Jesus, the Bleeding Woman, and Amateur Theology

One of the things that’s hard for me to wrap my brain around theologically is Jesus’s full humanity coexisting with his full divinity. Half and half would make a little more sense to me (like Achilles, for example, in Greek mythology), but fully human and fully God just seems paradoxical. For instance, if Jesus had truly been fully divine, he could’ve gotten himself out of a lot of hard situations (not least the crucifixion)—yet he didn’t. And if he had truly been fully human, he could’ve fallen prey to lots of temptations (especially the ones the devil offered him in the wilderness)—yet he didn’t.

On the other hand, perhaps these two states of being coexisting within one person are exactly why things happened the way they did: maybe full divinity allowed him to resist the kinds of temptations the rest of humanity might succumb to, and maybe full humanity prevented him from using a divine get-out-of-jail-free card to wriggle out of tough situations. It’s still a bit of a brain bender, though, and it’s one of those things we’re sorta just supposed to accept as Christians: Jesus was fully God and fully human. End of story, no questions, please.

Well, I don’t know about you, but I identify a lot with the disciple Thomas, who needs a little more explanation sometimes before he can get all the way on board with something that’s weird and theologically confusing. I’m like that too, and one of the biblical passages that clearly illustrates to me the fullness of both Jesus’s humanity and divinity (even though I’ve never heard it preached this way) is the story of the woman who had been bleeding for twelve years. There’s a version of this story in each Synoptic Gospel. Mark 5:21–42 and Luke 8:40–56 contain the details that manifest the character of Jesus that I want to discuss here. Matthew 9:18–26 has the story too, but its details are far fewer.

To summarize the story, Jesus is walking along the road, lots of people are around, he is preoccupied with a request to heal someone else—and then this chronically hemorrhaging woman somehow makes her way to the center of the throng, grabs the edge of his cloak, and is herself instantly healed.

The fact that she is immediately healed is something to notice right away. Certainly Jesus does a lot of healing in the Gospels, but usually it’s in cases where he’s been specifically asked to do it, and he willfully makes the choice to proceed. The fact that he has a choice in these other instances indicates full humanity by way of free will. He can choose to tap into his divine powers and heal someone, or he can choose to exercise his human free will and go on his way. I don’t know if I recall an instance when Jesus actually chooses not to heal someone who has asked for it, but choice is an important factor in other scenarios. For instance, people who are trying to trick, trap, or bait Jesus into performing “signs and wonders”—either as a condition of their own belief, for personal entertainment, or for diabolical purposes—are often disappointed when Jesus tells them parables or other confusing riddles instead.

Here with the bleeding woman, though, the fact that he doesn’t actively participate in her healing indicates his full divinity coexisting alongside his full humanity. Mark 5:30 tells us, “At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him.” It doesn’t say that Jesus sends out power from himself or that Jesus chooses to heal this woman. It says “power had gone out from him,” implying that Jesus has no choice in the matter. To me, this result is proof that Jesus is truly sent from the Father in heaven, who has the power to will and to act through Jesus in situations when Jesus is—say, I don’t know—busy participating in activities that are more fully human, like being pressed by a crowd, walking along a dirt road, heading toward someone else’s home to perform a different (though equally divine) act of healing.

This woman’s desperation has driven her to some extremes, as I understand the story. In biblical Jewish culture, bleeding of any kind is considered impure, and anyone who does bleed (including, I think, women whose bodies simply menstruate on a regular basis, as God created them to do) is supposed to sequester, or quarantine, themselves until the bleeding stops; and, once it does stop, they then have to perform certain rituals, wait a certain amount of time, and get a priest to declare them pure again before they can re-enter public society. At least, that’s my rudimentary and incomplete understanding of ancient Jewish law, but I’m sure it’s not 100% accurate. However, assuming I got more details right than wrong, that would mean this woman has spent more time out of public life than in it over the last twelve years. It would also mean she is taking a huge risk by going out in this enormous crowd to try to get close to Jesus. With the people pressing in as much as the Gospel accounts tell us they are, not only would it be difficult to get near him at all, it would also require her to touch a lot of other people on her way through—probably a pretty big no-no. But this woman is desperate. Mark and Luke both tell us that “many” have tried to heal her to no avail, and Mark even indicates she’s made herself destitute just to pay for the many different treatments she has sought (5:26; Luke 8:43).

