TRINITY XXIV – Dicit Dominus
Introit: (Jer. 29) Thus saith the Lord: I think thoughts of peace, and not of affliction: ye shall call upon me, and I will hearken unto you: and will bring again your captivity from all places. Ps. (85) Lord, thou art become gracious unto thy land: thou hast turned away the captivity of Jacob. Glory be … Thus saith the Lord …
Collect: O Lord, we beseech thee, absolve thy people from their offences: that through thy bountiful goodness we may all be delivered from the bands of those sins, which by our frailty we have committed; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
OT Lesson: Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of the Lord; awake, as in the ancient days, in the generations of old. Art thou not it that hath cut Rahab, and wounded the dragon? Art thou not it which hath dried the sea, the waters of the great deep; that hath made the depths of the sea a way for the ransomed to pass over? Therefore the redeemed of the Lord shall return, and come with singing unto Zion; and everlasting joy shall be upon their head: they shall obtain gladness and joy; and sorrow and mourning shall flee away. I, even I, am he that comforteth you: who art thou, that thou shouldest be afraid of a man that shall die, and of the son of man which shall be made as grass; and forgettest the Lord thy maker, that hath stretched forth the heavens, and laid the foundations of the earth; and hast feared continually every day because of the fury of the oppressor, as if he were ready to destroy? and where is the fury of the oppressor? The captive exile hasteneth that he may be loosed, and that he should not die in the pit, nor that his bread should fail. But I am the Lord thy God, that divided the sea, whose waves roared: the Lord of hosts is his name. And I have put my words in thy mouth, and I have covered thee in the shadow of mine hand, that I may plant the heavens, and lay the foundations of the earth, and say unto Zion, Thou art my people. (Isaiah 51.9-16)
Gradual: (Ps 44) It is thou, O Lord, that savest us from our enemies: and puttest them to confusion that hate us. V. We make our boast of God all day long, and will praise thy Name for ever.
Epistle: Brethren: We give thanks to God and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, praying always for you, since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus, and of the love which ye have to all the saints, for the hope which is laid up for you in heaven, whereof ye heard before in the word of the truth of the gospel; which is come unto you, as it is in all the world; and bringeth forth fruit, as it doth also in you, since the day ye heard of it, and knew the grace of God in truth: as ye also learned of Epaphras our dear fellowservant, who is for you a faithful minister of Christ; who also declared unto us your love in the Spirit. For this cause we also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray for you, and to desire that ye might be filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding; that ye might walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing, being fruitful in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God; strengthened with all might, according to his glorious power, unto all patience and longsuffering with joyfulness; giving thanks unto the Father, which hath made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light. (Colossians 1.3-12)
Alleluia. Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord: Lord, hear my voice. Alleluia.
The Holy Gospel: At that time: While Jesus spake these things unto John’s disciples, behold, there came a certain ruler, and worshipped him, saying, My daughter is even now dead: but come and lay thy hand upon her, and she shall live. And Jesus arose, and followed him, and so did his disciples. 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. But Jesus turned him about, and when he saw her, he said, Daughter, be of good comfort; thy faith hath made thee whole. And the woman was made whole from that hour. And when Jesus came into the ruler’s house, and saw the minstrels and the people making a noise, he said unto them, Give place: for the maid is not dead, but sleepeth. And they laughed him to scorn. But when the people were put forth, he went in, and took her by the hand, and the maid arose. And the fame hereof went abroad into all that land. (St Matthew 9.18-26)
“If I may but touch his garment, I shall be whole.”
You may have noticed that today’s Gospel reading is a sandwich—a story within a story. Either of the two stories could stand on its own, but taken together in this sandwich, the one helps to interpret the other. We have stories of two women. On the surface, they could hardly be more different. But when taken in the sandwich, we see similarities and contrasts – the stories parallel, mirror, and complement each other. A young girl, an old woman. A short illness and a long-drawn-out illness. Both were essentially “dead,” both were ritually unclean. The woman reached out and touched Jesus, Jesus reached out and took the girl by the hand. And then, there is the whole “twelve years” business (which we shall get to later). This incident is recorded by St Mark (5.22-43) and St Luke (8.41-56), as well—St Matthew’s is by far the briefest account—and a synthesis of the three accounts proves helpful and elucidating.
