Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Obsolescence of Uncleanness [Luke 8.40-56] (20 November 2011)

How often have we planned something for the day, something very important, only to see other things come up and force themselves on us? It has happened often to me and I am sure to you as well. Perhaps this is the origin of the saying, “Man proposes, but God disposes.” God has a way of interrupting our lives in ways we cannot see, often in ways we would rather he didn’t! 

Quite often our passage for today is interpreted in much the same way – as God getting to experience what this interruption might feel like. Jesus intended to heal Jairus’ daughter. But he was stalled and interrupted by the woman. He had to direct his focus on her.

Those who interpret it this way, as though Jesus’ focusing his attention on the woman was ancillary to his purposes, have a problem. Did Jesus really have to spend time identifying who the thief of his powers was? Did it really matter? If it were just a matter of her stealing a healing then Jesus could have just let things be. 

We hear in Acts of people touching the apostles’ robes and being healed. I am inclined to believe that this woman even tried touching Jesus’ robes because she had heard that others had been healed in that way. 

In other words, I am sure there were other people who were healed because they touched Jesus’ robes. Our Gospels just do not report them, probably because in those cases Jesus did not make a big deal of it. But here he did. 

And we have to ask ourselves, “What is it about this woman’s healing that made Jesus stop and ask for the identity of the thief?” And we must also ask ourselves, “In what way does this woman’s healing affect the healing of Jairus’ daughter?”

This second question can be partially answered. Just from a literary standpoint and obviously from Jairus’ standpoint, Jesus’ getting diverted introduces tension in the story. He is wasting time and with each passing moment Jairus’ daughter gets closer to death. And indeed in the middle of the story we realize that Jesus has wasted so much time with the woman that Jairus’ daughter has actually died.

Is it just an issue of what priorities Jesus should have had? It was a choice between healing the girl and identifying the woman. Surely identifying the woman was not all that important! If that is how we think, we need to rethink.

Jesus allowed himself to be diverted for three reasons. First, he had to restore the woman to her place in society. We modern individuals can scarcely understand this. But in order to do so, let us look at the condition of the woman. 

The word ‘bleeding’ in the NIV or the words ‘constant bleeding’ in the NLT do not do justice to the Greek text. These might lead us to believe that she had a problem with the clotting mechanism of her blood.

But that is not what Luke says. To understand Luke, we must go back to the book of Leviticus, from where Luke – and also Matthew and Mark – picks up a technical phrase. Leviticus is one book of the bible that we have no idea what to do with. Oh we may know that the book describes a lot of sacrifices and offerings. And that there is something called a Day of Atonement, the rituals associated with which are in chapter 16. But do we know about skin conditions in chapter 14?

And what about chapter 15? How many of us have even read it? And how many of us who have read it have wondered about the various instructions it contains? For it is from this chapter that our Synoptic Gospels draw when they speak about the woman. Their technical phrase indicates that what the woman was suffering from was not some wound that just would not heal, but a menstrual cycle gone haywire.

And Leviticus 15 tells us that, therefore, she was rendered unclean and untouchable. For twelve years! Can you believe it? No one willing to touch anything you touched lest they became unclean as well. Having to wash your clothes separately from other clothes lest you rendered the other clothes unclean. Having to eat from separate dishes, having to cook your food in separate utensils. In other words, she was alone while still being among people.

What would have happened if Jesus had not interrogated her? She was healed. But she could never have been able to explain how she was healed. 

People would begin to suspect that she had engaged in some black magic or witchcraft or sorcery. And that would have ended with her being stoned. She wanted to remain inconspicuous, anonymous. But after twelve years, everyone would have known of her condition. 

Her condition, in other words, even though so private and personal, was public knowledge. And Jesus knew that, for her to be fully restored, for her healing to reach not just the physical, but also the societal, level, her healing itself must be public. And so Luke tells us, “The whole crowd heard her explain why she had touched him and that she had been immediately healed.” Now she had scores of witnesses. All she needed to do was wait a week, go to the priest, make her sacrifice as prescribed in Leviticus 15 and be declared clean. 

So the first reason why Jesus allowed himself to be diverted is that he wanted the woman to be publicly seen as having been legitimately healed.

The second reason is in v. 50 where Jesus says, “Do not be afraid. Only believe and she will be saved.” In other words, “Do not fear that you will see her dead. Trust me and you will see her alive.” 

