BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: We are continuing to focus on Matthew’s gospel, one of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). These three gospels share a lot of narrative material, as well as an overall narrative arc, but differ in many smaller and sometimes greater respects.
Those differences could remind us that each gospel is a unique work of literature, with its own literary integrity. It can be instructive to compare the different gospel writers’ versions of “the same stories,” but let’s always keep in view the role this particular author’s version plays in his particular gospel. Because we can safely assume that each author’s particular version in the context of his particular literary work is no accident or coincidence, but presumably has something to do with the themes and meanings that author is communicating.
This point seems especially worth emphasizing in connection with Matthew 9:18-26. Mark’s (Mark 5:21-43) and Luke’s (Luke 8:40-56) versions of this story are frankly more dramatic and “story-like.” They include more action, more dialogue, more suspense, and more telling details – such as the name of the “ruler,” the age of his daughter, and Jesus’s detailed healing protocols. Matthew’s version is the most compact and minimal of the three. It’s tempting, because of that, to substitute one of the other accounts of this event as our de facto text.
I will try to stick with the text.
In the context of Matthew’s gospel, this story is one of a series of healing miracles that provoke both fame among the people and opposition from the Pharisees. Following Jesus’s demonstration of his divine authority in the text we studied last week, when he stills a storm on the Sea of Galilee, Jesus orders a legion of demons to leave an afflicted man and possess a herd of pigs instead. Then he goes back to the west bank of the lake, forgives the sins of a paralyzed man, and heals his paralysis to demonstrate that he has that authority. Then he calls Matthew, and eats dinner with some tax collectors and sinners. The opposition this arouses gives Jesus an opportunity to articulate a principle: “the strong don’t need a physician, but the sick,” to quote the prophet Hosea, and insist that he’s come to call not the righteous but sinners.
The disciples ask about fasting, which gives Jesus an opportunity to emphasize that something new is going on here. The two healings in our text are followed by healing two blind men, and then a demon-possessed mute. The Pharisees misattribute the source of Jesus’s power, but the crowds flock to it. There’s so much work to be done that Jesus deputizes the twelve – who are now named – and instructs them in their mission of proclaiming the good news of the kingdom by curing the sick, raising the dead, cleansing lepers, and casting out demons. That is, everything Jesus himself has been doing up until now.
Jesus gives a long instructional discourse, which emphasizes the need to acknowledge Jesus for who he is. As if to underline this, John the Baptist sends some disciples to ask Jesus if he’s “the one.” Jesus points to the results of the ministry.
Matthew’s first audience would presumably have known a few things about the details of the story as Matthew tells it. The woman with the hemorrhage would have been ritually unclean, per Leviticus 15:19-30. At a minimum this would have had a disruptive effect on her life; but we can imagine it would have separated her in important ways from members of her family, and from participation in religious practices. Aside from the possible sense that the disease was a divine punishment, if the view expressed in later rabbinic literature characterizes the first century as well.
Something else that would make a person ritually unclean, by the way, would be touching a dead body. [See Numbers 5:1-4 and Numbers 19. Eliran Arazi, in “Corpse Impurity in Second Temple Judaism: A Revised Approach in Light of the Order of Meaning of Honor and Shame,” makes a detailed argument about the meaning of different kinds of impurity in this time and place. If he’s correct, this story incorporates two distinct kinds of sources of impurity, and is a strong statement of Jesus’s relationship to – really, transcendence of – both of them.]
The “fringe” of Jesus’s garment (literally tunic, a long robe) that she manages to touch is probably the special fringe attached to a four-cornered garment according to the instruction in Numbers 15:37-41, called tzitzit. Tzitzit are still worn today in rabbinical Judaism. They are a reminder of the Torah and the mitzvot. They are also (according to Rabbi David at Saturday Torah study) a sign of spiritual equality, giving every individual member of the community something of the same significance as the high priest. [Because the tzitzit resemble the tzitz that is attached to the high priest’s turban (Exodus 28:36-38), that reads “Holy to YHWH,” both vocally and because they are required to incorporate a blue cord.]
The “flute players” that Jesus sends away when he reaches the house of the ruler/leader would have been paid professionals. [For more discussion of mourning practices, see Daniel B. Wallace here, and The Jewish Virtual Library here.]
This story, along with the call of Matthew, is the lectionary gospel reading for the tenth Sunday after Pentecost in year A. Luke’s version isn’t in the lectionary, but Mark’s version is the lectionary gospel reading for the thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost in year B. It’s likely that regular churchgoers will have heard this story read and preached on in church more than once.
CLOSER READING: In Matthew’s version, a ruler or leader approaches Jesus; the word the NRSV translates as “knelt” before him could in some other context be translated “prostrated” or “worshipped” – like the action performed by the magi in Matthew 2:11. Matthew doesn’t tell us about this ruler’s connection to any synagogue, nor does he tell us his name. The ruler/leader says (out loud) to Jesus that his daughter has just died, but “come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.” It’s a declaration of faith.
Practically, of course, but perhaps also significantly, Jesus follows this unnamed ruler/leader to his house; the disciples come, too.
Then a woman comes up behind them – so, another follower. She has been having a hemorrhage for twelve years. That is, a long time; a perfectly long time; and possibly, for a number of years that rhymes with other instances of twelve things, like twelve tribes and twelve disciple/apostles. And she touches his “fringe.”
The narrator explains this behavior to us: She speaks within herself (so, not out loud) the idea that “if only I touch his tunic, I will be healed [saved].” Also a declaration of faith, albeit silent.
In this telling of the story, Jesus turns, sees her, and speaks to her (out loud), “Have courage, daughter, your faith has healed [saved] you.” Again, we seem to need the narrator to assure us that she was, in fact, healed [saved] from that hour. Matthew does not seem to think we need all that Markan drama of Jesus feeling the power go out of him and turning around and scanning the crowd and asking “who touched me?” and so on. Just the short and sweet affirmation of the woman’s faith in Jesus, the touch, and its efficacy.
Similarly, when Jesus arrives at the ruler/leader’s house, the narrative is swift. Jesus sees the flute players and crowd making a commotion. He tells them to go away, the girl is not dead but sleeping, and they all laugh at him. It’s a big, loud declaration of unfaith. Once the disbelieving crowd is put out of the house, Jesus takes her hand, and the girl arises.
The news of this goes out “into all that land.” Which land? Maybe the whole local area, or maybe the land subject to mortality.
This narrator doesn’t bother to tell us the girl’s age. (Twelve, according to Mark and Luke! So symbolic! But Matthew doesn’t seem to care about that!!) He also doesn’t tell us about Jesus taking Peter with him, or giving the little girl an instruction in Aramaic, or telling her parents to give her some food.
If you ask me, Matthew has stripped this story down to its foundations on purpose, so we won’t miss the main point: faith in Jesus brings life and wholeness; unfaith opposes that salvation. Also, Jesus is above any ritual defilement (by tax collectors, sinners, bleeding women, dead girls, lepers, demons, herds of pigs, you name it). Someone with the authority to forgive sins can purify the impure directly, with a touch. Something new is going on.