Imagine the desperation this woman must be feeling: a desperation that leads her to flout not only social norms but also religious law, a desperation that has driven her to the extreme—and, frankly, somewhat nonsense—notion that merely touching the edge of the cloak of this random itinerant preacher guy will make her well. But she’s been sick for twelve years. She’s tried everything. She’s seen every doctor, every herbalist, every quack peddling sugar water and placebo pills, she’s signed up for every experimental drug trial, she’s spent every last penny she has trying to rid herself of this illness that has plagued her for twelve long years. She’s ready to believe anything at this point, even if it’s some crackpot theory about touching the clothes of a carpenter-turned-rabbi who happens to be passing through town.

This woman’s absolute desperation is why the Father in heaven apparently decides to take part in this healing story. This woman’s insane belief—which Jesus names as “faith” in all three Gospel narratives—causes the Father to look down with compassion and send power out from his Son to heal this wretched illness and free her from her misery. None of the Gospels explicitly state the Father’s involvement in this story, but the implicit hallmarks of his presence are there. After all, Jesus has been clear throughout his entire ministry that he has been sent from the Father, that he is doing the Father’s work in the world, and that he will eventually return to the Father. And so, while Jesus is engaged in other matters, by other people, perhaps the Father sees an opportunity to reward one woman’s desperate faith by using Jesus as a conduit for healing. She believes Jesus can heal her even if she only manages to touch his clothing—and so, that is exactly what happens. Not because Jesus chooses to do it. Not because Jesus feels sorry for her. But because she believes. Because she has nothing to lose. Because she isn’t trying to prove anything, or trap Jesus, or trick him, or catch him in a lie, or get him killed. Because she is simply a woman who has reached the end of her rope, who has nowhere else to turn. And so she turns to Jesus. And is rewarded.

Yet, as we continue, we see more of Jesus’s full humanity on display in the fact that he doesn’t even know what happened. According to Mark and Luke, he can tell that power has gone out from him, but that’s where his humanity takes over from his divinity: he doesn’t know who touched him (Mark 5:30; Luke 8:45). The crowd’s response is kinda funny to me. They seem to answer Jesus a bit mockingly when he asks who touched him. What do you MEAN who touched you?! Do you see this crowd? EVERYONE is touching you! (see Mark 5:31 and Luke 8:45). But Jesus felt the power go out from him. He knows that someone specific touched him, that they did it in search of healing, and that they were rewarded: the power of divinity. Yet he doesn’t know who did it, nor did he specifically choose to send out that healing power from himself: the limitations of humanity.

Divinity and humanity coexisting in one person becomes a far more accessible concept in this weird little story that doesn’t even get its own passage. It’s bookended by what would be viewed as the more important story, the one about the religious leader’s daughter who also needs healing. To all who were there that day, healing the daughter of a synagogue leader—of someone who has presumably adhered to Jewish custom, tradition, and law all his life, who probably can quote the prophets, the Hebrew scriptures, and the entire law of Moses—should certainly be Jesus’s priority. It would be right, in their eyes, for Jesus to reward the faithful, the religious, those of his own “tribe,” those who are at the top of the hierarchical structure of their religion. But, as usual, Jesus turns things on their head and, together with the assistance of the Father, offers a living demonstration of “the last shall be first and the first shall be last.” But it’s important to note, too, that Jesus does still choose to heal the daughter of the religious leader, even after she dies and they think it’s too late—again exercising his fully human free will to divinely heal someone deemed unhealable.

Most of our stories about Jesus highlight one aspect or the other: humanity or divinity. Divinity in his ability to resist the devil’s temptations in the wilderness. Humanity in cursing a fig tree for not offering him nourishment; humanity that he even feels hungry in the first place! Divinity in his miracles like turning water into wine, feeding thousands of people from just a couple of loaves of bread, calming storms, walking on water. Humanity in losing his temper and overturning tables in church. Divinity at his baptism in the Jordan River, when the Spirit of God alights on him like a dove and the very voice of God proclaims and affirms his divine identity from the heavens. Humanity when he gets annoyed with his disciples for repeatedly misunderstanding him, his stories, and his mission. Divinity when he offers forgiveness to the unforgivable. Humanity in the garden of Gethsemane, when he literally begs the Father to find some way other than crucifixion to bring about salvation for the world.

I guess that’s why I’m drawn to this story about the bleeding woman and how she’s healed just by touching the edge of Jesus’s cloak—because, for just a second, I get a glimpse of both his humanity and his divinity, shimmering and present in the same body, in the same person, at the same time. And, for that quick second, I feel a small spark of understanding, perhaps like Thomas when he saw and felt the scars in Jesus’s hands after the resurrection. I’m grateful for a gracious God whose Spirit teaches me through Scripture, and I’m grateful to be saved by the kind of God who is willing to save all of us, whether we have a lot or a little, whether we’re as desperate as the bleeding woman or as comfortable as the synagogue leader. God deems all of us worthy of God’s saving grace. Thanks be to God.

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