Healing Touch

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One of the challenges with understanding the gospels is that they can sound like a chronicle of Jesus doing nice things. Now, it is true that Jesus is loving and kind every day. But what we sometimes miss is how shocking his actions were. He delights in breaking social taboos and rules, but since we don’t live in first century Palestine, we often miss how upsetting these stories were in their own time. Today’s stories are a good example of this.  

Christ sees a tax collector and invites him to dinner. The reason this is shocking is that everyone hated tax collectors. They were considered traitors to the Jewish people. They were Jews, hired by the Romans to collect taxes for the empire.

Taxes are high, and tax collectors weren’t paid a salary, so they have to charge extra to survive. This tax collector was working for the enemy, deliberately, and yet Jesus invites him to dinner.  

The next episode involves two people who are also shunned by society, but through no fault of their own. Jesus is asked to visit the house of a local synagogue leader, whose daughter is believed to be dead. Along the way to the house, a woman who has been menstruating for 12 years sees Jesus. 

Now, both of these people should be avoided by Jesus. Rabbis like Jesus cannot touch dead bodies lest they become ritually impure for seven days[1]. That’s not a fatal condition, it can be fixed, but it should be avoided. The woman who has been menstruating for twelve years is also impure. All menstruating women are, and they are expected to stay away from the temple and synagogue, also for 7 days. Jesus shouldn’t touch her, either, or she certainly should not touch him. [2]  

The Jews of that time lived in what is called a purity culture. People couldn’t go to temple or synagogue unless then were ritually pure. All sorts of normal actions could render you temporarily unclean – having sex, having your period, touching a dead body. These impurities could wear off, although some people, like lepers, were considered permanently unclean. Jesus has little respect for these rules, and it is his willingness to ignore them which part of why these stories are in the New Testament.  

We don’t live in a culture that is so clearly defined by purity laws, but we still have our taboos. There are people and situations that feel impure or “dirty.” People who are shunned because of who they are. You can see this on the subway when passengers deliberately avoid sitting near certain types of people. The homeless get this treatment all the time, so do people with obvious mental illness. Few people choose to sit right next to them. Over the past two years, it was mask wearing that signalled whether someone might be impure. Masked passengers avoided those who were unmasked, even though they had no idea if that person was infected.  

The other way we shun people is by sending them far away. That was the strategy Canada used with Indigenous people. They were called “dirty Indians” - our version of unclean. We saw them as people and a society that needed to be civilized, cleaned up. 

When we signed treaties with them, it was not an invitation to coexist in the same place. It was understood that once treaties were signed, they would move somewhere else. In time, they were forced onto reserves far from white cities and towns. This strategy was codified into law through the Indian Act, which South Africa’s government consulted when creating the apartheid system. Canada as a nation institutionalized our attitudes about impurity, and legally sought to separate Indigenous people from non-Indigenous people. They needed cards and permission to leave the reserves. They were supposed to live at the margins of white society.  

As a culture, we like to think in terms of categories where things and people are sorted into piles. Law abiding citizens and criminals. Indigenous and non-Indigenous. Homeless and housed. In the Harry Potter stories, kids at Hogwarts are divided into dorms according to a magical sorting hat. Untrustworthy people go to Slytherin, nice kids to Gryffindor. In stories and reality, we sort people as though people don’t change, as though the categories are more real than people are.   

In Christian circles, we are often expected to help those who are society’s outcasts. This is called Christian charity. We reach out to bring money and clothing to those who are living on the margins of society. People who are poor, disabled, mentally ill. And often, when Christians do this, they think of stories like the ones we heard today. Where Jesus reaches out and helps people who are considered sinners or are sick. Jesus dares to break taboos to help people, so we should, too. This is Jesus’ modelling kindness.  

But there is something else going in today’s stories, because we also hear about the case of the haemorrhaging woman. She is marginalized in several ways – she is unwell, unable to have children. Her ailment makes her ritually unclean in an ongoing way, so others will shun her. But in this story, unlike the tax collector and the little girl, it’s not Jesus who reaches out to do the healing. This is not a story about Jesus being nice.  Instead, she is the one who pushes through the crowd and unilaterally touches Christ. She doesn’t ask first; she doesn’t stand in line. She just barges in. This is a marginalized person actively trying to be healed. There is nothing here about Jesus being nice, about the people with power helping those who lack power. This is about a disabled woman without power acting with force and determination to get what she wants.   Now, by the rules of society at that time, Jesus could have spun around and denounced her. But he doesn’t. He tells her, “Your faith has made you well.”  

