Laila is my 8 year old niece and she is a natural born leader. Laila is the youngest of her group of cousins, at least she was until Ruth came along. Yet when they are all together, Laila is remarkably successful at getting the older boy cousins to do her bidding. The games that Laila wants to play are invariably the games that get played. If she wants everyone to play Marco Polo in the pool, you can be sure that’s what everyone will be doing in a matter of minutes. One day, when we were visiting Laila and her family, one of her older boy cousins said to Shannon, “Laila is soo bossy.” Without missing a beat, Shannon answered back. “No she isn’t. Laila has terrific executive leadership skills.” Our language can be so telling at times. Girls are bossy. Boys are leaders. Assertiveness is a trait that we often praise in men, yet frequently criticize in women.
One of the central teachings of the Christian faith is the virtue of unselfishness. We hold up as the ideal behavior the self-giving love of Jesus Christ and we encourage one another to think more of how we can serve others than how we ourselves can be served. I believe in this virtue, indeed I preach on the need for empathy and service to others regularly. However, when this Christian teaching of unselfishness interacts with the patriarchy of our society it can produce insidious, toxic, results. In our broader culture, men are nearly always more valued than women. Men are thought to be ends in and of themselves, while women are generally thought to be means to an end, specifically the end of creating, nurturing, and supporting men. For this reason the contributions of men are sought out and applauded, while those of women are often overlooked and forgotten. Traits such as assertiveness, leadership, and ambition are compliments for men, while the same traits in women can be insulted and called loud, bossy, and controlling. Though men may hear in church that they are to be servants, that they are to be unselfish, and to think first of others, this is not the message that our patriarchal society delivers to them day in and day out. On the other hand, women get a double dose of hearing that they should be unselfish, that they should think first of others. The messages of the church and of our patriarchal society can overlap and converge and reinforce one another in such a way that women are taught in our society and our churches that they’re lives are not valuable in and of themselves. They can hear the message that their needs are not important, that it is only the needs of others, the needs of those more important than them, the needs of men, that truly
The story that we heard from the Gospel of Mark this morning begins when one of the leaders of the synagogue, a man named Jarius, comes to Jesus, falls at his feet and begs him repeatedly saying, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” Jarius fits the profile for our common conception of Christian virtue. He is not concerned for himself, but rather for the well being of another, in this case his daughter who is ill. Though he is an important man himself, a religious leader, he nevertheless bows before Jesus, humbling himself. Finally, he believes that Jesus can heal his daughter and he asks that she be made well. Jarius has faith, he humbles himself before Jesus, and he is concerned primarily for the needs of another. It would be hard to find a better role model for a Christian.
Jesus agrees to help and a crowd follows him as he makes his way to Jarius’ home. Within this crowd there is a woman who has been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. It is difficult to imagine how terrible this ailment would have been, to be bleeding for twelve years; to be constantly weak and drained, to live with the mess and the never ending clean up, to have such an obvious and draining ailment consistently for 12 years; it must have been horrible. Yet, this woman’s situation was worse than just her physical ailment. According to the Jewish law, menstrual bleeding made a woman unclean for a period of seven days. This unclean status would have prohibited her from all religious, social, and public life. As a result of her illness, this woman has been a social outcast, a pariah, for 12 years.
This long suffering woman shares Jarius’ faith in Jesus’ ability to heal. That however, is where the similarities between them end. While Jarius came asking for help for another, the woman is seeking only healing for herself. Whereas Jarius humbled himself before Jesus, the woman actually elevates herself, daring to touch Jesus’ cloak even though she is ritually unclean and therefore prohibited from so doing. What is more, the woman interrupts Jesus in the middle of an important and urgent task. The daughter of an important man, the leader of the synagogue, is dying, and this woman asserts herself, places her own needs before those of another, and grabs ahold of Jesus without so much as asking if he is willing to heal her. This woman is assertive, ambitious, pushy all things our society, and theirs told women not to be. She prioritizes her own need instead of those of others; just as our faith so often teaches us not to do.
And she is healed. When she prioritizes her own need, when she asserts herself and violates the social norms and religious rules that would prevent it, when she grabs ahold of Jesus cloak without so much as calling his name; she is healed. Though Jesus is in a hurry to save a dying girl, the daughter of a religious leader, he nevertheless stops in his tracks. He asks who has touched him. That is the moment when the woman who has already shown herself to be bold and daring, does the bravest thing yet. “The woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth.” She told him her whole truth in fear and trembling. How else could you confess your whole truth to your very maker, to the one who formed you in your mother’s womb, the one whose power has made you well, but in fear and trembling. We are not told how long her confession took, only that it was long enough for her tell Jesus her whole truth. The truth of her last 12 years of suffering, or misery, of isolation and loneliness and despair. The truth not only of her suffering, but of her sin as well, the truth that she like all of us, fell short of who she wanted to be, of who she could have been, or should have been. She told Jesus her whole truth. And Jesus, though another was waiting, was ill and in need of healing, Jesus stayed and listened to all of it. When she had finished, Jesus said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”
How are we to reconcile this woman’s prioritizing of her own need with the Christian virtue of unselfishness? How could it be that Jesus stopped what he was doing for Jarius, who prioritized the need of another and humbled himself, to first heal this uppity woman whose concern was only for herself? For there is no mistaking the message present in Jesus’ action: in that moment there was nothing more important to him, to Jesus the Christ, than that woman, hearing her truth, learning of her suffering, and healing her illness. It is true that Jesus calls us to serve others, but never, ever, did Jesus say that we should consider ourselves less worthy of being heard, of being seen, or of being healed, than those we would serve. The lie of patriarchy is that only men are ends in and of themselves. The truth of the gospel is that women and men and every human person, are all valued by God and loved as ends in themselves. You are loved by God. God cares deeply about your suffering. You are deserving of healing and wholeness and community. There is nothing more urgent or more important to God than that You, you, are seen, heard, and healed. This doesn’t mean that it is all about you, that you are no longer called to serve others. But if you are to be of service to God, to another person, or even to yourself, you must first tend to your own wounds, your own needs. An empty vessel pours no water. Hurt people, hurt other people. God does not wish for you to suffer so that others may thrive. God wishes, and God works, that you might thrive and thereby bring light and love to others. May God grant us the boldness and the daring to assert ourselves, to prioritize our healing, and to know that what we believe God wants for others, She also wants for us. Amen.