One of Jesus' miracles was the healing of a woman whose 12-year bloody issue was not only a source of social disgrace but also a sign of the curse of barrenness and physical powerlessness. Having used all her money to seek a cure, and full of shame, she made a bold move, pressing through a crowd to get to Jesus. Too embarrassed to ask for a miracle, she hoped to touch the hem of his garment, believing she would be healed.
Jesus immediately turned around, asking, "Who touched me?" His disciples were puzzled. So many people pressed against him that to identify any particular person would be impossible. But Jesus called the woman to disclose her faith and shed her shame. "Daughter, be of good cheer," he said. "Your faith has made you well. Go in peace." In contrast to that society's belief, in every case where Jesus touched outcasts, instead of being defiled himself, their wholeness was restored (Luke 8:43-48). Redemption, in other words, was to take place in our bodies, through the body of Jesus.
In Jesus' ministry we see a new paradigm: in a society where pious Jews thanked God that they were not born women, Jesus included women; some supported him financially out of their own means (Luke 8:2-3). In first-century Palestine women were considered unworthy and were not allowed to study the Hebrew Scriptures or speak in the synagogue. By calling a woman "daughter of Abraham," Jesus affirmed the full participation of all women in the sacred community (Luke 13:16). His friendships included Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany, and Martha. His teachings included feminine images, showing regard for women as representatives of the acts of God. Jesus broke with tradition and included women among this theological students, refusing to reduce them to mothers, cooks, or seductresses. He was unconcerned that they would taint his reputation.
Women were highly affected by both the rules regarding uncleanness and those governing marriage and divorce. Women, with their monthly discharge and pregnancy, were often "unclean." Nevertheless, Jesus spoke to and touched women instead of regarding their bodies as a problem.
At a time when women bore the brunt of sexual abuse, Jesus also understood the nature of the double standard. As a pacifist and celibate man, he renounced two sources of male pride: aggression and sexual prowess. He pointed out unfair divorce and adultery rules allowing a man to do as he pleased while women were severely punished. He brought into question the viability of men being "wired for lust" and the argument that women are naturally seductresses. He set the sexual standard even higher, condemning the objectification of women. His relationships with women overthrew the gender power balance.
Jesus' understanding of the social meaning of women's bodies is reflected in one of the most sensual scenes in the Gospel. Jesus was known to dine with those of less than stellar reputatios, but one dinner party was different. Jesus was a guest at a spread that was most surely a Middle Eastern feast--lamb, barley bread, figs, olives, honey cakes, and wine. As a form of charity, the poor would be allowed to visit such a banquet, receive some of the leftovers, and listen to the conversation. It is easy to imagine a lamp-lit room, music, reclining guests at a sumptuous table, good conversation, and an uninvited woman in the crowd. She was a woman known to have a questionable reputation, probably sexual in nature. She was the local bad girl.
Obviously desperate to get to Jesus, this woman crashed the party. She went to where Jesus was reclining and began pouring costly perfumed oil from an alabaster jar onto his feet. Mingled with it were her own tears. In a scandalous act, she loosened her long hair and began to use it to wipe Jesus' feet. Showering his feet with kisses, she placed herself in a public position of emotional and physical vulnerability.
As the fragrance of the oil filled the room, the host thought, If Jesus were a prophet, surely he would reject the woman and turn her away. But Jesus knew the man's thoughts. In the ensuing conversation, he compared the woman with someone in need of forgiveness. He told the host that because she had been forgiven generously she loved generously. And Jesus pointed out that the self-righteous host greeted him with no kiss, no oil for anointing the head, and no washing of his feet-all common acts of hospitality (Luke 7:36-50).
In this social setting, Jesus did not reduce the woman to her past or to her sex. Instead he simply said, "Your sins are forgiven..Your faith has saved you. Go in peace." He saw the entirety of her life. He offered embracing love. She was no longer trapped in her social experience. Jesus provides a way to escape the confinement of her reputation and a way back into the community. She moved from a woman lacking integrity to a woman whose very acts reflect profound love.