The pain must have been debilitating. She had been living with it for a long time, at least twelve years. Gospel writers referred to her condition as a “hemorrhage”; they are likely describing frequent and uncontrollable menstrual periods, which would have made such a woman ritually unclean, and thus forbidden to appear in public.
Many Christians heard her story in church this past Sunday, from Matthew’s account of the Gospel (9:9-13, 18-26). The story features not only physical but also social pain—a woman who is isolated, without the comfort of friends and family. Both Mark and Luke, who also tell this story, note that she had spent all her money on multiple physicians, and no one had made her any better—so she is perhaps also a poor beggar.
And so this woman, who has run out of options, alone and dejected, reaches out as Jesus passes by, just to touch the fringe of his garments with a bit of ludicrous hope.
Consider what those details mean. She was probably crouched down by the side of the road; she wasn’t supposed to be seen and she certainly should not have approached a group of prominent men—not only Jesus and his disciples but also the leader of the synagogue and his companions.
And so she reaches out—in desperation, yes, but also with courage. Touching Jesus could have led to severe social consequences for her, and still she reaches out.
As many commentators have noted, the good news in this story is not only this woman’s physical healing but also and even more so the restoration of her dignity. Jesus made her visible with respect, brought her into the center of attention, not for shaming but to heal her shame. He does all this not merely tolerating her presence but actually praising her as an exemplar of faith.
In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, her story is paired with another poignant story—the one about the young girl who has died, the daughter of a religious leader in the community.
By pairing these two stories, these ancient writers show us something about faith. In each of the three versions of this story, Jesus says to the woman, “Daughter, your faith has made you well.”
Given what she has just done, the meaning of faith here is not “certainty” but rather bravery. “Daughter,” Jesus could have said, “your courage has made you well.”
It is a bit strange but no accident that Jesus refers to this woman as “daughter.” Remember, he’s on his way to the home of a religious leader whose daughter has just died—these stories are intentionally intermingled.
Recall how often Jesus is getting into trouble with the religious authorities—“eating with tax collectors and sinners.” Just like this woman who reaches out with courage for healing, so this religious leader, heartbroken over his daughter, breaks ranks with his colleagues and courageously begs Jesus for help.
Paul Tillich, the great mid-twentieth century theologian, urged us to see faith as a form of courage, what he called the “courage to be.” For Tillich, the life of faith is a life in which we accept our own acceptance by God and thus live boldly, defying all the “principalities and powers” that would rob God’s creatures of their dignity and respect. I would add this: faith is also the courage to be seen, especially when we are made invisible by others.
It matters to think about such things during this LGBTQ Pride Month. We should note carefully that the Human Rights Campaign has for the first time declared a “national state of emergency” for LGBTQ Americans.
We are witnessing today an unprecedented spike in anti-LGBTQ legislation in state houses all over the country; more than 75 such pieces of legislation have been signed into law this year alone, which is more than double the number from last year.
This frightening trend is unfolding right where I live, in my own backyard. A far-right takeover of Ottawa County government by Christian Nationalists is making both queer people and people of color more than a little nervous. And along this otherwise “progressive” shoreline in West Michigan, I just recently overheard a conversation among some business owners in Saugatuck—an LGBT resort town. One of them said to the others, “I’m glad they spend their money here; I just don’t want to see them.”
It is high time that Christian communities ramp up our commitment to deeper solidarity with those who are unseen and kept invisible, whether because of sexuality, or gender, or race, or economics; all of these social categories are intertwined with each other. To see those deep interconnections would in turn help us to read stories from the Bible as not merely about ancient Mediterranean societies but also about us, all of us.
St. Augustine wrote in the fourth century about the passage from Matthew’s account of the Gospel. He invited us to see in the daughter of the religious leader a symbol of the ancient Israelites—who were being reborn and coming to life—while the woman with a hemorrhage stands for Gentiles, all those who are declared “unclean” on the margins of God’s people and who are now welcomed and embraced.
Gospel stories about healing are never just about the person being healed. They are also about the reader, about us. We are the ones who need to live right now with the courage to be in a world that is otherwise risky and frightening.
We are called to live this way not only for ourselves alone but also for all those who cannot imagine such courage for themselves—the gay teens who wonder whether suicide wouldn’t be better than a lonely life; women who live only as the objects of male scorn in a patriarchal society; people of color crushed under the weight of white supremacy.
Quite honestly, modern Western society has been in a “state of emergency” for centuries now unless you just happen to be a white, straight, cis-gender male.
Living courageously—living with faith—offers visible signs of hope to the unseen, coaxing them into a Gospel light.
This, I would venture, is a compelling way to read the story of Abraham’s calling in Genesis, which many Christians also heard this past Sunday morning. “I will bless you,” God says to Abraham, so that you will be a blessing to others (12:2).
Surely this is an enduring rationale for the existence of the Church—to receive God’s blessing for the sake of blessing others. And especially today, to be a place of compassion and safety where the invisible can be seen and loved. The time to do this is now.