“The Mange”, Exclusion and Stigmas – Portraits of God Pt 2

On the other side of the lake the crowds welcomed Jesus, because they had been waiting for him. Then a man named Jairus, a leader of the local synagogue, came and fell at Jesus’ feet, pleading with him to come home with him. His only daughter, who was about twelve years old, was dying.
As Jesus went with him, he was surrounded by the crowds. A woman in the crowd had suffered for twelve years with constant bleeding, and she could find no cure. Coming up behind Jesus, she touched the fringe of his robe. Immediately, the bleeding stopped.
Who touched me? Jesus asked.
Everyone denied it, and Peter said, “Master, this whole crowd is pressing up against you.”
But Jesus said, “Someone deliberately touched me, for I felt healing power go out from me.” When the woman realized that she could not stay hidden, she began to tremble and fell to her knees in front of him. The whole crowd heard her explain why she had touched him and that she had been immediately healed. “Daughter,” he said to her, “your faith has made you well. Go in peace.”
While he was still speaking to her, a messenger arrived from the home of Jairus, the leader of the synagogue. He told him, “Your daughter is dead. There’s no use troubling the Teacher now.”
But when Jesus heard what had happened, he said to Jairus, “Don’t be afraid. Just have faith, and she will be healed.”
When they arrived at the house, Jesus wouldn’t let anyone go in with him except Peter, John, James, and the little girl’s father and mother. The house was filled with people weeping and wailing, but he said, “Stop the weeping! She isn’t dead; she’s only asleep.”
But the crowd laughed at him because they all knew she had died. Then Jesus took her by the hand and said in a loud voice, “My child, get up!” And at that moment her life returned, and she immediately stood up! Then Jesus told them to give her something to eat. Her parents were overwhelmed, but Jesus insisted that they not tell anyone what had happened.

PLAY GROUND GAMES AND “THE MANGE”!

Our house is situated near two primary schools. On those occasional nice-weather days when I’m working at home and I have the window open, the sounds from the playgrounds of those two schools meshes together and streams into our home.

It’s a great sound. Probably one of my favourites. The sound of over 200 hundred children at play – laughing, cheering, shouting and singing.

My mind instantly starts to reminisce as I listen to it; as I begin to remember my own childhood and some of the games we used to play on the playground.

Most of those games were very inclusive – everyone and anyone could join in, regardless of whether you were in the same school year. These were generally the standard playground games, the ones with rules that all of us could more or less understand, like “Tig” (or “Tag”), “Manhunt”, “Bulldog” etc. But there was also the role-playing games; when our imaginations would combine and bounce of each others as we’d “pretend this” and “pretend that” together in some out-of-this-world adventure which nearly-always involved dinosaurs, jet-packs, Light-Sabers and impenetrable force-fields.

However, there were the other kinds of games: the cruel ones, were things weren’t so inclusive.

Games when we would purposely target someone, and exclude them, and call them names… I must confess, that I have been the victim, but also the perpetrator of such games when I was a kid. Maybe I’m not alone in this? Although, I was more often than not the victim, and whenever I was the perpetrator I only did so in the hope of keeping out of the target-zone; focusing on someone else meant I could hide in the crowd.

One of these excluding games, used to revolve around the victim becoming infected with some contagious disease that we only knew as “The Mange”.

None of us actually knew what it was; “The Mange” didn’t have any outward physical symptoms. There was no coughing, sneezing, vomiting, skin rash or foaming at the mouth. It was an invisible condition; so invisible that, as you can guess, it didn’t really exist at all.

“The Mange” was purely social stigma; our way of labelling and pushing someone out of our little community. A stigma whose reach extended beyond the playground, into the classroom and even outside of the school gates.

Being a virtual disease meant there was no remedy for “The Mange”; if you had it, there was no known medicine that would provide a cure. There was nothing you could do to “purify” or “heal” or “redeem” yourself of it. You were stuck with it until we said otherwise; very rarely this meant it would last only a couple of days, generally it would linger for a week or two, but occasionally “The Mange” could last a whole school year.

And in addition to being regarded as an “incurable social outcast”, being infected with “The Mange” meant you were also classified  as being a “highly contagious incurable social outcast”. If you had “The dreaded Mange”, then it was more than likely that you’re mates had it too – unless, of course, they joined in with this playground game. Everything you touched became a carrier of this wild and out-of-control plague; whether that was your chair, your pencil, or even the communal eraser that we shared on the class-room table (we’d all rather leave our mistakes in our school-book than touch that, thank-you very much).

