sermon preached by Josh Hosler for HOM-500: Homiletics
at Virginia Theological Seminary, September 26, 2012
Like many in my generation, I was exposed to the musical Les Misérables in college, fell in love, and read the book. The first character introduced in Victor Hugo’s 19th-century masterwork is a bishop. When an ex-con named Jean Valjean shows up on the bishop’s door begging for a meal and a bed, the bishop obliges. In the night, Valjean makes off with the bishop’s silver. He is caught by the police and returned to the bishop for identification. But instead of saying, “Take him back to prison,” the bishop says, “You left without saying goodbye—and you didn’t even take all the gifts I gave you! In addition to the silver, I meant for you to have these candlesticks.” Once the befuddled police have left, the bishop looks into Jean Valjean’s eyes and tells him, “I have bought your soul for God.”
The bishop in this story is my hero, but I can’t imagine ever being like him. We know better than to open our homes to the homeless, or to give our money away when it’ll probably go toward drugs. We know the smart thing is to give to the church, or to government organizations that will assess people’s needs for us. But to give even more of my possessions to someone who has stolen from me only a moment ago? I can’t begin to imagine it. Yet something very much like this happens to Jesus in today’s passage from Mark’s Gospel.
This is a story within a story. On his way to heal the daughter of a prominent religious leader, Jesus is interrupted by a woman who has been menstruating for twelve years straight. In Jewish culture, this would have made her a permanently unclean outcast. Does she have a husband? Doubtless he left her long ago. Does she have children? We’ll never know. But we do know that she is desperate for a cure, and that no physician has been able to help.
She has heard of Jesus, though, and she knows that his touch is supposed to be magical. He’s a busy man. She may have just witnessed Jairus approaching Jesus to ask for healing for his daughter. But what if she could get just close enough to touch Jesus’ clothes? She sneaks up behind him in the crowd. The moment she touches his cloak, she feels inside her body that the hemorrhaging has stopped. She is stunned—that was some magic! And Jesus turns around, saying, “Who touched me?” He is puzzled, too.
Perhaps if the woman hadn’t been so shocked, she could have gotten away faster. She could have shoplifted a cure from Jesus, and nobody would have been the wiser. But when she sees that Jesus knows something is going on, she comes clean. She respects him too much to run away—and besides, she’s grateful! But what if he is angry? What if Jesus doesn’t accept her apology? The woman comes to Jesus in “fear and trembling.” It’s worth noting that Paul uses the same words in his letter to the Philippians: “Therefore … work out your own salvation in fear and trembling.” Suddenly the woman is being judged by the Son of God Himself. What will he do?
Mark tells us that the woman “told him the whole truth.” Maybe she confesses that she’s been ill for twelve years, most certainly a punishment for her sins. She confesses that she thought she could get away with taking just a little bit of his magical cure—not enough to drain him dry, but just enough to help a suffering woman. And now she’s so, so, sorry … she had no right, no right, and now she’s held him up, and this man’s little girl might die, and everything is all wrong, and it doesn’t even matter that she’s cured, because she has hindered the Lord.
But then something better than magic happens. Jesus kneels down, looks her in the eye and says, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”
Hang on a minute. Wasn’t she already cured? What’s left to be healed of? Yet this word “healed” is different from the word Mark used for the healing of the woman’s body. Then, she was only cured. This healing runs deeper. It’s the kind of healing Jairus asked for his daughter. It’s the kind of healing the woman herself envisioned might happen before things got all mixed up. Now that Jesus has received her graciously and given her words of hope, she knows that the curing of her disease was only the first step. Had she shoplifted her cure and gotten away, she might no longer have been an outcast. But what of God? Had Jean Valjean made off with the bishop’s silver and not been caught, he could have sold the silver and begun to set up a new life for himself. But the bishop wanted more for Valjean, and indeed this was the beginning of Valjean’s lifelong journey of faith. In the same way, Jesus wanted more for this woman.
How often do we approach God from behind, sneaking in to ask for just one little thing, afraid to linger lest his eyes meet ours? Our troubles might be as big as a chronic health condition or as small as a nagging sense of malaise. They may even be our fault, so we think we have no right to complain. When we suck it up and soldier on, we imagine that we are being humble. But really, we’re thinking far less of ourselves than God does. God wants more for us than we can possibly imagine: new life, abundant life, life free of disease but also rich in relationship. Amen.