It is very likely that Jesus permitted himself to be diverted precisely so that the girl would die and the messenger would come with news of her death. By now the people had seen Jesus perform many miracles. Healing was one thing that people would have expected from him. That is revealed by the fact that both Jairus and the woman had approached him. They both were fully confident that Jesus would be able to heal illnesses.

But death? Could Jesus reverse this greatest of illnesses? Now mind you that he has already raised a widow’s son at Nain. Would they believe that he could do the same again? Would they believe that Jairus’ daughter could be restored to healthy life? Raising of the widow’s son at Nain was something new, something that set Jesus apart as a prophet along the lines of Elisha, as we saw a few Sundays back. But this set a precedent. Would they rely on this precedent and believe that Jesus could raise the little girl?

If we read Luke’s account it seems that most people remained unbelieving. Healing a physical ailment was one thing. They could believe that was possible. But the reversal of death was another thing. Even if you have seen it reversed before, believing it can be done takes a stretch of faith. And so Jesus delays with the woman so that he could have the opportunity to restore the dead girl. 

But why was this important? Like children, we learn by repetition. We accept something as part of our worldview only if we see it happening often enough. Unlike some, I firmly believe that we are scientists through and through. Repeatability is something we expect and learn from. 

Jesus knew that his disciples needed to reach a point where the reversal of death was not something off the wall. If it were off the wall when he was raised from the dead, they would have found it most difficult to believe. This is indeed the reason why we have so many today who say that the Easter accounts are hogwash. We just do not have enough exposure to people rising from the dead. And so what is outside our experience becomes difficult to accept.

Jesus needed to have as many occasions as possible to show his disciples that death does not have the final say, that God has the final say. And so he delayed with the woman so he could be faced with a dead girl whom he would then restore to life. This is the second reason he permitted himself to be diverted.

But there is a third reason. Now let us follow Jesus’ actions. According to Leviticus 15, the woman was unclean because of the flow of blood. She touched Jesus’ clothes and the clothes of many others who were around Jesus. Indeed, she probably touched many clothes before being healed as she made her way toward Jesus. According to Leviticus, all those clothes became unclean. Now a person wearing clothes naturally is touching those clothes. So again, according to Leviticus, all those people, including Jesus, were rendered unclean.

So now Jesus speaks to her. The messenger comes from Jairus’ house and Jesus continues to Jairus’ house. Now Jairus is a leader of the synagogue. And Jesus has just been rendered unclean by the woman. After all, according to Leviticus, the woman remained unclean for seven days.

So here is an unclean Jesus – at least unclean according to Leviticus – entering the room in which the corpse of Jairus’ daughter lies. Jairus probably thought that Jesus would just speak just as he had done at Nain.

If we look at the raising of the widow’s son at Nain we will see that Jesus does not touch the corpse. He only touches the coffin. This was permitted. Touching the coffin did not make a person unclean. But touching a corpse did. 

And horror of horrors, Jesus reaches out and touches the girl’s corpse. He is already unclean from touching the woman. Now he compounds that by touching the corpse.

And so a doubly unclean Jesus speaks to the corpse. In these two ways, Jesus encounters the ascendency of death over life. The woman, due to her haywire menstrual cycle could never hope to have children. The bleeding was a continuous victory of death over life, her womb in a perpetual state of dying. The girl was dead, her corpse testifying to the fact that death had snuffed out her life, that, in her, life had lost the battle. 

And so Jesus, having allowed himself to be defiled, having made the woman announce that she had defiled him, having touched the corpse that would defile him, speaks to the corpse.

And he shows all the witnesses that in him the ceremonial laws dictating what and who is unclean when and where are redundant, obsolete, ineffectual. In him we have a new law at work, the law of life triumphing over death, the law of a purity cannot become impure and contaminated.

The ceremonial laws put forth an tenuous purity, a purity that was easily destroyed by the mere presence of anything ceremonially unclean. But Jesus ushers in a new era in which light triumphs over darkness, truth over falsehood and purity over impurity. In the clash between the purity borne by Jesus and the impure forces of death, the latter prove powerless to contaminate him. Rather than being rendered unclean by them, he forces them to release their captives.

Where, oh death, is your victory? Where, oh death is your sting?