with her. And at twelve years old, the age when you begin to bleed, the age when girls were usually betrothed to be married5, the age when you became a woman! ....the little girl dies. Is it not odd that at the time of healing of one woman, another is raised to life, and that their stories be told together? I once asked in a bible study how many women were healed on this day... and one of the women present said "Only one." Both women she realised, were in one sense, the same person.
Becoming a woman, meant to begin to die, especially if your cycle was irregular. Jesus healed not only the woman and the little girl. He healed one woman, or perhaps it is more meaningful to say he healed every woman of the killing prejudice of the law. He removed the curse, as it were.
I have talked about this at some length today, because I have witnessed again and again the deep hatred and fear of women by men, which is so often linked to their reproductive biology. I called it endemic... everywhere, earlier in this sermon. I have been horrified to find some of it taken root in me. It is almost inseparable from being male in our culture.
I am not a woman. But female friends have told me of deep self loathing they grew up with that seems to have been based in that old prejudice of the law. I have also read female authors who witness to the same thing, and who trace much of it back to the "uncleanness" ancient Israel thought God was concerned about. And I have been told and read about the pain that this prejudice, and self loathing has caused.
Jesus speaks to us in the healing of the woman, and the girl, and all women. To women he says, "You are not unclean because you are a woman. You are not dirty. You never have been. Be healed of your disease. You are good, and I love you." And he reaches out and lifts all women up.
To men? Perhaps it is best expressed in the words God speaks to Peter in Acts 10: "Do not call unclean what God has made clean." We men are called by Jesus to repent of our blasphemy. Our prejudice against women, so often rooted in a notion of uncleanness, has been to call them profane. That's what the word unclean may be translated as. We have, all through history, regarded ourselves as the sacred creation of God, but treated women as profane, second class, inferior, evil, and often dirty. May God have mercy on us.
Indeed, if today we are scandalised by this sermon,... it is a sign of our prejudice and blasphemy, that the sacred gift of the means of co-creating new life with God, should scandalise us. If we are left feeling embarrassed or ashamed, God says to us, "Daughter, be at peace, for I declare that you are whole, wholesome, and good." And God says to we men, that we are forgiven, and that we can be healed of our prejudice and our fear. May it be so. Amen.
1 A girl child results in even more uncleanness than a boy child!
2 It is hardly surprising we are uptight about sex, if even the birth of a child must be cleansed by a sin offering!
3 This was despite the fact that it has always been said that the efficacy of communion was not dependent on the celebrant's status or holiness.
4 It is noteworthy that even when the male is seen as unclean, it is always for a lesser time.
5 (Jeremias pp365)Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus Jehoiachim Jeremias (SCM Press) pp365
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.