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Questions Jesus Asked: “Who touched me?”


Luke 8:45

I: — “To see and be seen,” said my grade nine geography teacher, “This is why people go to tourist beaches, to ski resorts, and to church; to see and be seen.” Perhaps he was right decades ago. Perhaps there was a day when some people came to church for this reason. They wanted to see; i.e., catch up on gossip. They wanted to be seen; i.e., preserve their standing in the community, even be able to do business on Monday. But we live in a different era now. Today no one comes to church for this reason.

Then why do people come to church? Curiosity might bring a few, but if curiosity brought them here it would never keep them here, because there isn’t much in church for curiosity seekers. We don’t traffic in oddities or secrets or spookiness. What the church traffics in happens to be simple, transparent, and highly repetitive. We sing hymns that congregations have sung for centuries; we read from a book that a child can read; we listen to an address that uses illustrations everywhere lest people go home mystified. I’m convinced that people come to church today largely for the same reason that the woman in our text stood, with scores of others, in a crowd. The reason, Luke tells us, was that she had heard reports about Jesus.

Reports about Jesus abounded in those days. We are told that the common people heard him gladly and turned out in droves at the same time that church leaders suspected him and conspired behind closed doors. One report about Jesus was that he was compassionate: no wonder people kept bringing their sick and disturbed to him. And yet as compassionate as he was, people wouldn’t have kept bringing their sick and disturbed to him unless he was more than compassionate, helpful as well, effective. People came to him, lingered with him, and then bound themselves to him for one reason: in his company they became different, life became different, the world became different, everything became different.

People come to church today, for the same reason. They have heard reports about Jesus. They have heard that he receives and helps, effectively helps, those whom life has jarred and jolted, even wounded and warped.

People are “shaken up” when they are surprised to discover they weren’t able to anticipate how they reacted to blows and irruptions and disruptions. To be sure, all of us try to anticipate how we are going to react when this happens to us or that happens to us. When the “this” or the “that” does happen, however, we discover that what we were able to anticipate in our heads we weren’t able to anticipate in our hearts. How we reacted had virtually nothing to do with how we had thought we were going to react. And now we fear irruptions in life as we didn’t fear them before.

The younger person, even the younger adult, unconsciously thinks himself to be invulnerable. If you sat him down and queried him about life’s vulnerabilities, he’d say, “Of course I’m aware that accident, disease, disaster can overtake anyone at any time. Do you think I’m naïve or stupid?” Still, what he admits with his conscious, reflective mind he hasn’t yet admitted with his unconscious mind. And it’s the unconscious mind that governs so very much of everyone’s life. Then one day something befalls him that drives home at all levels of his mind something he’d always admitted with his head but never with his heart: life is fragile, life is precarious, life is brief, life is subject to vulnerabilities that can never be rendered invulnerable.

For years we manage to live in the illusion that we are in control. We are in control of ourselves (of course); not only of ourselves but also of our family, of our colleagues, of a significant corner of our world. Then one day events force us to admit — finally — that while the sphere of our influence may be great, the sphere of our control is slight, very slight. And now we aren’t even sure we are in control of ourselves.

For years we remain untouched by grief in that we have suffered no overwhelming loss, and untouched by guilt if only because we think ourselves superior to everyone else. Then loss fuels grief, and a realistic awareness that our own garbage smells spawns guilt.

For years we listen to other people complain that they find life meaningless, we quietly pride ourselves on the fact that we don’t find it meaningless. One day, however, we realize that our problem isn’t life’s meaninglessness; our problem is life’s meanings: so many of them, so many that are incompatible, and in any case no single, true meaning, trustworthy meaning, eternal meaning.


