Scripture Readings: 2 Corinthians 8:7-15

Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

The most famous tax man in the Bible was a dishonest tax collector called Matthew. He held the franchise for tax-collecting in his area. He collected taxes on behalf of the Romans by whatever means he could, and he kept a percentage. No doubt it was a lucrative business, and it worked well for the Romans. The more tax Matthew brought in, more profit he earned.

People like Matthew we called publicani in Latin- because they dealt with public funds and profited from them (that’s why in the Authorized Version of the Bible Matthew is called a ‘publican’, although he didn’t run a pub, he ran a tax office). In an era when people didn’t have much access to information, the publicani were often corrupt, charging more than they should in order to enrich themselves. They were hated, because they were collaborators with the occupiers, enriching themselves through the misery of their own countrymen, and always trying to swindle both their neighbours and the government. The taxpayers were Matthew’s neighbours- mostly poor farming and fishing folk who, rightly, thought that they got a raw deal.

So here is a man, this Matthew, universally loathed, known as a cheat, a crook, a collaborator, not to be trusted. He’s sitting in his office, and Jesus comes along and sees him there and says, simply,

‘Follow me’.

And

‘Matthew got up and followed him’.

Jesus even goes for a meal at Matthew’s house, causing scandal because ‘many tax collectors and other outcasts came and joined Jesus and his disciples at the table’ (you see how tax collectors are lumped in with ‘other outcasts’?).

Questions are asked- why does Jesus deign to eat with such people? To which Jesus answers,

People who are well do not need a doctor, but only those who are sick.

It turns out that Jesus sees his mission as calling not respectable people, but outcasts- unpopular people like Matthew. If someone like Matthew can become a disciple, then just about anyone can become a disciple of Jesus.

But the respectable are not ignored. Even good, upstanding pillars of the Kirk have their moments when they feel weak and helpless. Here is a Jewish official who wants to speak to Jesus (in Mark’s version of this story[1] he’s named Jairus). He was, if you like, the synagogue president- not a rabbi, but a lay person who was responsible for running the synagogue. Perhaps the nearest Scottish equivalent is a Session Clerk.

Yet this man, this pillar of the synagogue, goes to Jesus. Jesus, who had been called a blasphemer, because he dared to forgive sins. Jesus, who asked people like Matthew to be his disciple. Jesus, who went back to Matthew’s house to eat with other tax collectors and sinners. But Jairus, the synagogue president, comes and begs Jesus to bring his daughter back to life. The situation is desperate. His position as synagogue president is no longer as important as his being a father. And so this pillar of the community kneels before Jesus, and confesses his belief that he thinks Jesus can help:

‘come and place your hands on her, and she will live’.

Jesus did not come to call the respectable. But when the respectable come to him, and they are in need, he listens. The synagogue president puts his position in society to one side because he needs Jesus’ help. And Jesus comes with him.

Sometimes we in the Church give the impression that everyone who wants to be a disciple, a follower of Jesus, to be the same. But with Matthew and the synagogue president we have two very different stories of people who came to and followed Jesus. Matthew was not a good man, but Jesus sees something in him, some possibility, and calls him very directly. And Matthew responded- he got up and threw open his house, and eventually he left his home and his business to follow Jesus.

Jairus, on the other hand, is a respectable member of society, the sort of person whose religious views might well have been disturbed by Jesus. But in his hour of need, he sees something of God in this wandering preacher and healer, and he risks the wrath of the Pharisees by going down on his knees and confessing that he has faith in Jesus-

‘If you come, she will live’.

He may be respectable, religious even, but he comes to Christ because he needs divine intervention in his life.

In the Gospels, a wide range of different people come into contact with Jesus. Some of them, like Matthew, are called by Jesus. Others, like Jairus, call on him. And some are left nameless, and are almost silent, even though they sought out Christ.

Keep with this story. Jesus is on his way to the synagogue president’s house. He goes with him, as he’s been asked to, to meet his need. And we can imagine that there’s a lot of interest in the affair. A curious crowd of people are following Jesus through the narrow streets of the town because they want to see what he will do with the dead girl. And at the edge of the crowd there is someone else in need. She is a woman who has suffered continuous bleeding for many years. We are told that this woman had bled for twelve years- in Mark’s version of the story he adds that she’d tried all the doctors, all the possible cures, but to no avail. To suffer from such a haemorrhage for such a length of time would have been painful and debilitating, especially in an era before modern medicine. But there is one more thing it’s worth knowing about this woman’s plight. In the Jewish law, a woman who was bleeding was treated as ritually unclean. The Book of Leviticus describes what had to be done, with its customary minute detail, says of a woman who suffers from such an affliction:

Any bed on which she lies and anything on which she sits during this time is unclean. Anyone who touches them are unclean and must wash his clothes and take a bath; he remains unclean until evening.[2]

So you see, not only is this poor woman suffering a debilitating illness, she would also be shunned by many people as ‘unclean’. She would be unable to have much of a role in society. Through no fault of her own she’s become another ‘outcast’.

