We can always claim our place in the world.
We can choose to accept or reject
where others try to place us.
Remember ‘cooties?’ Cooties is that game in elementary school, where someone declares that one kid in the class has ‘cooties.’ If that child touches you or you touch that child or that child’s stuff, then you become cootified. You have cooties, your stuff has cooties, and your mama has cooties. That’s the way cooties works.
The only difference for the woman in this text and ‘cooties’ in the elementary school, was that for her, rejection was no game and segregation had no clear end, until she reached out for Jesus.
Read the following text. Imagine you are the woman. When you reach out toward Jesus, are you afraid?
Matthew 9: 20 Then suddenly a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years came up behind (Jesus) and touched the fringe of his cloak, 21 for she said to herself, “If I only touch his cloak, I will be made well.” 22 Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.” And instantly the woman was made well.
Concept in the Text
As with other characters in the gospel narratives, we don’t know this woman’s name. And, in the spirit of this book, we will treat her as a person; she is not just an illness. As Kierkegaard said, When you label me, you negate me. To avoid negating her with a label like “the woman with the flow of blood,” I am going to call her Amy because ‘Amy’ means ‘Loved.’ Amy must have had a strong sense of self for her to move toward Jesus in the way that she does. If she was unaware of being loved and valued at the beginning of the story, she is certain by the end.
Amy has three problems that we can identify in the passage.
Amy has a physical problem. Her physical problem is a continuous hemorrhage of blood which she had suffered from for a dozen years. Though most women experienced this as part of their regular cycle, she has it constantly. The consequences are several, one of which was weakness due to the loss of blood.
Amy has a social problem. The religious leaders of the day, the social norm and even the Holy Scriptures declared her ‘unclean’ because of her continuous flow of blood. The scriptures were clear. The Leviticus 15 law was well known, 25 If a woman has a discharge of blood for many days… all the days of the discharge she shall continue in uncleanness; as in the days of her impurity, she shall be unclean. 26 Every bed on which she lies during all the days of her discharge shall be treated as the bed of her impurity; and everything on which she sits shall be unclean 27… And whoever touches these things shall be unclean, and shall wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and be unclean until the evening. Society, especially religious society, considered her soiled, contaminated, dirty, and unclean.
Finally, Amy has a personal problem. As other unclean people, she had been segregated, assigned distance, placed on the outside. This is her personal problem, as far as we know, up until this moment in the text, she has accepted her place on the outside.
Then Amy moves from her isolation toward Jesus. In spite of her physical weakness, in spite of her social separation, she pushes through the crowd toward Jesus. She reaches out to him in spite of her isolation as unclean. And in spite of her separation as a woman (women don’t reach out and touch a man who is not their husband). In reaching out, she is made well.
Concept in Depth
Being ostracized is far too common today and far more than a game. In the beginning of her book, Queen Bees and Wannabes, Rosalind Wiseman describes this incident (a common occurrence) at middle school…
Mrs. Clarke, a well meaning but clueless fifth-grade PE teacher, tells the girls to get into a circle for a game. Mrs. Clarke wonders why it takes the girls so long to get into a simple circle. The reason, which she fails to see, is right in front of her. Who will hold hands with whom? As the girls vie for the various positions that will display their social status of the day, Mrs. Clarke gets impatient and yells at the girls to get it together – now! And then a horrible thing happens. Carla, the most popular girl in the grade, happens to be standing next to Cynthia to hold her hand? As their hands touch, Carla grazes Cynthia’s fingers and then jumps away as if she’s touched a dead fish. The other girls giggle…[i]
In groups today, as in Jesus’ day, there are insiders and outsiders, popular and unpopular, clean and unclean, cootie-free and cootified. In all of these dualistic divided groups, to have them both, to have insiders and outsiders, it takes an agreement on both parties. For example, in the game of cooties, you can’t have people with cooties unless those designated as cootified agree that they have cooties and that cooties are bad. If they neither agree they have cooties, or proclaim that having cooties is wonderful, there is no game. In a similar manner, you can’t have people who are unclean unless they agree that they are unclean and that being unclean is bad. It takes an agreement on both parties for the dualistic arrangement to work.
Let me put it in a more personal context. When I was in early high school, I was clearly a ‘nerd’ and Peggy was ‘cool’. (Sad to say, our language was still affected by the show Happy Days as we let Richie and Fonzie shape how we defined ‘insiders and outsiders.’) Peggy hung out with older guys with cars, most of them athletes. Peggy and I saw little of each other at school, but the summer after sophomore year, we spent a week together on a church trip. We grew close. At the end of the week, I said to Peggy, “I’d like to see you when we get back.” I didn’t know what it meant, I just said it.
“I’d like that,” she said. And then she said, “Call me.”
