The Power Pickpocket

(The following discourse was prepared for a local congregation.)

Have you ever been pickpocketted? When I was in high school, I lost 200 Pesos on my way to school. I knew I passed through a crowd during my commute. I was supposed to pay something in school with that money. It either fell out of my pocket or someone picked my pocket.

In the past I heard that when you land in Manila International Airport, you would be greeted with something like this: “Welcome to the Philippines, the only Christian nation in the southeast Asia. Please beware of pickpockets.” I am glad that this had changed for the better.

A few days after I first arrived here in the US, I was walking alone in the streets of Morristown, New Jersey, a relatively quiet town, when a stranger greeted me, “What a beautiful day, isn’t it?” I was taken aback. First of all, in Manila where I came from, you don’t talk to strangers on the street. Secondly, nobody in the Philippines talk about the weather, for it is the same the whole year through. And lastly, when a stranger talks to you, check your wallet if it’s still there.

Our story today is about someone who pickpocketted Jesus of His power.

Let’s read the story in Luke 8: 43-48.

Jesus just arrived from the other side of the lake, and probably landed in the town of Capernaum. Perhaps his boat was still far from the shore when a crowd of people already gathered to meet him.

Ruins in Capernaum

Have you ever been in a crowd? Maybe like in a sporting event, or a concert, or in a very crowded bus or train? During my time in Manila and also in New York City, when I rode the train it was so crowded that I could almost exchange faces with the people around me. And even if the train was moving I didn’t have to hold on to something, for I was propped up as we were packed like sardines.

That was how it must have been when the crowd gathered around Jesus, for the Bible said it almost “crushed” Him (Luke 8: 42). The Greek word used to describe it was sumpnigo. Interestingly, it is the same word that was used to describe the thorns “choking” the seeds that fell on the thorny ground in the Parable of the Sower.

One lesson for us is if we don’t have a deep foundation, the crowd and the cares of this world could crush and choke us.

Invisible Woman

Then a woman pushed through the crowd to get close to Jesus.

Who is this woman? We don’t know her name or her age. I would guess that she was not very old for she was still menstruating, and I will get into that. But we know that she’s been suffering for 12 years. Perhaps in the beginning of her illness she was seeing all the doctors that were recommended to her. From one doctor to another, were only met by disappointment after disappointment. According to the account of the Gospel of Mark, “she suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors.” In the end she used all her money and was broke, but still did not get well.

What was she suffering from? According to the Gospel writers she was “subject to bleeding.” I would surmise that it was some kind of vaginal bleeding like having menstruation. Yet this one did not stop, and has been going on for 12 long years! If you’re bleeding that long, you would be anemic, weak and fatigued.

As a doctor, I would speculate that her illness was most probably not cancer. Because she was still alive after 12 years. I think it was some kind of a benign uterine growth, like fibroids. This causes vaginal bleeding even between menses, and particularly can have very heavy menses. That’s why I think she was younger and not of menopausal age.

If you have uterine growth like fibroids, no medication can treat it. No kind of concoction would work. Only taking out the fibroid by surgery or doing hysterectomy will cure it.

Do you have an illness that no doctor can help? Have you been suffering despite all the medical interventions? Are you desperate for a healing? Maybe you can relate to the story of this woman. It is my prayer that this message is for you and that you find encouragement in this story.

Besides the physical ravages of bleeding for 12 years there’s another aspect of her suffering. She was socially exiled and emotionally isolated.

According to the Mosaic law, if you have bleeding, you are considered unclean.

“When a woman has a discharge of blood for many days at a time other than her monthly period or has a discharge that continues beyond her period, she will be unclean as long as she has the discharge, just as in the days of her period. Any bed she lies on while her discharge continues will be unclean, as is her bed during her monthly period, and anything she sits on will be unclean, as during her period. Whoever touches them will be unclean; he must wash his clothes and bathe with water, and he will be unclean till evening.” (Leviticus 15:25-27)

All she touched or sat on was considered unclean. People who had contact with her or with what she touched were considered unclean. This woman had been longing for human touch, and she probably had not received a hug for 12 years!

