Trinity XXIV.  November 11, 2018.  St. George’s, Fayetteville, NC

St. Matthew 9, vv. 20-1 – And, behold, a woman, which was diseased with an issue of blood twelve years, came behind him, and touched the hem of his garment: for she said within herself, If I may but touch his garment, I shall be whole.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

My text from today’s gospel is about a woman suffering from a long-term hemorrhage, or issue of blood, who secretly touches Christ’s clothes to be healed.

Now this woman is well enough to be in a crowd of people and to approach Christ stealthily on her own, so we might think that her problem isn’t all that serious.  This would be a mistake.  Her problem is very serious.  First, she’s had the problem for twelve years.  In St. Mark and St. Luke we are told that in that period no one was able to heal her (Luke 8.43, Mark 5.26).  Mark adds that ‘she had suffered many things of many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and was nothing bettered, but rather grew worse’ (5.26).  The best manuscripts of St. Luke, who was himself a physician, tactfully omit that observation about the expense and failure of the doctors.  I’m glad that Mark kept it, since I’m sure it has over the years comforted many people suffering from medical bills.  In any case, the woman has had a very long, expensive health problem, even if it didn’t totally incapacitate her.

The other thing that makes her situation worse than might first appear to us is a religious matter.  According to the Law of Moses, this woman is in a state of perpetual ritual impurity and is something of an outcast.  In the Old Law touching blood makes you temporarily unclean and unable to participate directly in religious life.  Leviticus 15, verse 19, reads: ‘[I]f a woman have an issue, and her issue in her flesh be blood, she shall be put apart seven days: and whosoever toucheth her shall be unclean until the even.’  This ritual separation did not imply any moral fault or wrong.  Many things in the Old Law made you ritually impure.  Touching a dead body, for instance, did so, but everyone understood that care for the dead by family members was necessary and proper.  In the case of today’s lesson, however, the woman’s ritual impurity was not just a monthly occurrence for seven days, but was permanent.  For Leviticus goes on to say, ‘if a woman have an issue of her blood many days out of the time of her separation…all the days of the issue of her uncleanness shall be as the days of her separation:  she shall be unclean.’ (15.25)  So, as I have said, this woman is in a state of perpetual ritual impurity.  She was something of an outcast because Leviticus also directs that anyone who touches someone who is impure for this cause, or even who touches the bed or seat of such a person, will also become impure for a day (15.27).  So those who did not want to go to the trouble of washing ritually and waiting a day to be purified would avoid all contact with this unfortunate woman.  In short, as a child of the old Law she is in a bad way.

Now this woman comes to Christ and touched what the Authorized Version calls ‘the hem of his garment’, ‘for she said within herself, “If I may but touch his garment, I shall be whole.”’  This ‘hem’ of his garment is probably the fringe which Orthodox Jews wear in accordance with the Law of Moses:  ‘Thou shalt make thee fringes upon the four quarters of thy vesture, wherewith thou coverest thyself.’  (Deut. 20.12).  So says Deuteronomy.  And again, God says to Moses in Numbers: ‘Speak unto the children of Israel, and bid them that they make them fringes in the borders of their garments…and that they put upon the fringe of the borders a ribband of blue.’ (Num. 15.38)  The many strings of this fringe symbolized the many laws of Moses:  as Numbers says, so ‘that ye may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the LORD’ (Num. 15.39).  So the woman wished to touch this fringe, which was itself a physical reminder of the Mosaic Law which condemned her as impure and as an unwelcome threat to the purity of others.

Now our Lord was a rabbi.  As a rabbi he knew all about the rules in Leviticus concerning purity and impurity and about the rule in Numbers concerning the hem of garments.  As God incarnate he was also aware that he had been touched by this woman.  But our Lord was not a typical rabbi in that he did not care at all that she was ritually impure, nor was he worried that contact with her would made him impure.  He looked at her and saw someone who deserved his compassion.  He addresses her, not as an annoyance or as a threat to his own purity, but as a human being:  ‘Daughter,’ he calls her.  He does not chastise her, as the typical rabbi would, for daring to approach him and for threatening his own purity.  No; rather he encourages her:  ‘Daughter, be of good comfort.’  He does not scold her, but rather praises her faith:  ‘Daughter, be of good comfort; thy faith hath made thee whole.’  The sorts of things that so often concern us, such as being respectable and fitting in, and the details of the religion of his day, simply do not interest Christ.  His concern was and is with people who are sick and unhappy and disliked and in need.  The rather strange bad news of the gospel for the respectable world is that Christ doesn’t much care for the respectable world.  The even stranger good news of the gospel is that in God’s eyes not one of us really is very respectable:  all we like sheep have gone astray.  If we view ourselves honestly and in the light of God’s perfection, then we see our need for God’s mercy.  If we put away our pride and reach out to the hem of God’s glory, then he will turn about and have compassion upon us and comfort us.

This woman’s two great traits are faith and humility.  Listen to her great faith:  ‘If I may but touch his garment, I shall be whole.’  She keeps the almost fanatic idea of the Old Law that merely touching something will have a spiritual effect.  But here the idea no longer piles on ritual burdens, but rather opens up an easy way to healing and salvation.  Such is this woman’s faith:  only a touch is necessary.  And her humility is so great that does not call herself to Christ’s notice at all.  She does not speak to him, she does not ask for anything.  She only reaches out to touch the fringe.  But faith and humility are two things that Christ always finds irresistible.  Faith and humility will always bring healing of one sort or another, because faith and humility open us up to God.

Though for many years we may have been diseased by our pride and self-destructive self-sufficiency, let us in faith and humility now reach out our hands to God, though we see only a fringe of what and who he is.  If we will but reach to the hem of his garment in humble faith, then God will say to us as he said to our sister long ago, ‘Be of good comfort!’  And he will heal us as well unto life eternal.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

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