It was so contagious, that even talking to someone with “The Mange” (including being breathed upon) meant that you, too, ran the risk of being placed into social quarantine; otherwise known as classroom and playground isolation, ridicule and victimisation.

People with “The Mange” were seen as a danger to our little tribe, and thus they were treated as “untouchable”.

UNTOUCHABLE?

Why am I telling you about “The Mange”?

Within the society of Jesus’ day there were two kinds of people who were also deemed as untouchable…

Those who are seen as “Unclean” people and “Dead” people. And Luke, in telling us his story about Jesus, puts Jesus in direct touching contact with these two groups within the passage noted above. Two groups, that people thought shouldn’t be touched – one day touch or are touched by Jesus. And his touch does something powerful in their lives – more miraculous than the miracles themselves.

The “Dead” in this story is pretty easy to recognise. But the “Unclean” could be a bit more like a Where’s Wally (Waldo) drawing to our 21st century way of thinking. So allow me to point them out.

If you were a woman in this culture, then at a certain time in the month you were biologically entered into this “Unclean” category. Now please don’t go crazy me! I’m just explaining a culture – but it’s important to glimpse this, as we’ll come back to it in a moment.

The woman in this story, the woman sneaking through the crowd, has been haemorrhaging for twelve years; she has experienced a “flow of blood” for over a decade. This twelve year menstrual event has meant that for twelve years she has been regarded as “unclean”. For over a decade, she herself, along with everything she has touched, wherever she has sat, the clothing that she wears etc, has been classified as untouchable by her society, by her community, even by her own family. Now that doesn’t necessarily mean nobody would talk to her; it means they would have kept her at a “safe-distance”. But how many of us know, or have experienced it first hand, that being kept at any distance at all is hardly being welcomed by a community? Imagine the impact of that after twelve years. No human contact. No human affection. No connection.

Now this whole idea of not touching “unclean” people might strike us as barbaric, today. But a major part of its intent, its origin in Old-Testament law, wasn’t to do with excluding people from society; it was to do with hygiene and sanitation; public health.

In our modern day, we have fantastic and effective means of preventing disease and infections. We have the means to create environments where disease cannot develop and spread. We have disinfectants, hot running clean water, very absorbent sanitary aids, penicillin, modern medicine and ways of effectively disposing of “contaminated” products using “closed” drainage systems and special waste bins. Historically speaking, humanity’s only been able to grow as it has for the past several hundred years because we’ve come to understood that a large part of public health isn’t down medicine alone, but that sanitation is also a major contributor.

But in this woman’s day, none of this was really in place. No hot running sterile water, no modern day sanitary towels, and nothing quite as effective as Imperial Leather (other soap products are available).

So I am certain we can appreciate the cultural attitudes here – to a degree. We might have moved on from this woman’s culture, technologically speaking, but we still carry this cultures’ awareness of these issues: How many of us would sit on a seat with blood on it, or eat food that has been prepared with hands that haven’t been disinfected by soap and hot water? Or, to put it another context, how many of us would order take-out from a fast food restaurant that got a zero-rating from the Food Standards Agency? Hey, when we think of it, some of us can’t even handle a human hair grazing our food.

However, even though I’ve said all that – sadly, attitudes can manipulate and distort and misunderstand the reasons for these laws.

Laws that were given to lead towards more social and communal care and concern for each other, laws that were given to cultivate a sense of community and love for one another, laws that should have been expressed through respecting and honouring this woman, mutate instead, in the hands of some people, into the rules for social exclusion and stigma. What starts as an awareness of a private health issue is transformed into a virtual public disease like “The Mange”.

Idea’s can also become infected, contagious and hazardous to public health and community life.

Instead of people helping this lady, most would shun her – most wouldn’t want to be near her. She’s kept at a distance. She’s not honoured, but disdained. Instead of a community coming around her, it now retreats, leaving her on the margins.

Twelve years is a long time! That’s the same amount of time that Jairus – the other main character in this story – has raised a child; a child who is seriously ill, and that has become so connected socially that a crowd now gathers out of concern for her life, and is ready and waiting to mourn her death.

Luke, the writer of this story, obviously likes to contrast the double-standard of society. The only crowd around this woman, is the one she has secretly sneaked into. Ironically, she might have been shown more respect it she’d fell into the “Dead” category.

So after twelve years of suffering from this social disease, she’s really desperate for a solution.

