Social Pariah

There’s been a story that has been on my mind the past couple of weeks.  It’s a story that seems to communicate the gospel message with clarity and fullness.  It’s about a woman – a woman who is severely sick. Mark tells a story about a woman who has been suffering for 12 years.  She’s been in this constant stage of agony because she has what they call a “flow of blood.”  This condition is paralyzing to the woman’s life on multiple levels.

One of the levels is social.

The Israelite religion of the day stated that someone with a flow of blood was declared “unclean.”  In simple terms, being “unclean” reminded oneself and the community that God was distinct and different from them – holy, if you will.  As a result, someone who was unclean had to go through passages of purification to become “clean” again and to be restored back to the community.

However, this woman has been perpetually bleeding for 12 years, which means she has been perpetually unclean for 12 years.  This is a significant problem for her, and here’s why. First century Israel believed that uncleanness could be transferred to another until the person was clean again.  As a result, someone could become uncleans if

  1. they touched her
  2.  she touched them
  3. they touched anything she touched

It’s probable to imagine that this woman has not been touched (and in fact avoided!) for the last 12 years.  The absence of this kind of basic interaction does tremendous damage to an individual’s relationship with their society.

  • She isn’t able to attend social gatherings.
  • She isn’t able to attend religious gatherings.
  • She isn’t able to walk amongst her people with ease.

Can you imagine that anytime you walk down the street everyone instinctively moves to the other side of the road?  Can you imagine that anytime people are invited to a dinner gathering, you have to remain away from the social scene for fear of spreading your uncleanness?  Can you  imagine that every weekend, when the people of the community would gather to worship together, you would have to remain outside?

The truth is that this woman’s discharge of blood has caused her to be completely, 100% discharged from society.

She is socially cut off. Completely shunned by people.

Searching For a Cure

Mark’s story continues to tell us that the woman has seen many doctors.  The text indicates that she is not only suffering socially because of her condition, but she is also suffering physically.  Mark indicates that she has suffered “a great deal.”  Yet, even with many remedies, the woman’s sickness remains.  She has exhausted all of her available options.

This exhaustion of options has left her penniless.  The woman is bankrupt.  Her pockets are empty.  She has no resources to her name.  The text indicates that this lack material currency isn’t a general lack of money, but that it is a state of absolute financial destitution.  The language for her spending means to waste, squander, or consume all of ones economic resources.

However, instead of her condition growing better – the woman’s condition grows worse.

Her life is spiralling.

Her social outcasted-ness grows.

Her physical pain increases.

Her financial situation is dire.

Her life is spiralling out of control.

But then the text says that the woman “heard about Jesus.”  This woman comes to learn that Jesus is in the area.  You could probably see her sitting by herself on a street corner, all alone when she sees this large crowd of people crowding, pressing in around someone.  Then it comes to her attention that it is Jesus.  This teachers fame has been spreading all throughout the land.  Stories of his concern for the poor and the sick go before him.  The woman thinks to herself, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.”  So the woman acts on what she has heard about Jesus.  She refuses to accept this disease as her lot in life and so she takes matters into her own hands.

Stepping Out in Faith

So the woman gets up off the street corner and makes her way to the crowd.  But she doesn’t come in from the front so as to confront Jesus or from the side to be next to him.  Instead she has come up from behind Jesus, so as to not be noticed.  But you can guarantee that she will be noticed by the people surrounding Jesus.  She’s the woman that has been unclean in this city for 12 years.

So you can almost see the people crowded in behind Jesus begin to separate as the woman gets closer.  Their separation creates this unobstructed aisle towards Jesus.  However, they aren’t getting out of her way to make it easier for her, but they are getting out of her way because they don’t want to be contaminated and made unclean by her.

So the crowd parts like the splitting of the Red Sea and she reaches out touches his cloak and then slips back into the large crowd.  She hopes that she can make a quick escape so as to not be noticed by the teacher.  After all, it was unlawful for her touch a rabbi in her condition.  The threat of the teacher becoming nclean at the hands of the woman would bring harsh rebuke upon her – and it’s not as if she hasn’t suffered enough at the hands of everyone else in the town.  Being shamed by a famous, reputable teacher would be the icing on top of her ostracization.

She would be shamed for being irresponsible.

Shamed for risking contaminating others with her uncleanness.

Shamed with her apparent disregard for Torah.

But as she sneaks away, the text says that “immediately” she was freed from her suffering.

Immediately the bleeding stopped.

Immediately the pain stopped.

Immediately her life was changed.

Her life was changed because of her bold act to touch His cloak.  But His cloak?  Why His cloak?  What’s the big deal about a cloak?  To this the woman would reply, “Everything!”

The Significance of His Cloak

You see Jesus was a Rabbi, and He would have walked around with a prayer shawl.  It would have been made of white cloth with blue threads and had 1 tassel on each of the 4 corners.  These 4 tassels would be hanging from threads that were tied into 613 knots – reminding the Jewish people of their 613 laws as commanded by Moses.

Jewish rabbis would often times wear these prayer shawls, and when they reached out their hands to pray for and bless the people, their cloak would form two corners under each of his outstretched arms.  These hanging corners began to be called the “wings of the rabbi.”  As the tradition developed, writers would begin to write about a coming rabbi or teacher that would restore Israel.  In particular, Malachi 4:2 says, “But for you who fear My name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings; and you will go forth and skip about like calves from the stall.”

No doubt the women – being excluded from temple and synagogue worship because of her uncleanness – would have been sitting outside of the synagogue listening in to these passages.  And as the scriptures were being read she would hear about this coming teacher bringing healing in the wings of his prayer shawl.  As a result, this reaching out and grabbing of the corner of his cloak is a deep act of faith and declaration of the Messiahship of Jesus – the one of whom would restore Israel and make all things new.


Face shot 1Austin Helm is the College Pastor at ONEchapel – a growing, thriving community of faith in Austin, TX. His speciality is working with young people as he has been leading and teaching students and young adults for 10+ years. Some of these 10+ years were spent at Eastside Christian Church, one of the ten fastest growing churches in the United States. He also speaks at many retreats and conferences across the country, from Orange County, CA to New York City, NY.

In addition, Austin also facilitates leadership training for various ministries and missions organizations. Austin has a B.A. in Communications from Oral Roberts University and a Master of Arts in Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is also the Director of ONEchapel’s ministry school – ONEchapel College ( In addition to ministry, Austin also serves as a consultant for creatives and start-up companies.