interrupting sanctity

Matthew 9:18-26

Jesus has been quite busy in Matthew’s gospel since the sermon on the mount just two chapters ago. He’s healed a leper (8:1-4), the Centurion’s servant (8:5-13), healed many at Peter’s house (8:14-17), stilled a storm (8:23-27), healed the Gadarene Demoniac (8:28-34), healed a paralytic (9:1-8), called Matthew to follow him (9:9), confronted the Pharisees (9:12-13), and given the disciples of John new things to consider (9:14-17).

And notice throughout these chapters, the lovely use of adverbs! Now honestly, how often do you get to hear that? Seriously though. When Jesus had come down from the mountain, great crowds followed him and there was a leper … (8:1-2). when he entered Capernaum, a centurion (8:5) … when Jesus entered Peter’s house, he saw Peter’s mother-in-law (8:14) … when Jesus saw great crowds, a scribe approached (8:18-19) … when he came to the other side, two demoniacs (8:28) … then some people carried a paralyzed man (9:2) … as Jesus was walking along, he called Matthew (9:9) … as he sat at dinner, many came (9:10-11) … then the disciples of John came to him (9:14).

Mark’s gospel is the one known for rushing along, but this section of Matthew’s gospel carefully locates revelation in a layered, unfolding chronological sequence—chronos and kairos braided together—clock time and God time. Some events happening at the initiative of Jesus, others at the initiative of others. And in the midst of things … other things happen. While doing this, that. After that, this. Then this. And entering a city, entering someone’s house, in a boat crossing the sea, returning home, walking along, sitting down to eat dinner, in conversation, God happens. And the story just doesn’t stop. In the midst of life—the most ordinary activities of life, God, and the story unfolds. Any moment—every moment, caught between the ordinary and the extraordinary—the oh so human and the absolutely divine—as time is interrupted—as what’s human is interrupted.

As we stop to catch our breath, we wonder if Jesus, too, breathtakingly, is actually caught between life and God—torn (maybe) between some desire to get away from the crowds (8:18, 24) and a word, a message, an authority that kept the crowds interested and following—torn between divine, indefatigable passion and human weariness—torn (as incarnation) between what it means to be God and what it means to be human.

We make the theological claim that Jesus is both human and divine—as if that were an easy balance. But maybe it wasn’t. And maybe we can—maybe we should imagine the humanness of Jesus interrupting the divineness: “Okay, as important as what I’m doing is … as much as I love each individual driven to me in their deep need … I need to sleep!” before falling into the sleep of the exhausted which is the only sleep you can fall into on a boat in a storm (8:23-27). Maybe we can—maybe we should imagine Jesus saying, “Look I get the whole human initiative toward God and the divine initiative toward human beings, but right now I’ve got the me-initiative to have some time and space to myself!”

While he was saying these things to them, suddenly a leader of the synagogue came in and knelt before him, saying, “My daughter has just died ….” So Jesus was in the middle of something. He was saying these things to them. The Word of God was teaching the word of God. This particular point in chronology—on the time line—is not between things—not after something else. This is explicitly an interruption. Now, here’s my question: what would it take for someone to interrupt Jesus? Someone with a reputation even then as a revered holy man, a respected rabbi, a powerful miracle worker? What would make someone take that kind of initiative? To be that impolite? To thus impose—to thus intrude into someone’s house? Someone’s time? What would compel such action—impel one to do that? Well, at one level, it’s obvious, right? Desperate need. Powerful love. My daughter.

At the same time, it’s worth observing (just by the by) that the incarnation is itself an interruption in what has traditionally been perceived as sanctity. Right? A radical move from the Holy, Divine Other upon whom to look is to die, to the one anyone could look upon.