Why does being soiled with blood considered unclean? It is the Universal Precaution rule. If you work in the hospital today you will don on gloves, gown, goggles if you are handling blood or bodily fluids. This is to protect yourself from contacting disease or also from spreading the disease.

Before people discovered and learned about bacteria and viruses, or how a disease is spread, God already provided rules among His people, the ancient Israelites, on how to prevent spreading diseases. That’s why in the Mosaic law, you are considered unclean if you touch a dead person or an animal carcass, or if you touch an open sore. All pots that critters crawled on must be destroyed. God knows about the bacteria and how they cause diseases even before men discovered them! God is so wise.

A couple of hundred years ago, doctors who did autopsy in the morgue came to the hospital ward to examine patients without thoroughly washing their hands. They probably just wiped them. This was before the era of discovering the bacteria. Then they have observed that those patients nearer the door get sicker or die more frequently than those farther away from the door. Why? Who do you think the doctor touched first after coming from the morgue? The doctors were spreading the bacteria!

This is not Divisoria, but a market place in Jerusalem

Let’s go back to our story. To be considered unclean for 12 long years was like an imprisonment, punished by banishment from humanity. Or she must have gone incognito, and became an invisible woman, that nobody recognized or noticed her when she went out of her home.

Then she heard about Jesus and His miracles of healing. And she learned that Jesus was coming in this part of town. So she decided to see Jesus. Even though she had no business of going out in a crowd, for all she would get contact with would become unclean. According to the law, if she touch Jesus, she would make Him ceremoniously unclean.

Yet this woman was determined to elbow, push and claw her way through the crowd. Though pale and weak, nothing would stand in her way. She was unshakable on her mission. She believed that if only she could touch Jesus’ cloak, she would be healed.

She finally reached Jesus. She approached Him from behind, typical of the modus operandi of a pickpocket. Then she stretched out her hand.

Healing Wings

If you’re going to touch somebody in a crowd, isn’t it easier to touch the shoulder or back? Why stoop down and touch the hem of the cloak? We may think that like a pickpocket, she does not want Jesus to feel her touch, so the edge of the garment would do. But there’s more significance to this edge of the garment.

In the Mosaic Law, God instructed His people about the corners, or fringes, of their garments. In Numbers 15: 38-39 it says:

 Speak to the children of Israel: Tell them to make tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and to put a blue thread in the tassels of the corners. And you shall have the tassel, that you may look upon it and remember all the commandments of the LORD and do them, and that you may not follow the harlotry to which your own heart and your own eyes are inclined, and that you may remember and do all My commandments, and be holy for your God.

It seems like a strange instruction for us but in the Ancient Near East culture, the corner of a person’s garment represented his identity; it was a symbol of who he was and what he stood for. It is like an insignia, or perhaps a monogramed initials on the shirt.

In the story of Ruth, when she was seeking marriage to Boaz, she asked him to spread the corner of his garment over her (Ruth 3:9). It was a request for him to identify with her. The same Hebrew word means “wing” or “corner of a garment.”

When God spoke of making a covenant with His people, He pictured Himself as spreading the corner of His garment over Israel (Ezekiel 16:8)—a symbol of identifying with her as His bride.

In the story of David when he was running away from Saul, one day Saul fell asleep at the mouth of the cave where David and his men were hiding. David sneaked in and cut off a corner of King Saul’s robe, but “afterward David’s heart struck him” (1 Samuel 24:5). These pangs of remorse seem strange unless we realize that he had defaced an important symbol of Saul’s identity and God-given kingship.

So important were the corners of a man’s garment for the Jews that the Old Testament closes with a prophecy of the Messiah that references the corners of His garment: “But unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings” (Malachi 4:2 KJV. Again, the same word means both “wings” and “corners of a garment”). At the heart of the Messiah’s identity would be healing for all who have faith in Him.

So when this woman reached out to the hem of Jesus’ coat, it was more than just for healing, but she was identifying with Him and what He stands for. She was embracing that Jesus is the promised Messiah who has healing in His wings.

This woman was not the only one healed when they touched the edge of Jesus’ garment. In Matthew 14, when Jesus was in Genneseret, perhaps after people heard this woman’s story, sick people lined up by the road where He would pass, and all who touched the edge of His coat were healed.