In the first story, a man who would normally be counted among His detractors – a ruler of the synagogue, named Jairus – comes running to Jesus and falls to his knees, begging Him to come and help his dying daughter. This in itself is significant. The whole village would see this leader of the synagogue at Jesus’ feet. His reputation would surely be damaged by association with someone the Jewish officials had already decided was a dangerous heretic and ought to be eliminated. But this man’s daughter lay dying, so everything that had been important the day before was now of no consequence at all.
As Jesus goes off with Jairus, we encounter the second story. From behind, He feels the flick of fingers on the fringe of His outer garment. He stops short and asks, “Who touched my clothes?” The disciples must have practically laughed. “Lord, you see this crowd pushing in on you, and you ask who touched you?” But that is not what He meant. “Yes, I know a multitude of people have been brushing up against me, but someone has deliberately reached out and touched me.” He looks all around, and finally a woman steps forward through the throng. She has a chronic, debilitating illness, suffering from haemorrhages for twelve years. As St Mark tells us, she had seen many physicians, spent all she had, and yet was no better; but in fact, grew worse. But then she heard about the wonderful things this itinerant rabbi from Galilee was doing, and was determined to seek his help. She was ceremonially unclean because of her haemorrhage. Nobody else would even speak to her openly. But, she thought, maybe if I just touch his clothing, … And now she experiences true healing. Rather than horror or contempt, Jesus expresses affection for her! He calls her “Daughter,” and proclaims, “Your faith has made you well. Go in peace and be healed of your disease.” Do you catch the wonder of this story? A poor, diseased, outcast woman, sneaking through the throng, frantically reaching out for help and, suddenly, all the love and power of God in Christ is concentrated for a brief moment in her. Mark Guy Pierce says, “In that instant she went from ‘nobody to somebody to everybody.’” A central issue of today’s Gospel has to do with barriers – barriers that need to be overcome before the Kingdom of God is actualised.
The first is the barrier of significance. The woman almost counts on the fact that she is insignificant in the eyes of her townsfolk. “I’ll simply steal my way through the crowd and reach out and touch his clothes – no one will even know – and perhaps I will be healed.” Imagine what it must have been like for that poor woman to have the whole attention of God and the town turn directly to her. She was not only healed, she was brought into a relationship with the God who cared for her when the world had turned its back. St Augustine wrote that “God loves each of us as if we were the only person on earth, yet God loves all as God loves each.” There is no one on earth today that God loves any more than He loves you, nor is there anyone God loves any less than He loves you. That realisation certainly gives us assurance about our own well-being; and, hopefully, it gives us greater concern for others.
The second is the barrier of legalism. The religious regulations of the day would have prevented the woman from going anywhere near Jesus, much less touching Him. And, once the woman touched Him, He Himself was unclean. By asking, “who touched me,” Jesus has drawn attention to what had taken place and thus, according to the Law, would no longer have been able to accompany Jairus to his house. And as a leader of the synagogue, Jairus knew this very well. Then, to make matters worse, a servant comes to tell Jairus that his daughter has died, the mourning has begun, and there is no need to trouble the rabbi any further. Yet Jesus continues anyway. When He arrives at the house, He goes in and takes the girl by the hand. Now He is doubly unclean, as the rules are clear that dead bodies are not to be touched except for ritual preparation for burial, and that anyone who touches a dead body, even by accident, is ritually unclean. All this goes to show that religiosity can get in the way of a relationship with God. Faith is not about rules and regulations and playing it safe. It is about human beings reaching out in faith to a God who reaches out to us through Jesus Christ – even into the pain and anguish of our lives. The good news for the people in our Gospel lesson is that, in the Kingdom of God, the barriers all fall away. For the woman, for Jairus, and for the little girl – the greatness of God and the good news of Jesus Christ eliminate all obstacles to health and life.
