The reading for the sermon last week was originally supposed to start in Mark 6:53, telling the story of Jesus healing. Here’s the passage:
When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored to the shore. And when they got out of the boat, the people immediately recognized him and ran about the whole region and began to bring the sick people on their beds to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he came, in villages, cities, or countryside, they laid the sick in the marketplaces and implored him that they might touch even the fringe of his garment. And as many as touched it were made well. Mark 6:53-56
I wanted to include this in the sermon because it sets the stage for all the talk about purity that follows. Mark sets up the whole sequence by retelling a common situation that Jesus seemed to encounter all the time – people crowding around him and touching him. This is the element of the incarnation that I love so dearly. In Christ, God is showing up in people’s neighborhoods and people recognize him. And people draw near, reach out and touch him. Isn’t that amazing.
A touch – a hug or a simple touch on the arm can make all the difference. But in a crowd, overwhelmed, uncontrolled, touch can be exhausting even frightening. And Jesus wades in, exposing himself to the unfiltered touch of humanity.
And Mark finishes the story by saying that everyone wanted to touch the ‘fringe of his garment’. Then he drops this final comment – “and as many as touched it were made well.”
In this tiny little expression, Mark is dropping a major hint to his readers abut who Jesus is. The ‘fringe’ of Jesus garment almost certainly refers to the tassles or border on Jesus’ prayer shawl – the greek word is kraspedon which usually refers to the traditional and symbolic fringes that rabbis and observant Jews would wear to keep the spirit of the law as laid out in Number 15:37. And the word for tassle or border on a garment in Hebrew is kanaph. This word also means ‘wings’, as in wings of a bird.
And one of the later prophets in the Hebrew Bible, Malachi, the very last book in what we call the Old Testament, speaks at length about the coming Messiah. In chapter 4:2, he says that;
But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings.
That is, there will be healing in his kanaph, in the tassles of his garments. This is what people are reaching out to touch – the healing wings of the Messiah who has drawn near to them. Healing comes through the physical touch of the Messiah, not through staying pure and untouched.