When this woman touched Jesus’ garment, “immediately” she felt that her bleeding stopped. She was instantly healed! And she felt it. But somebody felt it too. Jesus felt it too.

Then Jesus asked around who touched him. The disciples thought that Jesus was being silly. Why asked who touched him when we knew that a crowd of people was almost crushing him. But Jesus said “I know that power has gone out from me” (8:46). The Greek word translated “power” (NIV) or “virtue” (KJV) is dunamis, from which we get our English words “dynamo,” “dynamic,” and “dynamite.” That must have been a power surge that left Jesus. And He was looking for the power pickpocket.

Why did Jesus want to confront the woman and make her secret known? I can think of two reasons. The first one was to release her from the burden of uncleanliness and to take away the stigma. It was to make known to her and to the people around that He accepted her, and that she does not need to be incognito or invisible anymore. Secondly, to let her know that it was not the magical power of His cloak, but it was her faith in Him that healed her.

Ironically there were many people around pressing upon Jesus. But they have only brushed and casually touched Him. Are we one of those people in the crowd? Always in church, sits in the pew every week, present in all the church’s activities, and yet we have not really reached out to Jesus with that touch of faith.

I pray that we be like that woman – who have that elbowing-and-clawing-my-way kind of faith, that nothing-can-stand-on-my-way kind of faith. And that we reach out to Jesus. Be identified with Him and who He is. And that we embrace the Messiah, our Savior, who has healing in His wings.

This is my prayer.

A street in Jerusalem

*************

(*all photos taken during our visit in the Holy Land a couple of years ago)

No Chance Encounter

(The following is an excerpt from a discourse I gave in a local congregation. Thoughts were inspired after standing in a spot pictured below.)

Simon, after an 800-mile long travel, in a dream journey of a lifetime, finally arrived in Jerusalem.

He was warned of the large crowd especially during Passover time. But that day, he saw a different event. Even though the streets were crowded with lots of people they were making way for this unusual procession. There were no wailing sirens or flashing lights to warn people to make way, but there were Roman soldiers shouting with their glistening swords that part the crowd like the Red Sea.

Then Simon saw a man, so bloodied in his face, head, and back, carrying a beam of a cross, being led by the soldiers. Simon realized, he was witnessing a man being led to his death by crucifixion.

Crucifixion was not invented by the Romans, but they perfected it. Crucifixion was a punishment mostly reserved for those sentenced with insurrection or rebellion. Mostly people crucified were people subjugated by the Romans.

The weight of the whole cross was about 300 pounds. But usually the one being crucified carry only the cross beam, which in itself weighs about 100 pounds. They carry this to the place where they will be executed.

But even that weight of the cross beam was too heavy for this man condemned to die, as Simon witnessed. Perhaps he was weakened from all the lashes he received in his back. Perhaps he was already too weak from the blood loss from the wounds in his head and body.

Simon saw that the man carrying the cross fell under the weight and cannot stand anymore. Next thing Simon knew was that he was being ordered to carry that man’s cross.

But why was Simon chosen? Was it really random or by chance that he was picked? Romans will not let a Roman citizen carry the cross. They only let Jews or a foreigner do it. And Simon looked like a foreigner. He stood out of the crowd. He definitely looked like a stranger in Jerusalem. Was it the way he dressed? Or was it something more obvious?

Simon was most probably dark-skinned. In a more blunt way of saying, he was black.

First of all he was from Cyrene, a country in North Africa. We know that these people were descendants of Ham, the third son of Noah, who was believed to be the ancestral father of black people. The name Ham, many scholars believe meant “black.” This is supported by the Hebrew and Arabic evidences, in which the word “chamam” means “to be black.”

Another support is in Acts 13:1, it mentioned a man named Simeon (Simon) who was called the black man, who was one of the teachers in Antioch. Whether this was the same Simon from Cyrene who carried Jesus’ cross is hard to prove. What we know though, is that Acts 11:19-21 mentioned that the first Christians who preached in Antioch were from Cyprus and Cyrene.

In all likelihood, Simon was picked because he looked different. Discrimination is not something that we only have today. Even in those times it already existed.

