Jesus, hope of the hopeless,
give us abundant confidence in you
that we may find comfort at all times,
relief from our burdens,
and healing where it is your will;
until that day when we see you face to face,
and know you as you are for ever and ever. Amen.
2 Corinthians 8.7–15
Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ — Jesus, Matthew 9.13b
[H]ow are we to draw the boundaries of exclusion and inclusion in the life of the church? Sacrifice—the purity impulse—marks off a zone of holiness, admitting the ‘clean’ and expelling the ‘unclean’. Mercy, by contrast, crosses those purity boundaries. Mercy blurs the distinction, bringing clean and unclean into contact. Thus the tension. One impulse—holiness and purity—erects boundaries, while the other impulse—mercy and hospitality—crosses and ignores those boundaries. — Richard Beck, Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality, Kindle edition, p.2
I want to talk today about things that are ‘clean’ and those that are ‘unclean’.
It’s important to know about if we are going to really hear this Gospel passage.
Years ago, I was working on a Sunday morning in the Casualty area of a hospital when a man came in. He’d gone on a scout camp with his son as an interested dad. He’d picked some mushrooms to fry up for Sunday breakfast. No one else wanted any, so he scoffed the lot.
But they were ‘magic’ mushrooms and he was hallucinating madly, seeing frightening things that weren’t there.
It took him about 36 hours to fully recover.
Some mushroomy-looking things are ok to eat. In biblical language, they are ‘clean’. Other mushroomy-looking things are ‘unclean’. You’ve got to know the difference if you’re going to pick your own.
We read about unclean foods in the bible, like pork, and we wonder why it should be so. (It’s about pigs having a divided hoof but not chewing the cud, but you might still wonder if that’s a good enough reason.)
We have unclean foods too. If I invited you to my place for a succulent roast horse dinner with all the trimmings, would you come or would you be busy that night? We don’t eat horses, but they do in some European countries like Italy and the Netherlands.
We don’t use the word ‘unclean’, but for us the horse is ‘unclean’. Why? It just is. (I could say that nothing could make me eat horseflesh, but my mum tells me she ate it in England during the Second World War.)
So some things are clean all the time, others are unclean all the time. But we’d probably eat some unclean things in an extreme situation.
Now, there are things that are only unclean in certain situations. Hang on, the next bit is a little gross.
When I was a young father, I’d change my children’s pooey nappies. I was surprised that I felt ok about that. A few times though, I was faced with changing another child’s pooey nappy. I still gagged then.
I have saliva in my mouth. That’s ok, right? You’d be more worried if I said I had none.
What if I spat into this glass of water? Then my saliva would be outside my body, and it would just look and feel wrong. In biblical terms, it could be like being unclean.
And what if I then drank the water I’d spat into? How would that make you feel? Warm and fuzzy? I think not.
I don’t even know if I could drink my own spit. But why not? It’s from my own mouth. Yet my saliva is different when it’s outside my body. It’s dirty to drink it. Unclean.
The unnamed woman who touched Jesus’ clothes was unclean. Her blood was in the wrong place, outside her body. Just as you may have felt a twinge of distaste or disgust at the thought of my drinking my own spit, people would have recoiled from her.
(‘Uncleanness’ is not a pleasant topic. No wonder there are so few sermons about it.)
People had been avoiding her for twelve long years. She couldn’t go to the synagogue, she couldn’t go anywhere people might bump into her. You see, it was worse in those days because uncleanness was contagious. If anyone had any contact with this woman, they were unclean until nightfall. If anyone sat where this woman had sat, they were unclean until nightfall. So they had to separate themselves from others for that period of time.
You can see that if an unclean person wasn’t careful, a whole village could be unclean very quickly indeed. How popular would you be then?
This life of isolation and being ostracised from the community had been her lot for twelve long years. She wanted to get better. She’d spent all her money on doctors, but they didn’t know what they were doing. Things were getting worse and worse, but she still hadn’t given up hope. She was off to see Jesus.
