There are some afflictions so intimate, and so humbling, that we dread to speak of them. And we all have them.
Just then a woman who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years came up behind him and touched the edge of his cloak
Subject to bleeding for twelve years. We all know what this refers to, but we don’t usually talk about it in polite company. When telling this story to children, we don’t dwell on her malady. And that’s appropriate, for children. But this is a story for adults. Of course, it would be easy to just skip over the distasteful parts of the Bible and make breezy statements about grace or healing. I don’t know about you, but when I’m really struggling, I don’t want blithe statements. I want comfort as deep as my despair and healing for my most painful wounds.
When we do speak of this woman’s malady, we usually employ euphemisms, like “feminine bleeding,” and even that makes us feel uncomfortable, embarrassed. If you feel that, then you are just beginning to understand this woman’s plight. To really understand her story, we need to move past discomfort and embarrassment and move on—to shame and despair. “But there’s no shame in being ill,” you may object. Really? Have you never been shamed, or felt ashamed, for being ill? Sometimes, that’s part of the illness.
Consider this poor woman’s state of mind and body. To begin with, we need to recognize the sheer physical drain this placed on her. A 21st century woman blogged about her similar ordeal in these terms:
Blood loss . . . leave[s] us physically and spiritually weak frail, anemic, haggard, overwhelmed, and fragile.
“Weak, frail, anemic, haggard, overwhelmed, and fragile.” No doubt twelve years of continuous blood loss would leave anyone feeling fragile, both physically and emotionally. But that’s just the beginning of her suffering. Because of the continuous hemorrhaging, she was ritually unclean, making and anyone or anything she touched unclean as well. This made her at best an object of pity, at worst an outcast, an object of revulsion to many. For 12 years.
Think of where you were, what was happening 12 years ago. For twelve years, people shunned her, not wanting to be contaminated, by her touch. How could this not impact her emotionally? Imagine that people had treated you as an outcast for 12 years. How would you feel?
What about spiritual comfort? Forget it. Being ritually unclean prohibited her from going the Temple. If the crowds even in the city streets knew of her condition, they would draw away from her in horror. From virtually every source, she received the same message: You’re tainted, you’re defective, you’re unclean, you’re repulsive.
If you think these ideas a thing of the past, or overstated, then be thankful you have not experienced them. Even today, good people recoil at some diseases and conditions. I know of a couple whose child developed a particularly virulent cancer before his second birthday. Earnest church members felt obliged to tell these dear people that the child developed this terrible malignancy because of the parents’ improper diet. Physicians assured the couple that diet had nothing to do with the child’s problems. Obesity in our modern culture increasingly carries a stigma. Being shamed for physical conditions still goes on.
So this poor woman, in a state of chronic exhaustion, feeling overwhelmed and fragile due to continual blood loss, must also bear the burden of being shunned and reviled. She must have felt soiled down to the marrow of her bones.
Interestingly, none of the three gospels supplies us with her name. But that actually gives the story more meaning. Because as we examine her closely, we see she is every woman. She is, in fact, every human, trying to be whole. Or, put another way, all of us are like her. As the prophet Isaiah said,
“All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags.”
It is this passage in Isaiah that links each of us to this poor woman, because the Hebrew words translated “filthy rags” refer specifically to “used menstrual rags.” First century Jews certainly knew of this meaning. And if we make this connection with our short story, it reveals a new level of significance.
Now, we don’t like to talk about menstrual rags. But when we think about it, menstruation is a very human condition. In most animals, the uterine lining is resorbed, not shed. Only the primates actually shed the uterine lining, and even then, the human experience is unique. None of us would exist without this physical function. And all of us have the same level of righteousness on our own. So this woman is deeply, movingly human. Her malady is a deeply human malady.
Perhaps that is why she has no name: she is everyone who recognizes their true condition.