But Simon was not pick by chance. I believe God has destined him to carry the cross for a special reason. Same thing that God picked those who were being discriminated and ostracized during those times: the Samaritans, the tax-collectors, the Publicans, the lepers, the sinners. God chose those who the world see as unwanted, and use them in a special purpose for his divine plan.

If God does not discriminate, who are we to discriminate people whom we think are different from us?

Back to Simon, when he was picked by the Roman soldiers, he was reluctant. The Bible said in Matt 27:32, he was “forced” or “compelled.” Meaning, he did not volunteer. Most likely he even refused!

But can you refuse the Romans? There was a Roman law called lex angeria stating that if a Roman soldier tells you to carry his pack or a load, you must carry it for 1000 paces (1 pace=2 steps), which is really close to our current mile. After 1 mile, you can bring down the load and you can go on your business.

But Jesus in his teaching in Matthew 5:41, said that if a soldier demands you to carry his pack for 1 mile (pertaining to lex angeria law), carry it for 2 miles instead. That was Jesus said! So if someone ask you a favor, do it beyond what you are being asked. Not out of duty, but do it out of love.

I am not sure Simon heard of this Jesus’ teaching, that he would be willing to carry the cross for more than a mile.

IMG_4454

Station V, Via Dolorosa: spot where Simon carried the cross

But I get it, not just because the cross was heavy, and it was not even his cross to carry, Simon has other reasons to be reluctant. One is that if he carry that bloodied cross, he would contaminate himself with blood and he would be deemed ceremoniously unclean by Jewish law. He then would not be able to participate in the Passover feast, which was the very reason he came to Jerusalem in the first place.

Sometimes we have our own plans, and all of a sudden we are being diverted to do something we don’t want to do. Just like Simon. But God has a plan for us. We just have to trust Him.

The other reason, why I think Simon was reluctant to carry the cross was, can you imagine the humiliation of carrying the cross of somebody you don’t even know? The humiliation of being associated to somebody condemned to die.

Simon’s experience was: from dream to nightmare, from holy to horrific, from going to the place of worship to going to a place of execution.

But as Simon followed Jesus carrying the cross and being led by the Roman soldiers, something happened to him. It changed him.

Simon have looked into the bloodied face of this man and their eyes met. The look that peered through his soul. The look of love and forgiveness, despite him being led to his death. Surely, Simon thought, this Man was different.

As he was following Jesus with the cross, he have heard him speak as recorded in Luke 23:28 “Daughters of Jerusalem, don’t weep for me, but weep for yourselves and your children.” Surely, Simon thought, this Man was different.

Something changed the heart of Simon. I believe that after they came to Calvary and he was told by the soldiers that he can bring down the cross and was free to go, he stayed in the crowd and watched what would happen to the Man whose cross he carried.

Simon witnessed of how this Man forgave those who were crucifying him, praying “Father forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing.” He saw this Man die and how He cried “It is finished,” and how he uttered “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit.” Surely, Simon thought, this Man was different.

From an unwilling cross bearer, Simon became a willing faithful follower.

Simon realized the fact that his hands and his shoulders and his body that were stained by this Man’s blood did not make him unclean, but rather that very blood cleansed him of his sins. Simon can claim that he was literally washed by the blood of the Lamb.

How sure are we that Simon became a follower of Christ?

In Mark 15:21 it mentioned Simon’s sons, Alexander and Rufus. The book of Mark was written about 25-30 years after Jesus died. The fact that Mark mentioned the names of his sons, implied that his sons became known to the early Christian church. That means they became pillars of the church, because their converted father introduced them to the Savior whose cross he carried.

Also in Acts 11:19-21, which mentioned those early Christians from Cyrene, and we may wonder, why were the earliest Christians from a place 800 miles away from Jerusalem? I want to believe that those were converted by Simon when he returned home to Cyrene. Even Paul in Romans 16:13 greeted Rufus, Simon’s son, whom Paul said was ‘picked by God to be his very own son.’

Yes, Simon was not picked by the Romans by chance, but rather God picked Simon. And it was not a chance encounter, but it was a destined encounter.

May the story of Simon, inspire us for our own fateful encounter.

(*photo taken in Jerusalem)