The third is the barrier of prejudice. Then, as now, it is a world divided: Samaritans and Jews, Jews and Gentiles, clean and unclean, rich and poor, slaves and freemen, insiders and outsiders. It is an “us versus them” world. There are the “good guys” and the “bad guys.” (And of course, we are the “good guys”—whomever “we” happen to be.) Into a world fractured by differences, Jesus comes to smash barriers. Throughout His earthly ministry, He will eat with sinners, touch the unclean, and welcome the Samaritan and the Gentile.
The Gospel often seems simple and straightforward on the surface, but there is always a complexity beneath it that comes to light upon closer examination. I don’t think I ever realised this any more clearly than while I was meditating on this particular text (and its parallels in Mark and Luke) this week: reading, praying, researching, translating, praying some more. Then a profound realisation came to me.
Look at the people involved. First, we have Jairus, a synagogue ruler falling at Jesus’ feet begging for help for his dying daughter. This is a man who (a) should not be asking Jesus for help; (b) is probably a Sadducee and thus does not believe in the possibility of eternal life; and (c) has likely checked off every ceremonial ritual possible in trying to help his daughter. His presence at all is astounding. Yet Our Lord points no fingers, corrects no theology, but instead agrees to help, and follows him to his home. Then we have the woman whose touch has stopped Jesus in His tracks. She had been haemorrhaging for twelve years and was now destitute, having spent all she had on doctors and temple rituals, and only grew worse. Her chronic bleeding ailment was likely the result of childbirth – this is what all the commentaries assume. She reaches out to touch the fringe of Jesus’ robe. We are even able to read her thoughts as she muses, “If I can touch just his garment, I will be healed.” Finally, we have the daughter – a twelve-year-old (both Mark and Luke make a point of this), just ready to enter womanhood. Her death before the age of 13 would be a blow to her father if for no other reason than that she would miss that important milestone. Luke also tells us that she is his only child. The household servants and gathered mourners reflect the beliefs of the world. Since Jesus did not make it to the house in time, and the girl had died, all hope is gone. Without belief in eternal life, death is the end.
Why have all these people been brought together? Now, this might be just the fancy of a desperate theologian; however, the significance would be profound: What if these are not two separate stories at all, but actually one story? Is it possible that the woman was bleeding for twelve years as a result of the birth of this daughter? That Jairus is actually her husband, and because of the ceremonial laws, she was deemed perpetually unclean and had become an outcast? There is certainly some significance in the age of the girl (12 years) and the bleeding disease of the woman (12 years). Jairus, a religious expert, would surely have gone to the extreme to find a solution, and so, after trying doctor after doctor and ritual after ritual, she was sent away. Perhaps they even reasoned that the bleeding was a result of some sin, and the consequence of that sin is now the illness and death of her daughter. When Jesus heals her, so much would have been restored: her faith, her health, her reputation, her very life—and possibly even her family. That in itself is miracle enough. But at that same moment the servant comes running to declare the girl dead – “so you don’t need the rabbi anymore.” But Jesus will not let the story end there. His words are profound – “Don’t be afraid, just believe.” Taking Jairus, “the mother,” and Peter, James and John, He entered the chamber and raised the girl to life. A family is restored—a husband to his wife, and a child to her parents. But even if that is not the case, the significance is the same. God’s grace works through faith. Two lives are now restored by faith in Jesus Christ.
Here is faith at its finest. This poor woman never gave up hope. She had heard about Jesus of Nazareth and the wonderful things He was doing, the difference He was making in people’s lives. She sought Him out and acted on her belief. She was wrong—even superstitious—about touching the robe, but she was right about reaching out to Christ in total commitment. Such wholeness as she experienced is God’s gift to all who seek Him in sincerity and in truth. None of this would have happened had two people not reached out in faith.
