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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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A Non-Theologian’s [Irreverent] Understanding of The Trinity

A couple of weeks ago, during an out-loud prayer on my porch one evening (I was alone), I went on a tangent about how I was getting mixed up regarding the target recipient of my prayer, and I actually said out loud, “Holy Spirit, I started this prayer talking to you, but I think I’ve wandered into the Father’s jurisdiction now. I guess you guys can sort it out amongst yourselves when I’m done.” And yes, I actually used the word jurisdiction. Which was why I then proceeded to have a laugh with God – whichever branch of the system was listening – before I finished my prayer. However, this understanding of God as three separate beings – instead of the word God referring only to the Father – is pretty new to me, and my acknowledgment of it in prayer is even newer.

In the Christian world, tithing is probably the only topic that pastors are more afraid of preaching than the Trinity. Most of them freely admit it’s because they don’t fully understand the Trinity themselves (they overuse the word mystery in their attempted explanations, but I think sometimes that’s more of a cop-out than a legitimate explanation). And while I appreciate the humility such an approach displays, this avoidance of the topic in some cases and in other cases glossing over its surface is not helpful to young Christians, new believers, immature Christians, or people who are any combination or all of the above. At one time or another in my life, I have certainly fit into all three categories, and it was not until recently that I began – out of desperation, out of feeling that I was missing out on something huge – to attempt to develop my own understanding of the Trinity, in the absence of corporate help from the church.

The Trinity is one of those concepts you learn early in your recitations if you grow up in the church. There are plenty of songs that mention the “Three-in-One,” and you hear multiple christenings, dedications, baptisms, and anointings whose prayers end with the words in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. So the concept is introduced early on but, without adequate attention given to what the Trinity is, it quickly becomes an accepted but basically meaningless part of the backdrop of a Christian upbringing, just another word in the Christianese language.

For most of my Christian life (which encompasses most of my life, period), when I have prayed, I have vaguely addressed “God,” “Father,” perhaps “Lord,” and even sometimes “Whoever the hell is up there, if anyone.” Not even Jesus, except for that one time when I first prayed the Sinner’s Prayer and accepted him into my heart, and then those other couple of times, when I attended Christian conferences and rallies and allowed overzealous evangelicals to convince me that if I wanted “to get into heaven,” I better “rededicate my life to Christ.”

(Evangelicals, conservative Christians, fundamentalists – whatever you want to call them – they love that term rededication. That concept is garbage, by the way. God – or the Trinity, the GodSystem, the Institution of Higher Beings, however you’re comfortable thinking of it – does not lose the record of a person’s original salvation. It’s not like a piece of paper God never got around to filing, or that God spilled coffee on, or forgot to Xerox. If you pray the prayer, you’re good to go…in a manner of speaking. That doesn’t mean you can go on a killing spree or live selfishly after that or be a complete jerk to everyone and think things are still copacetic, but God knows the state of a person’s heart when the prayer is prayed, and that counts for something. And yeah, we all mess up, whether it’s doing drugs or dealing drugs or busting a cap on the guy who won’t pay for his drugs. We all mess up. But here’s a message to all those well-meaning evangelicals who tried to convince me that Christianity was a game of balance, of sin management, of collecting more tally marks toward heaven and against hell than the other way around, all those perfectly nice but so misguided adults who made sure I re-prayed the Sinner’s Prayer and re-prayed it and re-prayed it: That’s not what Christianity is about. That’s not what salvation is about. That’s not what love is about. That’s not what grace is about. And it’s not the gospel. Okay, sorry for the digression, but I have been wanting to say that in a public venue for like eight years now.)

So, I have mostly always prayed to “God,” for whatever that was worth, and whomever it meant. But then a couple of years ago, the pastor of my church sent around an email to the congregation in preparation for a Pentecost-Sunday sermon on the Holy Spirit. The email request was that we write back with a short explanation of what the Holy Spirit meant to us.

