(A huge note of thanks to everyone who made a plug for my blog this week – it nearly doubled my hits: 20 people!! Just kidding, it was a lot more than that, and I’m hugely thankful. So…thanks. A passage of Scripture has been rattling around in my head for the past couple of days, the one about the bleeding woman that I talked about a few days ago in this post, based on Luke 8. So I wanted to share some of my reflections on the story for the next few posts.)
I am a huge Seinfeld fan. I can quote entire episodes from memory. I’m such a fan of Seinfeld that I even enjoyed the parts that came before and before the actual episodes, where Jerry Seinfeld would do a bit from his comedy act (this is the true mark of a Seinfeld fanatic). And in one of those stand-up bits, he says how the number one fear that people have is the fear of public speaking, and strangely, the second greatest fear is the fear of death – and that means at a funeral, people would rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy. Now, I’m not sure how accurate this statistic really is. I think if a person said their greatest fear was of public speaking, and then you asked them if public speaking is worse than death, most people would probably change their answer:
“Oh no, I meant death! I’m much, much more afraid of death.”
But I think this is an insightful observation because it points out that one of our greatest fears is being put on the spot, of being singled out and isolated from other people. Being social creatures, we have this intense need to fit in with others and not be singled out whenever possible. And that is why this particular passage of Scripture from Luke 8 does not sit well with us in the least:
45 “Who touched me?” Jesus asked.
When they all denied it, Peter said, “Master, the people are crowding and pressing against you.”
46 But Jesus said, “Someone touched me; I know that power has gone out from me.”
47 Then the woman, seeing that she could not go unnoticed, came trembling and fell at his feet. In the presence of all the people, she told why she had touched him and how she had been instantly healed.
Jesus asks this woman to stand up and identify herself in front of others, and we are horrified. That is just mean-spirited and cruel. It seems like the kind thing for Jesus to do is just let her go on her way, completely anonymous. That way she’s healed and she’s not forced to identify and embarrass herself in front of others. What’s the harm in that?
But I think this is a complete misunderstanding of what Jesus is doing here. Jesus is not isolating this woman, but treating her as an individual. He wants to see her, talk to her, and restore her. His ministry to this woman is not anonymous or generic, but intensely personal and individual. He literally can’t walk away until he gets a chance to talk to her face to face. And in this way, he is not isolating her in the least, any more than it is “isolating” to have a conversation with a person where you are the focus of their attention, or for a doctor to ask you about your personal medical history.
And this is the way Jesus acts throughout the gospels, with a focus not on larger faceless crowds, but on caring for individuals. We see it here in this passage, but we also see it when Jesus interacts with Zacchaeus, a very short tax collector. Zacchaeus is up in a tree, trying to catch a glimpse of Jesus from a safe distance, when what do we find Jesus doing but going up to him and saying, “Zacchaeus, come out of that tree, I am going to stay with you tonight.” Again, this is clearly not Jesus singling Zacchaeus out, but paying individual attention to him, attention that brings Zacchaeus great joy.
And Jesus does this because it is in this personal context that He does transforms us most dramatically. He singles out the bleeding woman so He can heal her more completely, and calls out Zaccheaus so that He might change this little miser into a force of generosity. Personally, the gospel makes us fall on our knees not simply when we hear its message in a broad sense, but when that story connects with our personal story in turn. It is God’s love for us not simply as humans, but as individuals, that makes Christianity such a powerfully personal faith.
But I think the problem lies with the fact that being singled out and being treated individually are similar in many respects. After all, both of them require us to stand up and be recognized, to face someone squarely rather than hide in anonymity. And because of these similarities, we tend to confuse these two ideas, and shy away from one to wrongly avoid the other. We hate being singled out, so we do not share our testimonies of what God is doing in our lives, even though that testimony will encourage us and those around us. We hate exposure, so we avoid being prayed for or sharing honestly with one another, instead choosing to share tidbits of information that do not leave us vulnerable. But in so doing, we miss out on the opportunity to see God address our deepest needs. We hate isolation, so we never ever confess our sins, even though it is through confession and repentance that we experiences the truest freedom. So rather than allowing God to do His full work in our lives, our fear of being singled out causes us to settle for generic and anonymous ministry, with its generic and limited effects on us.
But there is a trick to being able to tell the difference between being singled out and being treated individually, and that is it all hinges on your perception of God. If God is a Taskmaster or a Judge, just watching and waiting for you to make a misstep, then any attention He gives you will seem like being singled out, like a strict teacher telling a slow student to stand in the corner. That conclusion is inevitable with such a perception of God. But if your understanding of God is that He knows and loves you like a Friend and like a Father, then it is easy to correctly interpret the attention He gives for what it really is – a focus on you as an individual. After all, no one stops in the middle of a conversation with a beloved friend, asking, “Wait! Why do you want to know how I’m really doing, huh? What is this, an interrogation??”
And that was what the bleeding woman failed to understand correctly, Jesus’ identity. She trembled because she assumed that Jesus was a powerful prophet who would be outraged by the unbidden use of his power, and called her out to pronounce judgment, mete out punishment. She didn’t see Him for what He really was: her Creator who had wept for her brokenness, and called her out so that brokenness might be reversed, both physically and spiritually.
We should realize that as Christians, we will inevitably have to stand up and be recognized at some point in time. We are called to testify and witness, to confess, to pray and be prayed for, to stand up for the poor and marginalized, disciplines which all carry the uncomfortable hallmarks of being singled out. But we know that is not really the case, because whenever Christ commands us to stand up, it is so He can see us more clearly, and we can see Him.