The story tells us that she has given everything she has in trying to find a cure. Some ancient manuscripts add that she has spent all her money on doctors. And by the way, for those who would be tempted to use this verse as “scriptural back-up” against human medicine – you’re missing the point of this insight. It’s not a protest against medicine versus faith (that’s is a false dichotomy altogether); it’s a description that allows us to enter her psyche and feel how desperate she is. She has spent everything she has on finding a cure! She’s probably sold her own property and inheritance along the way.

Why all this trade? And who is she selling this stuff to? Surely, if this community functioned as it was supposed to, she wouldn’t be feeling the need to buy herself back into it! You see, it’s not only a biological redemption she is after, but a sociological redemption. And although medicine can help heal a great many things – and maybe the work of these doctors did help her in some way – it takes something else altogether to remove the social stigmas that people label each other with.

All of this, I hope, should help us to understand why she is secretly moving through this crowd.

FROM THE FRINGE TO THE FRINGE

She doesn’t want to be seen. She wants no one to know she is moving about in this crowd that is swelling around Jesus. Especially a crowd which is so full that everyone is continually bumping and rubbing against each other (as the always very perceptive Peter points out). All this close-contact, all this touching, and yet there she is; an “untouchable” pressing and squeezing through others.

Imagine the outrage if people found out she was there. They would go crazy – they don’t want her “uncleanness” making them “unclean” too. Picture your disgust at finding that human hair on your plate of food, multiply this by one hundred, and you still wouldn’t be close to this crowd’s reaction.

There’s a huge risk in her approach. All she wants to do is get through the crowd, touch the fringe of Jesus’ robe, and then get out; unseen, unnoticed.

It appears she doesn’t even want Jesus to see her, so she approaches from behind.

In her mind, this is a “holy” pure man – a “clean” person, whom God has filled. Society has taught her that no one wants to touch her, which only reinforces her impression that God doesn’t want to touch her either. The portrait she has of God is a picture of the Divine only wanting to touch and fill beautiful, clean, and “lovely” things.

Maybe we carry this image too, an image of a God who doesn’t like “dirty”; the kind of God who joins in and even endorses the play-ground games of “The Mange” variety?

But she’s willing to risk it, and her risk is a calculated one, too.

All she wants is the fringe of Jesus’ robe – just the fringe, and nothing else.

Why the fringe?

Think about it for a moment.

This is the very end of Jesus garment. This is the part of his clothing that drags along the floor and would come into contact with all sorts of other “unclean” and “contaminated” things that lay about on the Judean streets. Streets that are strewn with camel and donkey muck, streets that possibly have open sewers flowing with human urine and excrement (and if there were no open sewers, well…that doesn’t make the picture any better). I can almost picture the reeking, darkened dank radial stain that is permeating up this ragged-ended cloth.

You wouldn’t want to touch this with your bare hands.

But she does!

Can you see what she’s reaching for?

She’s stretching out for part that she feels is the dirtiest bit; the “dregs” of this Holy man. This fringe is filthy and dirty, maybe, psychologically, it’s as “unclean” a she has been made to feel by her society. But she can justify touching this part, it’s already unclean; she can’t contaminate what is already contaminated.

This is all she feels entitled to.

“Surely”, she believes, “God wouldn’t be angry with me for touching this part”. It’s a shame that she holds to this portrait of God, but the playground games that her community have played on her have given her this image; God’s the ring leader of this “Mange” charade, “God says we can’t touch you”.

But as she touches it, something amazing happens; the aches, the cramps, the feeling of blood flowing – it all stops, in an instant.

God, it appears, is more than happy to reveal himself through the faecal and urine stained dregs of this material.

NO ESCAPE

But this is when it all seems to unravel for her.

The plan was to get in and then get out again … preferably unseen.

Before she can even think of getting away, while she is still stunned by her healing, it seems that God doesn’t approve of her plan. Because straight away, Jesus sounds the alarm…

…“Who touched me?

Jesus stops. The crowd stops. “Something has happened“, Jesus announces to the crowd, “I felt healing power leave me”. Which must have had the immediate effect of every eye looking at each other, asking “was it you?” – the crowds now on the hunt!

I can imagine terror gripping this woman as she kneels on the floor. She knows she can’t exit in the same way that she entered. Leaving the crowd would only implicate her as the culprit, and so her options of escape are totally thrown out of the window. And it’s Jesus who has blown it for her – Thanks “buddy”! (I can imagine her disdain for Jesus expressing itself like the ex-leper in Monty Python’s Life of Brian)

Only one option remains open to her – plead for mercy, before the crowd finds her and goes nuts!

