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Breaking Taboos

There are modern versions of ritual uncleanness that affect who we relate to. They are taboos waiting to be shattered.

How we define health today is shaped in physical ways. If a person’s body is well, we assume they are healthy. Mental health is not always factored in to this; even though the person may be clinically depressed, because this cannot be seen, we do not give it the weight it deserves.


But a true understanding of health should be expressed in terms of a person’s inclusion and flourishing in their community. Physical health is just one component of this; a person’s well-being is found in their relationships, the space to express their gifts usefully and the sense of belonging and meaning this affords.


This is more or less how the Hebrew word shalom should be understood, and we see its expression in the healing of the woman with the flow of blood in Mark chapter 5. We don’t know the nature of her problem, though there has been plenty of speculation about it. Many people today with health problems are often compelled to reveal details through intrusive questioning by others who have no need to know. It can feel invasive and unsettling to be probed this way. All we know about the woman is that she had suffered with this ailment for a dozen years, had undergone endless forms of treatment to no avail and it had sunk her into poverty.


The illness also made her ritually unclean; an outcome which meant people would not go near her. Her physical suffering was compounded by social exclusion; a demonstration of how health is bound up with your place in the community. Twelve years of pain, expense and prayer had only seen her get worse. Sometimes we have to journey from happiness into prolonged unhappiness before we receive the answer we need from God. It is a shock to unravel this way, slowly to realise your life has changed for the worse; that the alteration is not a temporary blip. If you feel this way, you inhabit this unnamed woman’s story.


With this background, we can sympathise with the risk she took in reaching out to Jesus and breaking with custom by touching him as he passed. The nature of faith is that it sometimes breaks taboos, making choices which defy convention and the expectation of others, opening us up to criticism or rebuke.


Jesus should have been in a rush to get to the house where Jairus’ daughter lay dying, but he paused in the melee to make sense of what he had just felt. A woman who had been ostracised for years was suddenly brought to the centre of the crowd and the attention of the Son of God; her healing and her inclusion, after all those wasted years, happening in the blink of an eye.


It could not have been easy to slow the pace to save the dying girl; after all, her father was at Jesus’ side, in barely suppressed panic at the tragedy confronting him. Yet Jairus himself had taken risks; as a leader of the local synagogue, he would have been surrounded by the doubts of others about this itinerant healer and open to challenge for engaging him. But this meant nothing compared to the risk to his daughter.


When Jesus arrived at the house, they found proof of what they had been told: the daughter had died while they journeyed. Whether Jesus’ delay to speak with the healed woman had led to the death or not, we cannot know, though doubtless the thought was hanging between Jairus and Jesus. Already the hired mourners were at work, which probably explains why the wailing was replaced by laughter at the suggestion the girl was merely asleep, for not everyone was grieving with the same intensity.


Minutes after the woman had broken a taboo by touching Jesus, he did the same in touching a dead body. Though there were only five witnesses to the miracle, it is unlikely the story was hushed up as Jesus requested. The fact that we are talking about it now is a reasonable clue to this.


If we choose to, we can regard these taboos as the relic of a religious tradition rooted in the medical necessities of an ancient culture or even an early form of obsessive compulsive disorder, where habits are pathologically entrenched without sense; but in doing so we lack honesty and imagination. There are many modern,


secularised versions of uncleanness which we do well to consider if we are to be faithful to the risk-taking of both Jesus and the woman.


A person’s looks, weight, clothing, wealth, housing and neighbourhood are each judged unsparingly in a culture saturated with the values of image and money. Unconsciously people tend to avoid the plain, the fat, the unfashionable and the poor. They also choose to live in as wealthy a neighbourhood as they can afford. Which of us chooses to live on a poor estate if we can afford not to? In our own way, we are driven by the unconscious motivations of our world. Mark’s Gospel at this point challenges us to allow ourselves to be drawn towards and not away from what we think of as unclean, for these are just the people and the places God has come to show his favour to.


These entwined stories offer us other, incidental details. The priority of modern life is to find a goal and pursue it. Time management gurus say that busy people should not try to do two jobs at once because neither is done well. We must sustain our focus. It may be commonplace to say we can only focus on one thing at a time, but the risk of an unremitting focus is that it cannot take in the wider scene. God does not often seem to work in predictable, linear and logical ways, and so we need to keep intentional space to make room for his untimely interventions in our life. Sometimes the people we think are getting in the way are put there by God himself. It takes grace, wisdom, prayer and practice to perceive this and I think we all have work to do here.


The other detail is the grace of human touch. The healing of the woman and the girl was obtained by the touch of human hand. As we become less trusting of one another in our suspicious culture, we become more self-conscious and constrained over the use of touch. This is not without reason, for some people are touched in this world in abusive ways and they deserve protection and redress where they are violated. Yet most people wish to use their hands to bless, encourage and comfort others – to contribute to the healing of a person in the broadest sense. The Church, with its practice of the laying on of hands, has a distinguished history of healing and anointing. Some thoughtful and compassionate discussion about how we use the gift of human touch is called for, in the middle of a culture which could lose its way.



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