II: — At this point we are like the woman in our text: “If I but touch the fringe of his clothes, I shall be made well; just the fringe.” In first century Palestine men wore their talith, their prayer shawl, as an undershirt. The prayer shawl therefore remained hidden under their workday clothing, except for the tassels at the four corners of the prayer shawl: these hung down below their workday shirt. The needy woman felt that by grasping these she was making contact with him, and this would be sufficient. It would be enough just to make contact. There’d be no need to spout elaborate introductions or offer effusive explanations. Besides, she was a woman and he was a man; men and women didn’t converse in public. Besides, she was suffering from an ailment that made others in the community shrink from her; better to say nothing, act boldly, and see what happens next. All she wanted to do was make contact. What’s more, the four tassels symbolized the truth that the Word of God reaches to the four corners of the earth. If it really reaches to the four outermost corners of the earth, she thought, perhaps it reaches to my tiny corner of the earth, me.

Let’s not deceive ourselves. People at their profoundest don’t come to church because of something about us. They come because they have heard reports concerning Jesus Christ, and they’ve been told that this building and this institution have something to do with him and may even help them make contact with him. People at their profoundest come to church because they think that their chances of meeting him and finding help are better here.

I’m convinced it’s no different with us whom have been coming to church for a long time and will continue to come. To be sure, there is much here that appears to have little to do with reaching out to touch our Lord: shingling the roof, gassing the furnace, paying the light bill. The truth is, however, all of these matters have everything to do with making contact with him. It is for this purpose only that we shingle the roof and gas the furnace and pay the light bill.

The woman in our text again: what did she think that merely touching our Lord was going to do for her? Was there an element, or more than an element, of superstition in what she did? There may have been. If there was, I’m sure our Lord would have corrected it eventually; he wouldn’t have allowed her to go on touching him as if she were pressing a button that gave her a charge. He wouldn’t have allowed her to keep pawing him mechanically as though voodoo-like superstition could ever substitute for spiritual maturity. Over and over in the written gospels Jesus moves people beyond an understanding, misunderstanding, of him that is so woefully immature as to be spiritually threatening. When the mother of James and John wanted positions of privilege for her two sons Jesus told her she was asking the wrong question; she should have been asking if her two sons were resilient enough to endure the long-term rigours of discipleship without quitting. Of course he would expect an apprehension of him deeper than feeling the fringes of his prayer shawl. He would have corrected the woman eventually; but he didn’t correct her instantly.

For our Lord knows something we must never forget: before we can begin to mature we have to be born. Before we step ahead maturely in the Christian life, we have to take a first step. And the difference between no step and first step is a quantum leap. In short, there are two dangers we must avoid. One danger is expecting ourselves and others to exhibit exemplary spiritual maturity without first having touched our Lord. When this happens we expect people to swim confidently in the waters of Christian wisdom and devotional richness and spiritual discernment and self-renouncing service when in fact they can’t swim at all. They splash around for a while repeating formulas they don’t understand and pursuing a pathway they find pointless until one day they give up the whole thing and we never see them in church again. The other danger is making contact, all right, and then fixating ourselves at an infantile level of Christian understanding and venture, content to make contact, plainly enough, but never moving on to that maturity in Christ which Paul says is ultimately the goal of Christian ministry.


III: — The woman touches Jesus. “Who touched me?” he says. “Someone has touched me. Who is it?” The disciples remind him that the crowd resembles the subway train at rush hour: people are squeezed together so tightly that anyone who faints won’t even fall down. Who has touched him? Who hasn’t touched him? The question is silly.

Except that it isn’t. “Some one person has touched me,” Jesus insists. “Within this crowd there is some one person who has moved from observing me and assessing me to contacting me. Who is it?”

Today our society seems on the point of forgetting what richness the gospel has brought the society in terms of our understanding of the person, and how quickly that gospel-inspired leaven can depart the society.

Think of the hideousness that Marxism fostered. In the Marxist set-up the individual person counts for nothing. The collective counts for everything. The individual has no rights at all. The individual has merit only because of the individual’s place in the collective. Any exploitation of the individual, however cruel or even deadly, is legitimate if it serves the greater good (so-called) of the collective. You don’t need me to tell you of the forced labour camps in Siberia and the Gulag system and Stalin’s systematic starvation of twelve million people in the Ukraine and the 30 to 60 million people that the secret police took down.