How will these people react when they discover that this “Mange” ridden woman has been moving through the crowd, touching and rubbing up against them? But the rules of the game have now changed – she’s healed – this changes things and she wants them to know, but will they believe her?

Actually her plan’s not been well thought through anyway. If she had got away, who would have believed she’d been healed in the first place, who would have risked getting close enough to her to find out the truth? If her escape had been successful, it’s still very likely that tomorrow she would have still faced the social stigma of being “unclean”.

Which, I think, helps us to understand why Jesus stops the crowd.

He’s not doing it to be cruel to this woman, and he’s not doing it out of some “egotripas if Jesus is doing this just so he can claim the credit for it, “Behold! Here’s another miracle I’ve performed”. That’s hardly the attitude of the Jesus we see in the gospels. His normal reaction is to tell people to not say anything, “keep it quiet” – just like he does at the end of this passage with Jairus and his wife.

You see, Jesus is up to something.

Jesus doesn’t let the woman slip away, because God, through Jesus, wants more for this lady than just a healing; she needs something more than restored biology. Jesus’ ministry is not just about health, but about wholeness. And wholeness is as much to do with relationships and community, as it is to do with the condition of our bodies.

Again, without some public recognition of her being healed, and recognition from someone who the community held in good esteem, she would have still been excluded and seen as “unclean” within her community.

And so Jesus gives this woman a chance to testify of what has happened, in order to justify her and validate her before her own community. Jesus makes a point of stopping the crowd and drawing their attention to this woman. Everyone in her whole community is now listening to her story, her faith, her healing. And then Jesus confirms it in front of her local community, “She is healed, she’s no longer unclean”.

Can you see what Jesus is doing here – he’s restoring her status and removing the stigma?

Jesus wasn’t content with this woman experiencing a touch of the fringe of his robe, only to then go back and still live on the fringe of human society.

In fact this whole passage in Luke carries this message about Jesus:

Within the story of this woman being restored to her place in the community; the story before this of the possessed man being liberated and then sent back home; and the episode at the end of this chapter, with Jairus’ daughter being raised from the dead and given back to her family.

All of these stories are not just about the healing of individuals in and of itself. They are stories of God, stepping into humanity, through the life of Jesus, and restoring people back to human community.

GOD’S NOT THE PLAYGROUND BULLY

Which is why I thought I would talk about “The Mange” and look at this story…

Because God’s not the ringleader of this playground charade, it’s not God who stigmatises people, God’s not a bully.

So if you’re someone who holds to this portrait, please rip it up. You don’t have to approach God from behind, don’t think that the only divine things you are entitled to are those which are covered in faecal matter. God, through Jesus, has approached us face on, and has extended to all of us grace, love, forgiveness and life. God desires that we should embrace all of him.

However, also be aware that the portrait that God has in mind is not intended just to be a “you and him” only selfie;

Receiving God’s love is not an isolated mental act, it’s a communal act of being wanted and accepted in the family of God” 

 – Dan White Jr.(Twitter)

When God stepped into history through Jesus – when God came and fleshed out his image, when God dwelt among us, ripping up our portraits of the divine and re-presented it in its highest definition – God touched the “untouchable”, and the “untouchable” touched God. And whenever this happened, human relationships, human togetherness, human oneness, exploded in his wake.

This should also define what we talk about when we talk about Salvation; when we experience the reawakening, restorative, resurrecting life that comes from God. Human salvation is never just a private/individual thing; as if it’s just ‘me and Jesus’ and no one else needs to be in the family portrait. The salvation of humanity has always been about us, not I. Yes, whenever we talk about accepting Jesus, we always use terms like having “personally” chosen to accept Jesus – but it’s never just a personal thing. To accept Jesus, is to accept to be part of a community.

If God, through Jesus, has come to restore humanity, then the end result of that has got to be community, not just a gathering of biologically and spiritually right strangers. Where humanity is healthy, community flourishes.

So church, do we express that, are we a part of that? Or do we continue to take part in “playground” games?

How many of us are willing to close our community’s borders to people just based on social stigma?

Father to the fatherless, defender of widows—
this is God, whose dwelling is holy.
God places the lonely in families;
he sets the prisoners free and gives them joy.”
– Psalm 68:5-6 (NLT)

 If you missed the first part of this “Portraits of God” series, you can find it here.


Tristan Sherwin is the author of Love: Expressed

Love Expressed Book Board2

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