It’s tempting sometimes to fall into the habit of thinking that God only hears the prayers of those who have achieved some level of holiness above the average. Have you ever found yourself asking your pastor or priest to pray for something as if their prayers are likely to ring louder in the ears of God than yours?
We’re taught, Jesus won’t hear your prayers if your motives are selfish.
And, Jesus won’t answer you if you don’t believe the right things about him.
Because in the Bible we find Jesus not just answering, but honoring, the request of a woman made out of selfish motives and based on an entirely false assumption about him.
The nameless woman’s story appears in all three synoptic gospels (Mark 5:25–34, Matthew 9:20–22, Luke 8:43–48) and it’s one of Jesus’ strangest and yet most touching miracles.
In all three accounts, the healing of the bleeding woman is presented as an interruption to a larger story – Jesus raising Jairus’ daughter from the dead. Jairus, a synagogue leader has approached Jesus, asking him to heal his dying child, and the two of them, together with the disciples, are making their way through a dense crowd of onlookers and supplicants toward Jairus’ house. En route, the nameless woman approaches Jesus in secret, blending in with the thronging crowd, believing if she can merely touch the fringe of Jesus’ cloak she might be healed.
We’re told she had been subject to vaginal bleeding for 12 years. She’s spent all her money on remedies and treatments, only to find herself destitute and alone, a shadow person dwelling at the edges of society.
She would have been viewed as a niddah, that is, a menstruating woman and therefore ceremonially unclean. But she wasn’t menstruating. She was continuously bleeding, which effectively made her a permanent niddah, in a constant state of uncleanness. The implications of this are tragic. At this time, no man would put up with this condition. As a single woman, a very rare thing, she lived an extremely tenuous existence in the ancient Near East. It would appear she was unable to carry a child or give birth. She would have been barred entry to the synagogue or temple. She was broke.
As an unmarried, childless, penniless woman, unable to enter religious premises or make offerings to God, I can’t emphasize enough the social and religious isolation she would have endured, not to mention the discomfort of her physical condition.
Little wonder she believes she can’t approach Jesus directly.
Instead, she tries to steal a miracle from him by touching the fringe of his garment.
At first this might seem like an odd decision, but there was some precedent for this. The Pharisees at that time had taken to wearing the tzitzit – extra-long fringes or tassels on their prayer shawls or clothing. In Matthew 23:5, Jesus berates them for such outward displays of religiosity, bemoaning, “They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long.” Nonetheless, common people had come to believe that because of the Pharisees’ great religious standing their tzitzit was imbued with a mystical power. This might very well be exactly what the Pharisees wanted them to think, but Jesus had scorned them for behaving so. There’s no power in a Pharisee’s tzitzit whatsoever, he declares. It’s all for show. They’re charlatans.
Unaware of this, and assuming Jesus to be equivalent to a Pharisee, the bleeding woman comes to believe that if she could just touch the fringe of his clothing she would be healed.
This whole situation is so desperately sad. A filthy, hungry, sick woman, who dare not appear openly in public or approach a holy man face-to-face, slinks furtively through the crowd, edging her way toward Jesus, not knowing there’s actually no special power in the fringe of his robe.
Mark’s Gospel says that upon touching Jesus’ cloak, “Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering.” (Mk 5:29)
It’s weird, isn’t it?
Even though Jesus isn’t a Pharisee and the fringe of his cloak isn’t magic, this poor, forlorn woman has reached out in faith and that is all it takes.
Remember, Jesus is being led by Jairus toward his home and his dying daughter. Did he see the woman approach? Did he know what was in her mind? Did he recognize her plan was misguided, even if her faith in him was well placed? Or was the whole miracle a surprise to him, as suggested by what he says next?
At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and asked, “Who touched my clothes?”
“You see the people crowding against you,” his disciples answered, “and yet you can ask, ‘Who touched me?’ ”
But Jesus kept looking around to see who had done it. (Mk 5:30-32)
It seems so unlikely that Jesus was ignorant of what had happened, as if you could trick him into healing you unawares. I might be wrong, but I’ve always assumed he knew exactly what had happened and he had honored the woman’s mistaken belief in the mystical quality of his fringe because behind that belief was a deep faith in him as her savior. I suspect he is feigning surprise and calling on the identity of the woman in order to do precisely what he does next:
When the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told him the whole truth. (v33)
He forced the terrified woman, accustomed as she was to the shadows, to step out into an assembly of men and to testify to her actions. He did it, though, not to shame her, but to honor her.
He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.” (v34)
In the assembly of men, in the presence of a synagogue leader, Jesus brings testimony of the bloodied woman’s great faith. He makes her the hero.
She’s a miracle thief. Her assumptions about Jesus’ cloak are all screwed up. But the bottom line: she has faith! She believes only Jesus can rescue her.
I don’t know why Jesus answers some of our prayers and not others. It seems our experience of the power of God is so fitful, so partial, so mysterious. All we can do is to keep reaching out in faith. Even if our motives are never entirely pure. Even if we don’t understand all there is to know about Jesus and we forget more than we remember and we fail more than we succeed, and we find ourselves slinking in the darkness trying to steal a miracle we don’t deserve. All we can do is to keep reaching out in faith.