And I was so completely embarrassed by the fact that I had to answer the email with this: “I’m sorry, but the Holy Spirit means nothing to me. I don’t really get what it is, I have no story of how it/he/whatever has worked in my life, and I don’t understand what its role in my life is supposed to be.” I could’ve just ignored the email, I guess. I didn’t have to expose my shortcoming of the understanding of something that is supposed to be pretty fundamental as well as pretty central to my faith. But the deed was done, and the email was sent. I don’t remember what my pastor’s response was, nor do I remember the Pentecost-Sunday sermon from that year (sorry, Pastor).

But what I do remember after that incident was that I couldn’t stop thinking about the way my understanding of my own faith fell short when it came to the Holy Spirit. I remember turning to a coworker one day at work and randomly asking him, out of the blue, no warning at all, “Hey, does the Holy Spirit mean anything to you?”

And I listened in awe as he explained that yes, the Holy Spirit meant everything to him. He directed me to the passage in Scripture – John 14:15-31 – where Jesus is trying to prepare his disciples for his imminent absence, and he promises to send an “advocate” – named the Holy Spirit – to help the disciples (and subsequently, the belief is, all Christians from then on) in his stead. Well, when my coworker pointed me to that passage, I was surprised how new it sounded to me. I knew I had read the entire book of John before, and probably more than once. So why did it feel as if I’d never read that particular passage? Probably because it never meant anything to me before. Hungry for more, I asked my friend if he had any book recommendations that might help me grow in my understanding of the Holy Spirit. He recommended Forgotten God, by Francis Chan.

I admit, I didn’t immediately go out and buy the book.* I did look for it in the local library, but in my experience, the public library is depressingly void of quality Christian literature. That didn’t stop me from continuing to reflect on the concept of the Holy Spirit as something more than just a name to add to the end of my prayers, though. I continued to search for mentions of this being whenever I read Scripture (if you’re curious, and not looking to buy the Francis Chan book, the gospel of Luke – specifically 11:13 and 12:12 – has my favorite mentions/understandings of who the Holy Spirit is and what the Holy Spirit’s purpose should be in our lives).

The Bible uses words like intercessor and advocate to describe the intended role of the Holy Spirit, but I think there’s more to the story than that. (After all, how many translations has my copy of the Bible been through?) Once, in an unprompted discussion, someone described their understanding of the Holy Spirit as the nudgings and nigglings of their conscience. They described it in such a way that, when applying the explanation to my own life, I interpreted it to mean the “gut feeling” I get sometimes when I know exactly what I need to do, the “voice in my head” that keeps the needle of my moral compass pointing north(ish).

I have taken that particular explanation to heart and have slowly begun to incorporate the Holy Spirit into my prayers – first as small breaths of gratitude when I followed a gut feeling and it turned out to be definitively the right decision, or when I had no idea what to say to a friend but somehow ended up saying (or not saying) exactly the right things. I started attributing that influence to the Holy Spirit.

Gradually I got to where I could specifically decide which part of the Trinity I wanted to pray to depending on what I was praying about. The funny thing is, I had more trouble adding Jesus into my understanding of Trinity – as far as him being a divine entity I would pray to, beseech, or thank beyond his role in the Sinner’s Prayer – than I did adding the Holy Spirit. And no, I don’t really think it matters if I get mixed up and send a prayer to the “wrong” branch of the Trinity. They are, after all, three-in-one, so I think they have a pretty good message-relay system going up there.

But dividing it out the way I do now, being intentional about what I’m praying for, and whom I’m praying to, has become a small but extremely significant and meaningful way that I can own and understand my faith and my salvation. It just works for me. But it does sometimes result in laughing aloud on my porch mid-prayer. And I think that’s totally okay with them.

*I did finally buy a copy of Francis Chan’s book last week from Amazon. But I haven’t read it yet, so hopefully I don’t open it up to find out I’m way off the mark. Because that would require a follow-up blog post, and anybody who has worked in journalism knows what a pain retractions are to publish.

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