There are a vast number of characters in our Biblical narratives that remain unnamed. These characters are often skimmed over in our study of the stories in which they are contained, the emphasis on their part in the story exchanged instead for the “bigger picture” of the story’s moral. I have learned, however, that all too often it is in His interaction with these nameless, that the depth of God’s character is most clearly revealed. Not only His character, but the characteristics He values in those He loves.
During our study of Women of the Bible (Spangler & Syswerda,©2010) we have come across a few women for which this has proven true. Two of the most powerful stories, however, come from the story of two women found in Luke’s gospel. One of these women was known only as “sinful,” and the other known only as the “bleeding.” Both were called “unclean” although be it for very different reasons.
In Luke, Chapter 7, we read the story of Jesus taking dinner with Simon the Pharisee. This came shortly after the Christ had spoken of John the Baptist, giving the crowds a reprimand for failing to see a prophet, and subsequently, a messiah standing before them. Simon invited Jesus to his home for a meal, it would seem, to vet his holiness – to test the claims of some as to his divinity and holiness. Being a Pharisee (from the Hebrew pārūš), Simon was expected to be separate from the rest of sinful society, and to maintain a distinct position of perceived holiness as example to others in Jewish society. Simon would’ve also been responsible to dissuade others from following those deemed to be false prophets. It was on this premise we assume Christ reclined at Simon’s table.
In the 36th verse of the 7th chapter, we read about an unexpected, and unwelcome, visitor arriving at Simon’s home. This nameless visitor was known about the region as a “sinful woman.” Although her specific “sin” was not mentioned in the text, the assumption is commonly held that she was a prostitute. Regardless of what life circumstances or personal choices had made her the recipient of that title, to say Simon was horrified at her appearance at his home would be an understatement. To suggest that the nameless sinner woman was horrified at walking into a Pharisee’s home to see the man called “messiah” would be a more drastic understatement than the first.
Despite her fear of rejection, the unnammed sinful woman goes into the home, and immediately kneels at Jesus’ feet, breaking open an alabaster jar of aromatic ointment and anointing his feet.
The story continues on with Jesus addressing Simon, chastising him in the form of a parable both for his disdain of this woman, and his doubt that Jesus was who he claimed to be. Of course the point of the story is that with great forgiveness comes great love, and with great love comes great sacrifice and devotion. The woman, however, and her significance are often over-looked in favor of “the point.”
In Luke, chapter 8, we see a story of Jesus and another unnamed woman. Much like the Unnamed Sinful Woman in Luke 7, the Unnamed Woman in Chapter 8 was an outcast. Although the reasons for her sequestration and ostracization were for different reasons, the result was the same. Nobody wanted to see her coming.
The woman in Luke 8 was a woman that had, for 12 long years, suffered a bleeding disorder. The text does not specify the type of bleeding she’d suffered, but the word used in the Septuagint in this story is the same as the one used to indicate menstrual flow. So, it can be rationally inferred that she suffered a painful and long-term gynocological disorder. Any woman that’s suffered through a particularly difficult menstrual blood flow, or post-partum bleeding will understand the pain, weakness and utter fatigue this woman had suffered for 12 years. There are a number of causes for such a traumatic issue, none of which are good. Some gynocologists have gone so far to suggest she may have suffered from a type of uterine cancer.
She was weak, she was alone, she was desperate, and she had heard Jesus was coming around. So, the Unnamed Sick Woman found what was left of her strength and courage and went to find him, hoping maybe he’d be able to heal her. As the story goes, she pressed in to the crowd and made a final desperate reach to touch the hem of Christ’s garment, believing that simply touching his garment would render her healed.
She was not wrong. She was healed. Twelve years of misery gone with one glancing grasp at Jesus’ clothing as he passed. Yet, like the Unnamed Sinful Woman, the significance of the Unnamed Sick Woman and her act of simply touching are often cast aside in order to quickly reach the parabolist’s point of the story.
We, as women of Christian faith, do ourselves and our daily practice a great disservice if we do not forgo the point of the story for a moment, focusing instead on the players. These two women, on the surface, appear to be polar opposites, and their need for and interaction with Jesus as opposite as they are themselves.
Let us take a moment, though, to reevaluate what we know about these two women.
The Nameless Sinful Woman came to Jesus as a sinner. She was not simply named or called such by those around her. She was someone whose actions and behaviors dictated a sinful state, and she knew it as well as the rest of the community did, and as such, she was separated from the community, kept apart for the sake of holiness. The Nameless Sick Woman was not a sinner, but was, by Mosaic law and societal practice, “unclean.” She was ceremonially separate from her loved ones and her community. She, too, was kept separate for the sake of holiness.
We do not know the cause of their “ailments” (one of the body and one the soul). Perhaps the Sinful Woman was forced into her lifestyle by a need to survive – unable to live in a society that was not friendly to women who were without husbands or fathers. Or, perhaps she chose her sins, and faced with Jesus, realized she needed to be set free. Perhaps the Sick Woman suffered an ailment that the doctors of the time had not knowledge to diagnose or treat. The reasons for their ostracization make no difference when considering their place in their communities. Both women were alone, shunned, looked down upon, and avoided.
Think for a moment about what it meant to be the Nameless Sinful Woman, arriving at the house of Simon the Pharisee (a man known for his appearance of holiness), carrying only an alabaster jar of your most expensive perfume and the hope you might be allowed to see Jesus – a man who may be the messiah, that, if he is, is the only one that can set you free from your sin, your shame, and your lot in the community. She’s known to everyone, so there is no arriving unnoticed. She swallows the nervous lump in her throat and ventures into the common room where the meal is being served. She stands, frightened and skittish, as she looks to the man she hopes will set her free. She averts her eyes, looking down to avoid the disbelieving and disapproving glares as she approaches the Christ, and as she does, she sees that the Pharisee has failed to wash His feet. A common and expected practice when bringing a guest into the home has been either avoided by intent or accident, and she sees her opportunity.
