More than almost anything else, human touch gets its meaning from context. Children soon learn from their parents the difference between “good touching” and “bad touching.” Every culture has its own slightly different set of exactly what counts as appropriate and inappropriate touch. This ambiguity shows up in our language.
When we are moved by a statement or a work of art we easily say, “I was really touched by that,” and everyone knows what we mean. When we encounter an attitude or behavior that strikes us as a kind of forced intimacy, we call it “touchy feely,” and, again, people know what we mean. When someone employs some slick persuasion on someone else, usually to get money, it is called “putting the touch” on that unfortunate target.
Neonatologists tell us that if a newborn child does not experience loving human touch frequently, the baby’s health will begin to fail, and complete deprivation of touch can be fatal for an infant. The children of Ma Bell are smart to advertise their services with the phrase, “Reach out and touch someone,” for the non-tactile touching effected by verbal communication is as important to the human adult as physical touch is to the infant.
Using the telephone (along with the Internet) is one of the ways we do that today. Staying “in touch” or getting “out of touch” spell the difference between keeping or losing a friendship. Such considerations can help us appreciate the twin healing/resuscitation stories we meet in this Sunday’s Gospel.
Both are stories of faith and resonate with language about salvation and resurrection. Jairus is a leader of the local synagogue, and therefore a man much in the eye of the community. It is a major move, then, for him to come forward and plead for Jesus to come and put his hands on his dying twelve-year-old daughter “that she may get well and live.” His love for his daughter and his trust in Jesus’ touch are powerful.
Along comes a woman with a hemorrhage problem that has lasted as long as aims’ daughter is old. Her problems are multiple; not only is she broke from the cost of ineffective medical treatment, not only has she “suffered greatly at the hands of” those many doctors, she lives in a culture where having a flow of blood renders her ritually “unclean” (read Leviticus 15). She is a social leper. She is convinced that merely touching Jesus’ clothing will heal (or save) her. She steps forward and does it, and her flow of blood dries up immediately.
Then Jesus turns, and what had been a rather impersonal, secretive contact the woman renders personal by approaching Jesus “in fear and trembling” and telling him the whole truth (she, an unclean person, had dared to come into contact with him because she was hoping to be cured). “Daughter,” says Jesus, “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace and be cured of your affliction.” The deeper touching, he reveals, was not the physical contact with his clothing but the faith with which she approached him.
Meanwhile, when people come from Jairus’ house to tell him that his daughter has died and that he should stop bothering the teacher, Jesus invites him to a still deeper faith. Jairus has already shared the hemorrhaging woman's faith in Jesus that touching and being touched by Jesus could heal; now he is invited to believe that Jesus' touch can overcome death itself. It happens.
Now, why were these accounts so important to the early Church? Was it simply to recall that Jesus did truly have a healing touch, especially in the presence of expectant faith? The double account does assert that, to be sure. But even more is celebrated in these narratives. We are becoming increasingly aware, as we study the healing accounts of the Gospels, that they are not simply history; they are proclamations about what God continues to do through faith in Jesus accepted as risen Lord.
We cannot catch it in translation, but the word for healing in these passages, sozo, means both “to heal” and “to save.” The original readers and listeners to Mark’s text would have easily heard these accounts as images of the ongoing experience of salvation. Similarly, the words used with reference to the resuscitation of the little girl are the same words used for the resurrection of Jesus.
Thus, these accounts also reflect our life of Christian faith. We encounter the healing touch and the raising power of God by means of our faith in Jesus. The words, “Your faith has saved you” and “Do not be afraid; just have faith” are meant to touch us as well—and to enable us to reach out and touch others in a healing way.