If I Could Just Touch the Hem of His Garment
That’s a line from an old country hymn, alluding to an incident in Matthew 9, which was part of today’s Gospel reading, and which of course I heard in the New American translation, but include here in the King James, partly because I love this old-fashioned use of the word “virtue”:
And much people followed him, and thronged him.
And a certain woman, which had an issue of blood twelve years, and had suffered many things of many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and was nothing bettered, but rather grew worse, when she had heard of Jesus, came in the press behind, and touched his garment.
For she said, If I may touch but his clothes, I shall be whole. And straightway the fountain of her blood was dried up; and she felt in her body that she was healed of that plague.
And Jesus, immediately knowing in himself that virtue had gone out of him, turned him about in the press, and said, Who touched my clothes?
And his disciples said unto him, Thou seest the multitude thronging thee, and sayest thou, Who touched me?
And he looked round about to see her that had done this thing.
But the woman fearing and trembling, knowing what was done in her, came and fell down before him, and told him all the truth.
And he said unto her, Daughter, thy faith hath made thee whole; go in peace, and be whole of thy plague.
Presumably others in the crowd also touched Jesus. That seems to be the disciples’ assumption. Presumably these others also had ills, physical or spiritual, which could have been healed just as the woman’s hemorrhage was. But they weren’t. And why did the woman need to touch him at all? Why wasn’t her faith alone sufficient?
There are two errors which come naturally to the human race regarding our relation to the spiritual, and both are rejected here: the magical-mechanical and the gnostic-psychological. In the first, we suppose that procuring favor from the spirit or spirits that rule the cosmos is a matter of performing certain actions and/or saying certain words. If we make the right sacrifice in the right way, or inscribe the right symbols and pictures in the right medium, or speak the right spell, the powers will do as we ask. The merits of the petitioner are almost, perhaps altogether, irrelevant. Although skill and strength and knowledge may be required, it is not so much a question of goodness as of ritual correctness and purity. At its purest, this approach is simple superstition: it doesn’t matter who you are or what you think as long as you do what’s prescribed, as when I try to cause rain by leaving my umbrella in the car. (I’ll leave aside the question of actual efficacious commerce with evil spirits, who are probably more obliging than God in responding to human requests—in their own way, of course.)
In the second error, the gnostic-psychological, the petitioner or devotee’s state of mind is paramount. Actions may be important for attaining the correct state of mind, but in themselves they are of lesser or perhaps no importance. I suppose a very pure form of Buddhism would be the ultimate form of this: the state of mind itself is what is sought, and its attainment allows one to abandon the physical altogether and forever.
Christians are by nature as susceptible to both errors as anyone else. Catholic and Orthodox theology reject them explicitly, and Bible-based Protestantism certainly ought, on thebasis of this Gospel passage, to see the problem. I suppose most Catholics have seen sacraments or sacramentals approached in a superstitious way. Protestantism, mostly rejecting the mixture of material and spiritual in the concept of sacramentality, can easily take the gnostic direction, most obviously in the tendency to eliminate all physical gestures and materials in worship, but also in a tendency I’ve seen among some fundamentalists to think of faith as a condition of mental certainty, in which they try to make something happen by attaining a perfectly pure conviction that it will happen. The mental traps into which this can lead one are obvious (or ought to be).
This Gospel story implies that neither the physical nor the mental act alone is sufficient. If others touched the Lord, no “virtue [went] out of him,” and presumably nothing happened to or for them. But neither was the woman healed, though she obviously had both the wish and the faith that she could be, until she actually touched the hem of his garment.
The story obviously reinforces the point often made in Catholic theology about the inseparability of body and spirit in the human world, and the need for both to play a part in worship and prayer. There is for us no commerce between souls except through some physical medium, and physical contact is significant only to the soul, whatever its physical effect might be. But I think it's also meant to teach us something a little more subtle, too: that interaction between man and God is an interaction between persons.