Think of a spectacle seen every day in India . I saw it myself. Someone collapses on the street, manifestly ill. People step around her or step over her but don’t stop to help her. After all, fate, the gods, have willed that she be stricken at this moment, fall in this position, and remain there. To lend assistance is to defy what the gods have willed and therein to court the gods’ displeasure. Therefore wise people leave the victim alone. On my first day in India I came upon a dog that had been dead for several days. Maggots were crawling in and out of the carcase. It stank unimaginably. But no one had buried the carcase. After all, the gods had appointed the dog to die in that position and be left there.

And then I think of a parishioner in my Mississauga congregation who suffered a major heart attack. He was sustained by the most up-to-date medical wizardry, was given a heart transplant, and underwent many more surgeries until his chest and abdomen resembled a quilt. The cost of all this, borne by the taxpayer, approached the national debt. While he was mending from the heart transplant he had to have his gall bladder removed. Only seven years later he died anyway. Yet no one ever said of him, “He isn’t worth it. People die of heart trouble every day. What’s so special about him? Besides, he’s costing too much. Let him go.” No one even whispered this.

How long do you think such situations will continue once our society has become thoroughly secularized and the indirect illumination of the gospel has disappeared entirely?

I have said several times over that in a Marxist collectivity the individual is worthless. True. The reason the individual is worthless here is that the individual isn’t a person; the individual is merely a cog in a giant machine, and any cog can replace any other cog. The individual isn’t a person.

Strictly speaking, ancient Greek philosophy knew of the individual; it did not, however, know of the person. The notion of the person is the church’s gift to the world. The difference is this: the individual is an individual in herself, but a person is always person-in-relation. So far as the individual is concerned, to be is to be; but so far as the person is concerned, to be is to be-in-relation. To exist as a person is never the same as existing as an individual. Ancient Greek philosophy spoke of the individual but never of the person. The church knew the difference and insisted that every last human being is a person.

Admittedly, there are some human beings whose lives are wretched. They appear to be friendless. They appear to be isolated. They appear to be abandoned, forsaken. But in fact there is no human being anywhere, at any time, who is ultimately abandoned and finally forsaken, just because there is no human being whom God doesn’t cherish.

We must be sure we see the woman in our story in proper context. She reached out to touch our Lord — intentionally, wilfully, deliberately seeking help. Others didn’t. Then did they lack all relation to Jesus Christ? Do such people still? The truth is, in his death our Lord embraced every last human being without exception, without qualification, without reservation, without hesitation. Because of his embrace every human being is a person with respect to him. Remember, to be is to be-in-relation. The arms of the crucified ensure not only that individuals are individuals rather than faceless cogs in a cosmic machine; the arms of the crucified ensure that no one is finally forsaken, no one ultimately abandoned, no one bereft of that “other” who guarantees that all individuals are, more profoundly still, persons.

The church’s gift to the world here is breathtaking, and nowadays most of the world doesn’t know by whom the gift was given. What will be the shape, the texture, of our society if, when, the indirect illumination of the gospel recedes and the society is left not even with the wisdom that ancient Greek philosophy could muster, but merely with the new barbarism that looms around us?

Myself, I’m convinced that the indirect illumination still lighting our society might remain if the church continues to hold up the direct lighting of the gospel. Only the gospel insists that this one person matters inestimably to God just because only the gospel (all human beings exist in relation to Jesus Christ) insists that all persons are persons.


You and I are at worship this morning for many different reasons. One reason, surely, is that we want to make contact with our Lord again. Centuries ago a needy woman, a courageous woman, reached out and grabbed the tassels of his prayer shawl, believing thereby she would find in him what she needed most.

“Who has touched me?” Jesus responded. She had. She mattered supremely to him; but ultimately no more than all of us matter to him, for he has first touched us all with outstretched arms, thereby rendering us persons whose worth, importance and gifts are beyond price.

We in the church know this. By coming here today we want to remind the wider society of this truth lest our society forget it and thereby imperil everyone.


                                                                                                    Dr Victor Shepherd                                                                                             

March 2003