Open Matthew 9:18-26.
The Synoptic Gospels intertwine the stories of two very different people. One is an influential ruler who loses his daughter; the other is a woman whose only influence is making everything she touches ritually unclean due to her menorrhagia. Jesus understood the different responses of powerful and powerless people.
The NIV calls the powerful man a “synagogue leader” (9:18) to match Mark 5:22 and Luke 8:41, but Matthew describes him simply as a ruler (archon). For Matthew, a powerful communal leader kneeling before Jesus is significant, for kneeling recognizes his authority. The disciples kneel to honour Jesus. We saw a leper kneel (8:2). We saw magi kneel (2:2). We heard King Herod fib by saying he wanted to kneel (2:8). But this is the only time a Jewish ruler knelt before Jesus.
What led the ruler to recognize Jesus’ authority? Desperation. The death of his daughter. He’s convinced that when the kingdom of God is re-established, no parent will know this kind of grief. No child will die before her time. So if Jesus is reasserting the kingdom of God, could he come and lay his hand on the child and raise her up? It’s a bold request from a community leader who understands that touching a dead body will make Jesus unclean for a week, but he’s desperate. Jesus agrees to go (8:19).
Along the way, there’s an unexpected interruption from someone who does not understand the life-and-death situation Jesus is dealing with. She’s desperate too, but she’s no ruler. In any communal event, she isn’t given the seat of honour: she’s expected to stand in the corner away from everybody else, for anything she sits on or anyone she touches will become unclean. Lev 15:19-33 spelled this out, and the verbal traditions of the Jewish leaders were so comprehensive that they formed an entire tractate of the Mishna when written down (Zabim). She’s on the lowest rung of communal life.
Please notice the difference in the way these people approach Jesus. The ruler expresses his request with decorum (kneeling) and deep emotion. The bleeding woman would never make such a bold request. It never even occurs to her to ask Jesus to notice her. Her plan is to push through the crowd and touch his garment in the hope of gaining her healing, and then to slip away unnoticed. It’s the plan of someone who sees herself as a nobody. If Jesus doesn’t know he’s been touched by someone unclean, he can go on about his business (whatever that might be) and no harm is done.
But Jesus does notice. He’s not so focused on how it might benefit his kingdom agenda to have a ruler on side. He turns. He sees her. He speaks to her (9:22). His words affirm the dignity and significance she doesn’t feel she has:
- Instead of telling her off for touching him, he affirms her: “Be encouraged!”
- Instead of treating her as a nuisance, he acknowledges her place in the family: “Daughter.”
- Instead of rebuking her, he commends the confidence she placed in him: “Your faith has rescued you.”
Now, seriously, who had the greater faith here? The woman who pushed in to get her healing? Or the ruler who believed Jesus could raise his daughter back to life? The ruler receives no such commendation for his faith. He didn’t need it. It’s the bleeding woman from the bottom rung of society whom Jesus stops to affirm. In fact, she’s the only person in Matthew’s Gospel to whom Jesus said those amazing words, “Your faith has saved you.”
After the diversion, Jesus continued to the ruler’s house, where flute players and mourners where already making a commotion to ensure no one in the community was uninformed about their ruler’s loss (9:23). The community protocols requiring a display of grief are rather shallow: they quickly melt into laughter when Jesus suggests the girl is not dead but resting (9:24).
Jesus takes the dead girl by the hand, and raises her up. Touching the bleeding woman had not made Jesus unclean; it made her clean. Touching the corpse didn’t contaminate Jesus; it broke death’s hold on the girl. In Jesus, the defilement of the world is being undone; uncleanness and death are losing their grip.
Matthew doesn’t tell us how the girl’s parents responded. You can guess. What he declares is a kingdom statement, the news of Jesus restoring the land (9:31).
Those of us who are servants of Jesus’ kingdom could do well to meditate on how he cared across all the strata of society, and how he gave his richest encouragement to the people who needed it most.
What others are saying
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-15 (London: SPCK, 2004), 104–105:
Two of the things that were near the top of the list, things to avoid if you wanted to stay ‘pure’ in that sense, were dead bodies on the one hand, and women with internal bleeding (including menstrual periods) on the other. And in this double story Jesus is touched by a haemorrhaging woman, and then he himself touches a corpse.
No Jew would have missed the point—and Matthew was most likely writing for a largely Jewish audience. In the ordinary course of events, Jesus would have become doubly ‘unclean’ …
But at this point we realize that something is different. Her ‘uncleanness’ doesn’t infect him. Something in him infects her.
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