There are so many examples in the Gospels of Jesus touching people. He touched lepers, and healed them. There was the deaf man with a speech impediment whom He healed by touching his tongue and his ears. He gathered up little children into His arms and blessed them. Touch was very important to Jesus. Why? Because He was human as well as divine. In this lesson we clearly see Our Lord’s Humanity as well as His Divinity. Christ is ushering in something better than the world as we know it. He is come to bring faith, to bring peace, and to end suffering. He went to the Cross so that no one should perish: not from sin, not from death, not from the devil. His healing touch brings an end to the suffering that had trapped this woman and this girl—the same suffering that besets us all. And as Jesus physically touched so many people, many too also sought to touch Him. Think of the woman who knelt and washed His feet with her tears and dried them with her hair—an act which Jesus allowed, much to the consternation of the other people who were present. Mary Magdalene, after the resurrection, wanted to reach out and embrace the feet of Jesus, but He said, “Not yet; I have not yet ascended to my Father.” He invited Thomas to reach out his finger and touch the wounds in His hands and side. “Touch me, and believe,” were His words to the disciples at His appearances after the Resurrection.
Touch was very important for Jesus in the Gospels, and if we look at the way He deals with us now, we can see many examples of touch that continue to this day. Touch is also important to us. If we are truly human, the touch of another is very significant—almost life-giving. Hence, in our whole sacramental system, Our Lord has ordained a way of physically touching us. The priest pours water over a person in Baptism. Through the hand of the priest and the water, the Lord touches that person and fills him with His own life. The bishop, by an imposition of his hand and anointing with holy chrism, causes the baptized person to receive the Holy Spirit in a new and special way in order that he might bear witness to his Christian faith, even to the point of death. The priest places on your tongue or into your hands what looks like bread, and touches with your lips what looks like wine, and you are fed with the very Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, and are filled with His life. “Is any sick among you? let him call for the priests of the church and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith shall save the sick.” (Jas 5.14) “And [the apostles] anointed with oil many that were sick, and healed them.” (Mk 6.13) Jesus knew the importance of human touch, especially for those who are ill, in body or soul. The bishop places his hands on a postulant’s head and prays for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and the postulant rises a Deacon in Christ. The bishop places his hands upon a Deacon’s head and prays, anointing his hands with holy chrism, and the Deacon arises a Priest in Holy Orders, ordained and empowered to preach the Word of God and to minister the holy Sacraments, to bear witness to the Mystery of God’s love in his life and to the community.
Each of these Sacraments is a manifestation of how God works: with physical things, with a touch. Our Lord and God became truly human in order to manifest His great love for us and redeem us to Himself. The Incarnation is at the very heart of our Christian Faith. And there is an essential organic and incarnational component to our sacramental system, as well. These divinely appointed Sacraments cannot be properly, meaningfully, or validly administered without human contact. What a marvellous and intimate way in which God deals with us! What power and grace He has given to us in the Church in these manifest signs of Christ’s presence among us! Sometimes we just “don’t get it” unless He physically reaches out and touches us. But there is something else about touch that is significant. Touch is a form of communication that is much more genuine and sincere than using words. We can deceive people with words, but it is much more difficult to deceive someone with a touch. When we reach out with our hand and touch someone, it is not just our hand, but our whole self that touches the other. It is an act of communion. And it is next to impossible to do that in any deceitful way.
As members of Christ’s Body, we too can convey the miracle of God’s love with a touch. Even in our simple and ordinary dealings, we can touch the lives of one another, and it can be, quite literally, the touch of Christ Himself—the touch of God’s love. Human contact is a sacred thing. Let us use it in the way in which it was intended by our Lord: to burst through our shell of self—of fear and anxiety, isolation and individualism—to get to the very core of who and what we are, in order that our God can touch us and say, “I am here, and I love you. Be healed, and be at peace.”
“He went in, and took her by the hand, and the maid arose.”
Collect: Stretch forth, we beseech thee, O Lord, upon thy faithful people the right hand of thy heavenly succour: that, seeking thee with their whole heart, they may be found worthy to obtain those things which they ask according to thy will; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
And may the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord: and the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, be amongst you and remain with you always. Amen.