And yet she has something in common with Jairus, the respectable synagogue president. She, like him, is at the end of her tether. And she believes that somehow Jesus might be able to help. But she cannot stand or even kneel in front of him. Unorthodox as he is, still he is a religious teacher, and it would never do (she imagines) for him to be seen to speak to an unclean woman like him. And so she thinks to herself that if, perhaps, she could just touch the edge of his garment, she might be healed.

People come to Jesus for all sorts of reasons. Some people, like Matthew, encounter Jesus and get up and leave everything to follow. Some people will risk all to stand in front of the crowd and proclaim their faith in him, because they believe he can help them in the deepest needs. But others feel unclean, not good enough. They know their need of God, but they don’t want to be very public about it. And sometimes people approach divine things with a degree of superstition, which those us of brought up as rational Protestants might feel is a bit strange- almost a belief in magic, instead of faith in God.

But this poor, afflicted woman finds the courage to reach out and touch the edge of Jesus’ cloak- probably one of the tassels which religious Jews always wore. And what is challenging to me about this story is how Jesus reacts. He turns to face her- he acknowledges her, takes her seriously. And he encourages her-

‘Courage my daughter!’ he says to her. ‘Your faith has made you well’.

Jesus says that this woman has faith, and has courage. So maybe we shouldn’t dismiss people if they seem to confuse religion and superstition. Jesus can find faith- a disciple- in someone like that.

And maybe we shouldn’t be dismissive of those folk who just want to touch the hem, to stay almost on the edge of the Church. They too are disciples, even if they are not as busy with Church matters as some folk, even if they seem to us not to be so committed. Who are we to judge? Jesus didn’t judge. In fact, he praised this woman for her courage- and she would have needed a lot of courage to do what she did. Jesus sees in this nameless woman- who would not even call out to him- a woman of faith.

They reach the house where the death has occurred. The funeral is about to start (in the East people were buried within 24 hours). The musicians and the professional mourners who wailed lamentations at funerals- are already there. Jesus finds the people ‘all stirred up’- there is what we Westerners think of as the rather hysterical atmosphere of an Eastern funeral. But Jesus is convinced that she’s not dead at all- he starts to drive everyone away- and they all laugh at him. But he perseveres, and eventually the house is empty. And then- a moment of touching simplicity, as Matthew describes it- a private moment in the midst of this very public tragedy:

As soon as the people had been put out, Jesus went into the girl’s room and took hold of her hand, and she got up. The news about this spread all over that part of the country’.

Jesus has seemingly brought someone back from the dead. It is of course perfectly possible that the girl was in some kind of coma, which for people of those days would seem identical to death. Had he not intervened, she would have soon been buried- perhaps even buried alive. Whatever he did, he has rescued this young girl from the grip of death. And in so doing he probably made another disciple, for surely the daughter of Jairus was one of those who spread the news all over that part of the country.

Matthew had been at his work, no doubt hale and hearty, when Jesus called him. When Jesus encountered the Jairus’s daughter she was close to death. The woman with the haemorrhage was on the fringes of society- the synagogue president was a respected leader in his community. Yet all of them encountered Jesus. Their encounters were quite different. Except, that in every case, they encountered the love of God in Christ.

And so, follow Jesus’ example, how do we treat those on the edge of the Church, or those who seem to have no faith, who yet come looking for Christ? St Paul reminds those of us who are committed to Christ that we have so much because of our faith:

You are so rich in all you have: in faith, speech, and knowledge, in your eagerness to help and in your love for us. And so we want you to be generous also in this service of love.

You’re rich, Paul tells the Corinthians (although, in worldly terms, few of them would have been. The earliest Christians often were slaves, or very ordinary working people. But, says Paul to them- you have faith. And you are eager to help. After all, what more does a Christian need but faith and an eagerness to help? So, says Paul, be generous in your love- generous, as Christ did, with people as different as Matthew the tax collector, the woman who just wanted to touch his cloak, and Jairus, the synagogue official, and his daughter. For after all, as Paul wrote:

You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ; rich as he was, he made himself poor for your sake, in order to make you rich by means of his poverty.

If Christ did all that for us- if we he left everything behind, to come and live as a poor one, one with no place to lay his head, one who consorted with tax collectors and outcasts, one who became poor that we might be rich- well, we, too, are called to love and care for whoever we meet in Christ’s name.

For the Gospels suggest that through Christ, God’s healing and forgiveness and help came to many different kinds of people in many different ways. So when we get to know people who are struggling to know God, people who might just be wanting to touch the fringe, people who come only because they are desperate- or respectable people or those who outwardly seem to be in the best of health- then we should learn from Jesus, and say to them, ‘Courage sister, courage brother’. For Jesus recognises faith in all kinds of people. However comes seeking Jesus, and for whatever reasons, we should welcome them, or we fail be truly Christians ourselves.

Ascription of Praise

The God of grace who calls you all
to his eternal glory in Christ
restore, establish and strengthen you.
All power belongs to God for ever and ever, Amen.

Based on 1 Peter 5.10-11: c.f. BCO 1994, p584

Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated

© 2018 Peter W Nimmo

Notes

[1] Mark 5.21-42

[2] Leviticus 15.26-27