The “Unclean” Lord

Reflecting on our Sunday Readings with Fr Nicholas Hoh, OCD

Jun 29, 2024

13th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
Readings: Wisdom 1:13-15; 2:23-24;
2 Corinthians 8:7, 9, 13-15;
Gospel: Mark 5:21-43

Today’s Gospel reading concerning the daughter of Jairus and the unnamed woman with a haemorrhage is a passage that many of us are aware of. This episode shows the power of Jesus to heal even the most severe of illnesses, as well as showing the miraculous power at work in Him to raise even the dead back to life.

However, this passage contains other deeper layers as well, which the discerning reader, prayerfully reading this passage, could reach. For some commentators, the presence of both the haemorrhaging woman and the deceased child could be references to the Jewish regulations concerning ritual purity. Ritual purity, to put it simply, was the state that a person was supposed to be in before he/she could participate in certain holy activities. This is because God is holy, and only those persons or objects that are holy, and therefore “clean” are worthy to be set apart for the Lord. In order to approach God or to be in the Lord’s presence in the Temple, one would need to ensure oneself as “clean” in accordance to the rites of the Jewish faith (which can be found in the Books of Leviticus and Numbers). Therefore, if a person would like to participate in worship at the Temple of Jerusalem, such a person would need to abstain from certain activities which would render that person ritually impure.

What causes a person to be “impure” or “unclean”? Several situations are outlined in the Old Testament, such as having a skin disease (for instance leprosy), having a discharge of bodily fluids, or even touching someone or something unclean, such as a dead body. Should a person be defiled due to having had contact with an unclean person or object, the person must abstain from all religious practices for a determined period, and undergo purifying rituals to restore oneself to the state of ritual purity. The importance of ritual purity in the Jewish faith was a gesture that emphasises the holiness of God and the importance of being in the right disposition to approach the Lord.

It is in such an environment that we find the characters in today’s Gospel. Jairus, being an official of the synagogue, would have been well versed in these laws and regulations. Likewise, Jesus, being a Jew Himself and one who frequented both the Temple and the synagogue, would have been taught these laws and their importance. As for the woman with the haemorrhage, it would have been a painful life of suffering, firstly for living with a painful and uncomfortable illness, but also with the constant feeling of being cut off from God, since her discharge of blood would have made her living constantly in the state of impurity, hence being unable to participate in communal worship of God as was the custom at that time.

Being considered unclean, the woman’s actions to reach out and touch Jesus, (a man of God and thereby making Him unclean as well) takes on a tone of daring and desperation. We can possibly surmise that in normal circumstances, no person would wilfully want to make another one unclean, but the woman’s desperation for a cure led her to take this drastic action. It may also explain why she chose to secretly approach Jesus, since she must have thought a direct approach may lead to a flat refusal. Yet, as we see in the Gospel, despite her caution, she was eventually found out, and her nervousness to come forward might stem from the fear of being chastised for making Jesus unclean as well.

Reassuringly, however, Jesus does not rebuke her, but instead commends her for her faith – “my daughter, your faith has restored you to health; go in peace…”

If in the case of the haemorrhaging woman, Jesus was made “unclean” through no fault of His own, the interaction between Jesus and the little daughter of Jairus turns everything on its head. As Jesus interacts with the woman, He and Jairus are brought news that the little girl has died. In terms of the laws of ritual purity, the touching of a corpse is an action that brings impurity upon a person. Therefore, it is surprising, that after travelling to Jairus’ house, Jesus enters the room where the little girl is laid and proceeds to touch her and lift up her hand! “Talitha, kum!”, says Jesus, and with those words the girl is brought back to life.

What can these actions of Jesus today tell us, how do they speak to us? Though we as Catholics no longer subscribe to the same purity laws as the Jews do, yet in our psyche, we still possess the same awe and respect for God, who is almighty and altogether holy. We take great pains to show our respect to God, and we painstakingly prepare our inner and outer dispositions before we approach Him. In a sense, there is an inner mechanism within us that strives to be “pure” or “clean” before we approach the Lord.

However, we also know that despite our best efforts, it is not possible to be totally pure or clean in the eyes of God. Close scrutiny of our thoughts, our weaknesses and fragilities, as well as our negative attitudes and actions, show us that often we have to reckon with our own “uncleanness”. For some, this can be a discouraging exercise, and though we have been taught that God is full of loving mercy and compassion, we often do hold ourselves back from approaching the Lord with trust and confidence. We become afraid and guilt-ridden, feeling unworthy to approach the Lord, afraid of being on the receiving end of God’s anger because of our impurities.

Yet today’s Gospel affirms to us that God is not afraid of “being unclean”, unafraid to get His hands dirty in bringing salvation and life to those who are in need. We should reflect, is there something “unclean” in me that I am struggling with? Something that we have been struggling with for a long time, but with no cure or remedy in sight? If that is the case, then, like the haemorrhaging woman, let us seek boldly the Healer. Do we feel that we are struggling with something so painful and wretched, utterly abhorrent to the Lord? Then let the hands of Jesus reach out upon us, those very hands that feared not the dead corpse, and let those very hands lift us out from death into life.

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