She was taking a risk. She could be found out. Jesus was being pushed and jostled by the crowd, and she would have made contact with any number of people; but she managed to get close to him.
She just touches his clothes. In an instant, both she and Jesus realise something has happened. She feels she has been healed. He feels healing power go out from him.
Remember, Jesus was on his way to see a girl on the brink of death. That was urgent. He could have shrugged his shoulders, and kept moving. Who would have blamed him?
But Jesus doesn’t. He stops. He asks a silly-sounding question: ‘Who touched my clothes?’
Now, the woman knows two things. She’s not bleeding any more; and she’s been sprung. She steps forward, falls at Jesus’ feet, and waits trembling for judgement to descend.
After all, she has made Jesus and practically the whole village unclean.
What does Jesus say?
My daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace, and be healed of your trouble.
For this woman, healing means much more than no more bleeding.
It means being part of the community once more.
Jesus’ first words give her that place: ‘My daughter’. Not only is there no rebuke, but she is given a place at the table. She is part of the family. She is welcomed home.
This woman who was unclean, cut off from everyone, looked at with a wrinkled nose, avoided if she dared come into the street, is now one of them.
Jesus says her faith has done this. We might think she was a bit superstitious—‘If I just touch his clothes, I will get well’—but Jesus will have none of that. He calls it ‘faith’. Her faith has made her ‘well’ in every sense of that word.
So, are there people who are unclean in Australia? Well, yes there are. Who they are depends on where you stand. Some people see asylum seekers as unclean, so they call them illegals. For others, it’s the mentally ill, the chronically unemployed or people who have problems with drugs. Again, we don’t use that word, but we treat others that way.
We make it hard for them to be part of our community. For example, support for asylum seekers is being cut right now.
We can even make it hard for people to join the church. It’s hard enough for anyone to come to a new church; if any of us decide they are in some way ‘unclean’, we may not see them again.
What is the way of Jesus here?
Jesus reached out to people with compassion, with empathy. He put himself in the shoes of the woman who touched his clothes, and knew what she needed to hear: that she was part of the fabric of her community, part of the family.
Jesus didn’t ostracise anyone.
Sometimes in a church, it’s just little things that make people feel unclean. They have a noisy child, and they already think everyone is looking at them. So if you do look at them, make sure it’s with a big, reassuring smile. Tell them we’ve all been there. Let them know they are welcome.
We need to be very intentional about how we treat one another.
In the end, I think Jesus is actually telling us that no one is unclean. According to the book of Leviticus, Jesus should have been unclean once that woman touched his clothes. And Jairus should have left him stranded there and then, so he could stay clean and keep on doing his job in the synagogue.
And later, when Jesus took the hand of the dead girl, the Law said he was unclean for a week: a week of avoiding others, a week of being an object of disgust.
But Jesus wasn’t made unclean. Jesus was telling us the the whole system of clean and unclean is wrong, even if it had been written in Leviticus.
I said that Jesus wasn’t made unclean. He wasn’t right then, but in fact, he would be made the Unclean One on the cross of Calvary. The death of the cross was immensely degrading. People recoiled from it. Jesus suffered it so that no one should be counted as unclean.
St Paul says a similar thing in 2 Corinthians 8:
You know the generous act
of our Lord Jesus Christ,
that though he was rich,
yet for our sakes he became poor,
so that by his poverty we might become rich.
We could say it like this:
‘For our sakes Jesus became unclean,
so that by his uncleanness
we might become clean.’
Jesus became unclean so that no one else would be unclean. Because of Jesus, we don’t have to call anyone unclean. We can call them daughter, mother, brother, instead. We don’t have to think of ourselves as unclean, either. No one, not one, is beyond the grace and mercy of God.
Jesus asks us to go, and do as he did. To treat people with understanding, not as somethings that need to be avoided.
Can we do that? Can we embrace people that others think of as ‘unclean’? Yes, we can. It’s the way of Jesus.