Pastor’s Note: The Presumption of Sexual Freedom

Every generation has to wrestle with what it means to be holy in a culture that celebrates all kinds of freedoms.  The only problem is some ‘freedoms’ end up looking more like bondage than actual liberation.  At the time of Deuteronomy, the dominant culture celebrated sexual freedoms as a sign of prosperity. The more sexual rituals, the more fertile the crops would be. It was a matter of economics: ‘we need a strong crop in order to survive; we need the gods of fertility to get involved; we can guarantee their involvement through ritualized sex with priestly mediators.’  This is why Deuteronomy has some strong warnings about interaction with the Canaanite (aka Amorite) culture.  The worship of Yahweh is as far removed from any sexual activity as it can be (read Leviticus and the purity laws pertaining to the human body).  Not that the Lord condemns sex (He invented the idea; read the Song of Songs!) but it is defined within the context of marriage, which is itself defined in binary terms (Genesis 2:24).  Over and over again, the Lord warns against entering into marriage with Canaanites: their unclean ways will lead you astray (Deut. 7:3-5).  Sadly, subsequent history of God’s people demonstrates this reality.  The Israelites lost their identity and became Canaanites.  The prophet Ezekiel, some 800 years after Deuteronomy, says, with no small measure of irony: “Your father was an Amorite and your mother a Hittite” (Ezekiel 16:3).   How far they had gone astray from being “a people holy the Lord,” “a treasured possession!” (Deuteronomy 7:6).

This sort of clarion call to be holy as He is holy very much stands the test of time and the coming of Jesus didn’t alter that call one bit.  Jesus also has some strong words.  He warns against sexual immorality and impurity (Mark 7:21) just as the rest of the NT will (see Ephesians 5:3, among others).  The sexual freedoms of the Romans and the Greeks had something to do with rituals just like the Canaanites, but it was also based on pure hedonism and sensual pleasure.  It would be tempting to illustrate but suffice it to say here, the cult of Artemis of Ephesus was anything but family friendly, nor are some of the frescoes of Pompeii, still amazingly and graphically preserved today.

In this charged context, not unlike ours today, where sexual freedoms are deemed a virtue (and self-restraint seems strange at best or a virtual pathology at worst),  Jesus comes and gives us a beautiful picture of what it means to be truly free.

“Encounter” mural by Daniel Cariola, located in a chapel in Magdala (Israel).

In the story of the woman with a flow of blood (Mark 5:24-34; Matthew 9:20-22; Luke 8:43-48), Jesus gets to the heart of the problem of the connection between impurity and shame. As David Garland* writes, “because of her condition, the woman only knows shame.”  In this familiar story of desperation (Mark 5:24-25), determination (Mark 5:26), faith (Mark 5:28), power and healing (Mark 5:29-30), we see how Jesus yet again heals someone in a seemingly hopeless situation.  But in this case, He also does something else.  Very quickly we notice that the woman (anonymous) is using a very crowded situation (Mark 5:24 “a great crowd… thronged about him” Mark 5:31 “pressing around…”) to sneak up on Jesus from “behind” (Mark 5:27) and she “touched his garments.” The act of touching is repeated four times for good reason.  In the “old way” (Levitical law on purity in the OT; Leviticus 15), anything unclean that touches something clean makes the clean unclean.  But in this case, the unclean becomes clean by the power of Jesus to heal.  Twice the text says she is “healed of her disease” (the word disease is more like ‘scourge’).

But there is also something else going on.  As soon as the “flow” is “dried up” (as in a spring, attesting to the brutal severity of her condition, v. 29), Jesus perceived that “power had gone out of him.”  His question to everyone (v. 30), and the response by the disciples,(v. 31) all serve to expose her and her condition. In fact the version in Luke adds, “she was not hidden anymore” (Luke 8:47). Jesus is not exposing her secret to shame her (she’s had enough of that for 12 years!). He is exposing her shame to remove it.  As David Garland reminds us, any encounter between the holy and the unclean never can produce a good outcome.  In some cases, it is a matter of life and death.  This is why when she is discovered she is gripped with “fear” and “trembling” and she falls down before Jesus (Mark 5:33).  However, now the encounter with the Holy One of God (Mark 1:24) makes the unclean holy! The point is further driven home when He addresses her: “your faith has made you well.”  It was, and is, faith alone that allows us to approach the Holy One of Israel.  It was, and is, through faith alone that we are “made well” (literally, ‘saved’).

So here Jesus is performing yet another miracle of salvation. He heals but through the healing/salvation, He also removes her shame.  When He addresses her, He calls her “Daughter” which is a term of endearment, rather than words of condemnation.  In fact, Matthew 9:22 adds, “Take heart, Daughter.”  He is welcoming her, removing her guilt and her shame. He also tells her to “go in peace.”  He is not asking her to perform any of the required purity rituals via sacrifices (Leviticus 15:28-31).  She is clean because the One who is the perfect sacrifice has made her clean (Hebrews 10:13-14).  The new way is the exact opposite of the old way:  The clean makes the unclean clean!

Thoughts for the week

Removal of shame by faith in Jesus

The removal of shame when it comes to the “sins against the body” (1 Corinthians 6:18; Ephesians 5:3) is part of our true freedom in the Gospel.  In the above story, Jesus powerfully illustrates what happens to all of us when we allow Jesus to come near in the most intimate and shameful moments of our lives.  As we put our faith and trust in Him, He alone can remove the stigma and the shame of our uncleanness.  Take time this week to allow the Lord to draw near to you and to heal.  “Take heart, Go in peace, your faith has made you well.”

To the pure all things are pure

Titus 1:15 outlines that faith is the basis of our purity before the Lord. He is the one that washes us clean from all sin/unrighteousness and impurity (Mark 7:21; 1 John 1:7; 1 John 1:9; Titus 3:5).
So, we too are part of the ‘new way.’  We can minister to the ‘unclean’ knowing they are not making us unclean.  We’re introducing them to the One who makes us all clean.  This is so far from the principle of ‘circling the wagon,’ i.e., isolating ourselves from a polluted world. Instead we go out  and become agents of redemption by proclaiming true freedom and true healing in Christ alone.

*In Reading Mark in Context