She falls to the ground, grasping his feet in her hands and she weeps. She weeps for missed opportunities. She weeps because, despite her profession, she is profoundly lonely. She weeps for her destroyed reputation. She weeps for hope lost, and, now, hope found. As she weeps, the tears fall on the dirty feet. Streaked tears across the feet of He who carries the good news begin to wash away the dust of the day. She cleanses his feet, kissing them repeatedly, and wiping away the dirt and grief with her hair. A woman’s hair was her glory. It was left uncovered as a woman searched for a mate, but once becoming a wife, it was covered – exposed only to the one man with whom both her body and soul would have been united. The hair was the premier jewel in the crown of beauty that was woman, and the Nameless Sinner used it to clean the dusty feet of the Messiah. She wiped the feet clean, and opened an alabaster jar. From the jar she dumped all of the perfumed ointment it held onto the now clean feet of Jesus. She anointed his feet.
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation… (Isaiah 52:7)
The perfumed ointment was likely worth nearly a year’s earnings. The only thing the Nameless Sinner believed she had to offer her Hope, her Messiah, was her anointing oil, and her hair. So offer them she did, and it doing so she violated nearly all of the social and religious mores of the time. She had done what the Pharisee should have – washed His feet, greeted Him with kisses, and anointing Him with precious perfumed oil.
Perhaps she felt as if the value of her offering was in the value of the perfume, or in the use of her hair, but Jesus made it quite clear: The significance of this woman, and of her offerings, was not in their value – but rather in her humble brokenness. She poured out herself as she poured out her tears and perfume. She shed her shame and ego when she shed her tears. She cleansed her soul as she cleansed her feet with her hair.
As she sat at his feet, her face doused with tears, and her eyes reddened, her hair dirtied now with the dust from his feet, He looked down at her. As the fragrance of the perfume rose to fill the room, He did not chastise her, or dredge up her sins. He gently spoke the words that broke all her bonds, “Your sins are forgiven. Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”
As we did with the Nameless Sinner, let us take a moment to think for about what it must have meant to have been the Nameless Sick Woman. Mosaic and societal laws were very strict when it came to a woman bodily functions. To simply let nature take its course meant segregation. The woman was not to touch another human being, or to prepare their food. She was not to be present in congregational or communal worship. She was alone. To touch another was to make them unclean. To sit at their table was to make the place she sat unclean. To prepare their food, was to make it unclean. It does not say if she was married, or a mother. Although after 12 years of “uncleanness” it’s likely that whatever semblance of matrimony or motherhood she had, was now gone. She was utterly alone.
In addition to being completely alone, she was sick. Very sick. Her condition was painful. She was severely weakened and feeble. To go to see Jesus would’ve likely been her last hope, so she gathered all her strength and all her courage to venture out and seek Him.
She sought, and she found. Jesus stood, speaking with a man who begged for him to heal his daughter – a 12-year-old girl on her deathbed. The Nameless Woman had been sick as long as Jarius’ daughter had been alive. Surely the young woman deserved the attentions of the Messiah more than herself, she must’ve thought. But, healing is so close, and Jesus is so powerful, that perhaps just to touch him would give her relief.
In a final, weakened prayer for healing, she mustered all her strength and touched his garment. Trembling arms and fingers stretched, amid glimpses of disgust from bystanders, and she brushed the hem of his cloak.
Immediately, she felt a change in her body. But there would be no quiet miracles for the Nameless Sick that day. Jesus stopped, and he called out. “Who touched me?” Everyone had been touching Jesus that day, pressing in on every side, but there was something different about the Sick Woman’s touch. It was a touch ladened with sorrow, yet hope. It was a touch heavy with purpose and thick with faith and promise. It was not the touch of the crowd, but a touch of despair that begged to be heeded.
The Nameless Sick Woman shook. Her frail and weakened body had been healed, but it was now full of a nervousness. Jesus knew who had touched him, certainly. Yet, he’d called out, specifically calling attention to the fact that someone had reached for His healing touch, and now she was faced with the realization that the crowd would see her. They would know she’d been amongst them, ritually unclean. She swallowed hard and took a deep breath as she stepped toward her Healer. She fell at His feet and declared she’d touched Him, and that His touch alone had healed her.
Jesus did not chastise her for her breaking of Mosaic law in coming to Him. He did not shame her for secretly touching his garment. He simply spoke, gently, and said “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.”
Daughter. She had been alone for so very long. Despised, avoided and “contaminated,” and Jesus called her “Daughter.” She was alone no longer.
Think for a moment about Jesus’ response to these two Nameless and Forgotten Women.
Both are given exactly what they needed – One forgiveness, the other healing – and then they are given the greatest gift of all: Peace. He tells both of these women who have been forgotten and unloved for so long that He knows them, He loves them, and He gives them Peace.
What does it mean for us, as Women of Faith, to consider these two Nameless Daughters of God?
First it should remind us that no one is nameless before the Messiah. He knows all our names. He knows our sins and diseases and shortcomings. We are never nameless.
Secondly, it should remind us that no others are nameless in His kingdom. The saint, the whore, the homeless… None are unknown to Him, and as such, they are our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Finally, it should give us the comfort of knowing that we, too, can “go in peace.” He knows our names.
Precious Jesus, lover of my soul. Thank you that I am never forgotten. I am never taken for granted. I am never nameless. Grant me the ability to go forward today in Your perfect peace, spreading it to all I meet. May I never see another human being without seeing them as You do – loved, named with purpose, blessed with peace. Make me an instrument of that love, and that peace. Amen.