Nnaemeka Ali, O.M.I
The Unclean Woman Who Nearly Defiled Jesus
Many people will read the Gospel of this 13th Sunday without understanding what the bone of contention is. To better understand this, let us start from the beginning of the Markan Gospel. Mark, many scholars agree, today, is the first among the four Gospel authors. He is the source of the majority of what we have in the entire synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). This means that the other two authors (Matthew and Luke) copied many things from his text. And Mark had one goal in his Gospel narrative: help his community to discover Jesus the Son of God,
“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” (Mark 1:1).
And to do that, Mark chose a beautiful strategy. He planned to help them, through different Chris-events, to discover the Son of God by themselves. Starting from the first chapter, he began to present some series of marvellous deeds accomplished by Jesus: casting out demons (1:21–26), healing the sick (1:29–34), cleansing the leper (1:40–45), etc.
What is particular in the way Mark presents Jesus to his community is by making him break many laws: cleansing the leper (1:40–45), forgiving sins (2:5–7), working on the Sabbath (2:23–24), healing on the Sabbath (3:1–6), etc.?
The Gospel of today fits into this last optic. Jesus, we are told, on crossing the lake, received Jairus, a synagogue leader. Jairus appealed to Jesus to come to his house for his daughter was dying. The paragraph is very long but I want to draw your attention to what I think matters therein. As a matter of fact, among the synoptic Gospels, you might find divergent evolution of this passage. However, in my humble opinion, what counted for these three authors was neither the healing of the woman with a disordered menstrual cycle nor the raising of Jairus’ daughter, but the encounter of Jesus and the unclean woman (5, 25–34).
What people often ignore in this narrative is the ritual status of this woman. For those who understand Jewish culture, what intrigues most is not Jesus healing the woman, but him remaining clean after she touched him. According to the Mosaic law:
“When a woman has her regular flow of blood, [menstrual cycle] the impurity of her monthly period will last seven days, and anyone who touches her will be unclean till evening.
When a woman has a discharge of blood for many days at a time other than her monthly period or has a discharge that continues beyond her period, she will be unclean as long as she has the discharge, just as in the days of her period.
Any bed she lies on while her discharge continues will be unclean, as is her bed during her monthly period, and anything she sits on will be unclean, as during her period.
Whoever touches them will be unclean; he must wash his clothes and bathe with water, and he will be unclean till evening." (Leviticus 15: 19, 25–27.)
Remember what I said at the beginning. Marc was not only bringing his community to discover how Jesus performed miracles but how he even did it against the Jewish laws. Here, Jesus should have been unclean for the whole day, after which he was to undergo a ritual cleansing. And Jairus' daughter would have died, in-between time. But he rather went against the laws making the defiling touch of the woman a moment of healing. The highest healing for this woman was not that physical, but that Jesus set her free in the public. She was no longer to hide, terrified by her ritual state.
That’s the genius of the Marcan Gospel. He wants his community to discover this Son of Man that is above the law. Luke will develop a similar thesis in his account of Peter’s encounter with Cornelius, the Italian cohort in the Acts of the Apostles 10:1–11.
Take a look around you. Who are the “ritually unclean” women and men that Christ is calling us to let loose today? Who are those that both the society and the Church have tagged unclean, and that Christ is calling us to give an opportunity to touch the fringe of his clothe? Those we chase away from the table of the Lord, for example.