This, too is part of the Christian message. The people who are marginalized have every right to insist on their full humanity, and act on it. Not only that, but God will congratulate them for it. And that suggests that we Christians need to be more than the people who dole out charity to those who have been hard done by. We also need to help those who are marginalized act to get what is rightfully theirs, to be made whole. We are called not just to help the outcasts, but to be their allies.   And that’s hard, because if we are among the groups who have benefited from sorting society into the powerful and the weak, then we are being called to question our sorting hat, our system for sorting people. This story suggests it is part of our Christian calling to listen and help those who disagree with the system that we have set up. A system that leaves some people in the center and others at the margins, with less power and opportunity. Not only should we help change this system we made, but we also need help even understanding what’s wrong the system.  

Our society has a hard time thinking about the world without dividing it up into categories which stay separate. I was reminded of this recently went I visited the Art Gallery of Ontario. There is a wonderful exhibit of Inuit art by the artist David Ruben Piqtoukun. Like many Inuit artists, he uses stone to carve images that present stories and the values of Inuit culture. Many of the pieces portray shamans as they experience relationships with animal spirits.  

The sculptures show people melded with the spirits, becoming half person, half muskox as in this image,   or part man, part fish, as in this image. The line between categories and species has been deliberately blurred. The artist was sent to residential school at the age 5 and sees his art as a way of striking back. His art is a way of showing another way of thinking, very different from the one the Catholic schools taught him about. [3]    

The AGO has many Inuit pieces on display right now, going back many decades.    

In many of the pieces we see a deep connection to people, the land, and other species. The sculptures show people and the land as literally connected, people in the same stone sculpture as the animals they live with and hunt.   In Inuit culture, all beings are linked and interdependent. That’s just the way life works, and it is reflected in their art and way of living.  

It is both ironic and tragic that Westerners used Christianity to marginalize and persecute Indigenous people. Jesus consistently stresses the value of relationship over separation. He congratulates the bleeding woman who chose relationship and wholeness over continued separation. Jesus often speaks of being in his believers as he is in God and God is in him. Jesus understands and promotes interrelationships. When Indigenous people speak of their identity, they, too, stress their connections to their all their relatives, which includes the land, animals, and plants around them. They cannot explain who they are without mentioning these relationships. This is the kind of indwelling view of life and relationship that Jesus encourages us to experience and value.  

Today, after the service, we will be inaugurating the Miigwetch garden. The name is the word for “thank you” in the Ojibwa language. The garden committee received a grant last fall for placing plants in our garden that come from Ontario. These plants evolved with the insects here, so these plants will attract Canadian bees, wasps, and moths, who will pollinate them. The grant exists because so many gardens are filled with European plants that are not healthy for our bugs – often they can get pollen on them, but they cannot reach the nourishing nectar inside. Indeed, our entire city is filled with flowers, and trees like Norway maples from Europe, which do little to help our local insects.[4] So, the new native plant species in our garden is our way of re-establishing a life-giving, fertile relationship with the insects in this neighbourhood.  

Our faith has been used for a long time to separate and judge people and is still used that way. However, if we really listen to what our scriptures are saying, we hear another message. That what God desires is mercy and relationship. Relationships with each other, and with the divine source of life. On this National Day of Reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, we are called to work on building bridges of respect. Bridges that are life giving. That means learning to think and relate in ways that may not come easily. But when we do this, we will not be abandoning our Christian principles, but instead, we will be living up to them. For God desires mercy through relationship, loving acts which restore life and agency, among all peoples, and even, all species.  


[1] Numbers 17: 11. [2] Leviticus 15:25-33; also see https://www.bibleref.com/Matthew/9/Matthew-9-20.html. [3] https://davidruben.com/about-david/ [4] https://www.pollinator.org/pollinator.org/assets/generalFiles/NAPPC-Invasive-Species-Fact-Sheet_170624_114929.pdf