But we have more than just a desperate need and a powerful love interrupting Jesus to notice here. It’s always interesting to examine a story in both Matthew and Mark, because in the transition from Mark to Matthew, we get a pretty clear idea of what was important specifically to Matthew. It’s just plain interesting to notice, if you look in your pew Bible, a footnote next to leader “of the synagogue.” because “of the synagogue’s” not in the Greek. What’s in the Greek is simply “leader” or “ruler.” Our translation adds detail that’s not in the Greek manuscripts. Now Mark identifies this man as the leader of the synagogue and even names him—Jairus. Matthew no. And we acknowledge the tension Matthew’s church had with the synagogue—having disassociated themselves or having been disassociated. Faith tradition has been interrupted, and Matthew simply gives us a ruler within the way things are, helpless within the way things are—a ruler confronting the limitations of his power, who comes to Jesus within his need—within his love—with his hope.

And in Mark, the daughter’s not dead, but dying. There’s thus an urgency to getting Jesus to his house before she dies that’s completely missing in Matthew (Mark 5:21-43). “My daughter has just died but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.” What we have here is not faith in a healer but in a miracle-worker of a completely different degree. That’s an astounding hope. An astounding faith affirmation. We can’t miss this. In light of what I have heard of you, I do not accept death. I do not accept the end. I do not accept the way things are—that what is is—that what I can’t do can’t be done.

In some ways this constitutes a problem for us. Because, in our experience, death is death. No matter what we believe—no matter what we pray for. And yet—and yet, what power death is accorded varies tremendously in human experience. And as those who walk in the way of God, we do not believe that death is the end, do we? We do not accept death as a power to fear. And we do not live as those without hope even amidst death. And amidst death—all kinds of death—every kind of death—we believe in the transformative power of living love.

Now in other ways, this faith affirmation also constituted a problem for Jesus. Because he was being asked to come lay his hand on a corpse—which was to be made ritually unclean—according to the law. The Torah provides rules for living that is whole—that is in keeping with God and God’s expectations—the living that is life. “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life …” (Deuteronomy 30:19). And Jesus does, doesn’t he, choose life, but by going to death. I choose life even for someone dead.

And Jesus got up and followed him, with his disciples. Jesus followed. Jesus, the one everyone had been following—the one who had been calling disciples to follow him—follows someone else! What do we make of that inversion? That someone with that kind of profound resurrection faith doesn’t need to follow Jesus(!) but leads Jesus to where such faith can change the world? Wow!

Jesus got up and followed him. Before, we asked what it took the leader to interrupt Jesus. Conversely, we also have to ask, what does it take for Jesus to be thus interrupted? To be doing something vitally important—something he had been called to do (he’s on a mission from God) and to have someone interrupt—have someone barge in with their own agenda, and to stop what he was doing and to follow. To be the leader and yet to follow. Too many of us in our world have fatally misunderstood leadership as not respecting someone else’s agenda, thinking oneself above interruption, above change, too important to acknowledge someone else’s idea—let alone follow someone else.

Then suddenly a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his cloak …. So Jesus is interrupted again. Here in Matthew it’s not the potentially fatal delay in the healer getting to the sick girl before she dies. We’re given the space to ask again, what would it take to interrupt Jesus? What would make someone take that kind of initiative? We’ve already said desperate need interrupts sanctity. And powerful love. Terrible fear also interrupts sanctity. The fear of those who are terrified that things won’t change (this woman who’s been suffering twelve long years) and the fear of those who are terrified that things will change—the fear of those entrenched in the way things are.

She touched the fringe of his cloak. We shouldn’t have the image of some hippy Jesus here in a fringed robe. No. In fact, we have an image of an orthodox Jesus wearing the tassels prescribed in the law (Numbers 15:38; Deuteronomy 22:12) to remind people of God’s commandments. Later in this gospel, Jesus will explicitly criticize those who wear their fringes long seeking to draw too much attention to themselves instead of God (Matthew 23:5), but there’s no criticism of those who wear the tassels.