‘Call me?’ I had never imagined I would call her – or that she would want me to. What would I say? What would I call her for? To go out…on a date? I wanted to go out with Peggy, but calling her? The wide gap between cool and nerd, between girls who dated older guys with cars and me seemed insurmountable. Did I call her? No. Why? She terrified me. Not she, nor culture, nor ‘cool’ kids or ‘nerd’ set my distance from her on their own. I chose it. I didn’t call her because the very idea made my hands sweat and my mouth mute. I agreed to the distance between us. Together, insiders and outsiders, we agreed to the separation. Again, for any segregation to exist, you need the segregators and segregates to agree on placement. You can’t have ‘cool’ kids and ‘nerds’ in the same way unless the ‘nerds’ agree that being a ‘nerd’ is bad. Who knew?
In the text, as far as we know, Amy had been defined by culture, scripture and those in power as an outsider, as less than – and she had accepted it – until this moment. Here, she moves. She comes out of the dark. She doesn’t stay back. She approaches Jesus. She crosses the distance others had set for her and she had accepted. She refuses the placement of any leader and any scripture that would call her ‘less than.’ She reaches and touches Jesus and in doing so is made well. And, likely, if history shows us anything, she gave permission to other women to do the same.
In 1943, Rosa Parks got on board a bus in Montgomery. If you were black in Montgomery in 1943, you got on the front door of the bus, paid your fare, and then had to exit the bus and reenter by the back door which was the accepted entrance for blacks. But in 1943, a tired Rosa Parks entered the bus, paid her fare but instead of exiting to reenter just walked down the aisle and took her seat. The bus driver was James Blake, a young man recently back from World War II. Blake refused to drive the bus. He told her that she would have to exit the bus and reenter at the appropriate door in the back. After Rosa exited, Blake refused to open the rear doors and then drove off and left her. He was trying to teach her a lesson. She had to walk home.
Twelve years later, the same bus driver, though Rosa didn’t realize it at the time, was driving when she got on board after working at a department store. She paid her fare and sat in an empty seat in the first row of back seats reserved for blacks in the “colored” section. As the bus traveled along its regular route, all of the white-only seats in the bus filled up. Bus drivers, if the white section filled up, were supposed to reassign seats for the whites.
Blake noted that the front of the bus was filled with white passengers and that there were two or three white men standing. He then moved the “colored” section sign behind Rosa and demanded that she and three others give up their seats in the middle section so that the white passengers could sit down. Parks would later recall, “When that white driver stepped back toward us, when he waved his hand and ordered us up and out of our seats, I felt a determination cover my body like a quilt on a winter night. When he saw me still sitting, he asked if I was going to stand up, and I said, ‘No, I’m not.’ And he said, ‘Well, if you don’t stand up, I’m going to have to call the police and have you arrested.’ I said, ‘You may do that.’”
In her biography, My Story, she would later write, “People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”
Like Amy in the text, Rosa refused her placement. She wasn’t going to play by the bus rules, the rules of the city, or the U.S. government. People could do what they want, arrest her, throw her in jail, but she was not going to take a seat as ‘less than.’ Was the bus driver an evil man? No. Were the police evil? No. Did Rosa Parks want to destroy them? No. She just refused to be placed as ‘less than.’ She refused to be treated, in her own words, as a “second class citizen.” Through refusing her assignment as an outsider, she showed others we never have to accept placement as ‘less than.’ We never have to accept where others assign us. We always have a choice. We can always move (or not move in Rosa Parks’ case).
Yet, how do we know what’s right? Did Amy know how right her movement was when she started toward Jesus? Did Rosa Parks know how right her movement was when she remained in her seat?
The litmus test from this text and the story of Rosa Parks is simple. Right movement makes us well. Jesus tells Amy after she reaches out to him that “Her faith made her well.” Right movement makes us well. If I move toward my family, my neighbors, my coworkers in a way that makes me ill, there is something wrong with the movement. Right movement makes us well.
Right movement also liberates others to move. Following Rosa Park’s bravery, others realized that it takes two groups to play at insiders and outsiders. Others realized that they, too, had a choice. Others were liberated. Likely, when Amy reached out to Jesus, others were liberated to do so as well.
Challenge for Us
We can always move. No one can designate us as outsiders, and as insiders we can reach out to whomever we choose. Dividing lines are arbitrary. Jesus challenges us to cross and recross all arbitrary separations. It only takes one to change the world for others.
Read the following quotes. How do they apply to the concept and stories above?
Deceive yourself no longer that you are helpless in the face of what is done to you. Acknowledge but that you have been mistaken, and all effects of your mistakes will disappear. – Helen Schuman
Each man must have his I; it is more necessary to him than bread; and if he does not find scope for it within the existing institutions he will be likely to make trouble.– Charles Horton Cooley
I think it’s unfair, but they have the right as fallible, screwed-up humans to be unfair; that’s the human condition. — Albert Ellis
Acceptance is not love. You love a person because he or she has lovable traits, but you accept everybody just because they’re alive and human. – Albert Ellis
Think back to labels you have been given by others. Did a location of distance go with the label? Did you accept it or reject it?
How have you given labels to others that assigned distance? Is there a way you can move toward them now?
How can you cross the distance between yourself and others?
his post is chapter 11 from The Psychology of Jesus supplemented with video illustrations.
[i] Rosalind Wiseman, Queen Bees and Wannabes, p. 18.