Have you noticed that humans exhibit an, almost universal, ability to define each other? Our habit, however, is to define each other in too narrow a category. So a carer is not often seen as being in need of care; a fighter is defined by his ability to draw blood but never allowed to bleed; a cheerful soul is defined by her cheerfulness but is rarely on the receiving end of being cheered-up.
We all know we project personas, yet we choose not to, or refuse to, see past them to the underlying complexities.
It may be frustrating to be defined only by your strengths, but it is surely worse to be defined by your struggles. A cancer patient is seen only as a person with cancer – nothing else. An alcoholic, or any addict, ceases to be seen as anything other than as the user of their drugs;the more chronic the suffering, the greater the risk of being seen only through that lens. Two other factors soon kick in: if the suffering, itself, attracts some sort of social stigma the sufferer can end up being both defined by it, and then excluded from the culture that he or she inhabits. So a depressive can be demonised or an STD sufferer vilified as a failure. When superstition gets added to suffering the alienation follows quickly.
The worst result, if this is you, is that you can end up defining yourself simply in those categories and self-loathing comes with social out-casting.
This behaviour happens in all societies, ancient and modern, at all points of the globe. No matter how many laws are passed, humans will find a way to define each other using the categories discussed, as well as using skin colour, gender, height, weight, impressions, prejudices and superstitions to label other humans.
Such was the state of a woman who had, for twelve years, been increasingly defined by her physical handicap. She was haemorrhaging blood and could find no cure. Her time, money and energy were spent on a quest for wholeness. Simultaneously, she was being stigmatised by a society that considered her unclean;so her physical pain was compounded by psychological torment.
Out of her wound flowed blood – literally, but just as real, money, time, emotions and self-esteem followed unseen.
In a gentle moment of quiet, quiet desperation this woman, ever so secretly, reached out and touched the clothes of a passing preacher. The touch was so tender that she may not even have touched his body but only the fabric of his outer clothing. If you hold that moment in your mind it will slowly expand into a private picture. Just for a few endless seconds everything changes. What happened in that delicate gesture of reaching out contained an exquisite surprise: something beautiful flowed into her, something so warming and healing that, as time stood still, she realized her nightmare was over. Finally some respite from twelve years of unrelenting misery. She did not know whether to laugh or cry or just fall flat on her face and thank someone. If it had happened twelve years ago she may have wanted to dance but that spirit had left her a long while back.
And if it was anyone else but the Carpenter that might have been the end of the story, but as she finally regained awareness of her surroundings she would hear him saying “who touched me?” Everyone else had an ordinary answer in the jostle but she knew her private moment was anything but ordinary, so gingerly she owned up to her tiny act, It is at this point that he reaches out to her. By bringing her into public view he reinstates her in the public mind. She can no longer be defined by her bleeding – nor, surprisingly, by her healing – she is to be seen as whole – for that is what she always was, never lost, and has, therefore, not regained. What she has regained is the permission to see – as has everyone else. By tenderly presenting her to the crowed he has connected with her at a profound level and given her his way of defining people.
As if that were not enough she stands up and looks a man in the eye. It was the male of the species that had declared her unclean. It was male culture that had ostracised her and it is a man who invites her back. He wants her to see him as a real man in front of her. She has, like so many women, been carrying a wound that will not heal, exaggerated by men who will not understand. She has seen men as the enemy, yet has sought out doctors as problem solvers. In this moment Jesus will not be defined by her. He is not the enemy nor is he the mere problem solver. Touching him and only receiving his power is to diminish his reality; he is the restorer of dignity in a blind world. She must no more define him inaccurately than be inaccurately defined by others.
It takes a powerful light to enable you to see reality. It takes tenderness to bring us out of the shadows.
Maybe this week, as the Carpenter walks by, we can learn to see.
42bAs Jesus was on his way, the crowds almost crushed him. 43And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years, but no one could heal her. 44She came up behind him and touched the edge of his cloak, and immediately her bleeding stopped. 45“Who touched me?” Jesus asked. When they all denied it, Peter said, “Master, the people are crowding and pressing against you.” 46But Jesus said, “Someone touched me; I know that power has gone out from me.” 47Then 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. 48Then he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace.”
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