It’s not so much picking and choosing Scripture as it is prioritizing—honing in on the essential. Jesus does, on the one hand, here obey the law, but he obeys even while, on the other hand, ignoring the idea that a hemorrhaging woman would make him unclean on his way to touch a dead girl with faith in hope. And again and again, Jesus interrupts traditional understanding of Scripture.

The woman touched the tassels for she said to herself, “If I only touch his cloak, I will be made well.” Now we don’t know what she was thinking. Maybe Matthew’s giving a nod to Mark’s version of the story here. In Mark, you may remember, Jesus feels the power go out of him. And it’s a story very much in line with magical thinking—with superstition. Matthew makes it very clear that it is the word of Jesus celebrating the woman’s faith that heals. There’s nothing magic about this. It wasn’t his cloak. It wasn’t by virtue of being Jesus’ outer garment somehow imbued with the power of the one who wore it. Whatever she thought she was doing, she actually reached out to touch the reminder of God’s saving deeds in the history of this people and God’s expectations of their subsequent way of life. There is no magic. There is God. And that is God’s initiative toward us and God’s expectation of our subsequent initiative toward God.

Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, “Take heart, daughter ….” or courage. do not fear. “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.” And instantly the woman was made well. And the Greek word translated “well” is elsewhere translated “saved.” Your faith has saved you. And instantly the woman was saved. That is God in history. The testimony of the tassels and the work and witness of the word. Take heart. God saves. Always has. Always will. Fear is interrupted.

When Jesus came to the leader’s house and saw the flute players and the crowd making a commotion …. This in keeping with the customs of that time and place. The flutes aren’t mentioned in Mark. But even the poorest of families arranged for two flutists. Within Scripture we have midrash—adding some details to a story—taking others away. Isn’t that fascinating? Scripture interrupted in a different way! when Jesus saw the flute players and the crowd making a commotion, he said, “Go away; for the girl is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. They mocked him. They sneered in disbelief. As if we wouldn’t. In our experience, death is death.

But when the crowd had been put outside …. Now that, in and of itself, in our age of social networking, is mindboggling! Jesus excludes people from what he does. No status updates. No tweets. No observers. When the crowd had been put outside, he went in and took her by the hand, and the girl got up.

And the report of this spread throughout that district. Now, on the one hand, of course it did. Of course the report spread! But the report of what do you think? Well, obviously that Jesus raised a dead girl—yes, of course. That Jesus healed a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years—yes, yes. That Jesus disobeyed the law—disregarded the cleanliness laws and did not disregard women—probably so, yes. But also, maybe, the report spread of two more taking their place in the list of those who recognized in Jesus the God to approach—the divinity to whom to express need—to name fear, and in whom to hope. The report spread—of the faith of two more. All too often obscured in the wonder of what Jesus did—which sometimes obscures the reality people saw in Jesus that impelled them to interrupt him in hope and in faith. The report spread. It continues to … doesn’t it?

Here’s the thing. In the midst of life, God interrupts. God interrupts time—history. God interrupts your personal schedule. God interrupts your understanding of Scripture. God interrupts your understanding of what’s holy. God interrupts your understanding of who God is. God interrupts your very understanding of what is. So do we take heart in the belief that God saves and lead Jesus in the midst of our living to where our faith in Jesus will change the world?

Adverbially speaking, while we are at work, when we sit on our front porches on a summer’s eve, after the block party, as we’re working out, after saying goodbye to the youth at 5:00 this morning, while we worship, after we go home from church, while eating, while walking our neighborhoods, while working in the garden, are we aware of our own need for God? Do we know the powerful loves of our life that impel us to act? Can we name our deepest fears that compel us to hope? Are we aware of the ever-tension between the human and the divine? Do we acknowledge the interplay of the realities of our human existence and the reality of God-with-us? God-with-us! Do we celebrate regularly the conviction God saves? Do we manifest—do we incarnate an astounding faith in life and love even in the presence of death? Do we interrupt our living—the assumptions and presuppositions of our living—because God first interrupted us? Why wouldn’t we? Why wouldn’t we?

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