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The Missing Piece in a Gospel Music Classic

The Missing Piece in a Gospel Music Classic August 10, 2021

Sam Cooke’s “Touch the Hem of His Garment” retells a famous Bible story – but with one significant omission.

That’s why it’s so powerful.

This classic 1956 song appears on a recording by the Soul Stirrers. Written several years before he “crossed over” to secular pop music, releasing romantic classics like “You Send Me” and “Wonderful World”, this great song is much more than just a musical version of a familiar story.

Listen to the song here.

Here is the passage on which the song is based:

And, behold, a woman, which was diseased with an issue of blood twelve years, came behind him, and touched the hem of his garment: For she said within herself, If I may but touch his garment, I shall be whole. But Jesus turned him about, and when he saw her, he said, Daughter, be of good comfort; thy faith hath made thee whole. And the woman was made whole from that hour.  -Matthew 9:20-22 (KJV)

The lyrics of the song stick close to the original narrative. They don’t add anything. But they do leave something out, something that might seem to be the most crucial element of the story, even its whole point:

Jesus’s miraculous act of healing.

The Paradox

That’s right. The song ends before the climactic resolution of the story. It ends with the woman still crying out to Jesus for help. She is not yet made whole. She is still suffering from her illness, probably standing there with her hand clutching firmly onto the hem of Jesus’s garment, desperately clinging to hope. In the song she is frozen in time, never receiving the deliverance that she had craved for so long. No matter how often we hear it, she never receives healing.

Yet this song is not a perversion of the Bible story. Instead, it is a powerful demonstration of what true faith is. Paradoxically, I’ve come to realize that the absence of the woman’s healing is precisely what makes it so illuminating.

The Song

Here’s how it works.

In the verse, Cooke lays out the story. There was a woman who had been sick for years. When she heard that Jesus was passing by, she joined the crowd, pushing her way toward him. Then someone asks her what she is doing.

This question allows the woman to speak for herself, and she does so in the next section of the song, the chorus. As Cooke channels the woman his vocal delivery becomes much more expressive. His voice swoops up and down, and he adds some “grain” to his vocal timbre – that somewhat gravelly sound that signals intense expression in many African-American vocal traditions. In addition, he moves beyond the lyrics of the song, filling the texture with the woman’s wordless cry, “O Lord.” (We might hear echoes hear of the psalms of lament, many of which begin with this very phrase.)

Returning to his role as narrator, Cooke continues the story in the next verse.  The woman had spent years consulting doctors, spending all of her money, but to no avail.  Finally, he describes the woman actually reaching out to touch Jesus. Though Jesus doesn’t see her, he feels her touch and whirls around.  The song then moves to the chorus again, and the woman repeats what she had said before: “If I could just touch the hem of his garment, I know I’ll be made whole right now.”

Then the song ends. The healing never comes.

This is a fascinating artistic decision on Cooke’s part. Why not include the “happy ending?” Isn’t the point of the story to show Jesus’s miraculous power?  Or that he is different all the other prophets who came before him? Or that he cares for the poor and the sick more than the Pharisees or Romans?

Your Faith Has Healed You

Well, no. None of those is the point of the story. Here is what the Bible says happens next:

 But Jesus turned him about, and when he saw her, he said, Daughter, be of good comfort; thy faith hath made thee whole. And the woman was made whole from that hour. (Matt 9:22, KJV)

That’s right: it is her faith that has made her whole. Not Jesus’s power, at least not directly. He doesn’t spit on some dirt to make a miraculous compote. He doesn’t cast out a demon. He doesn’t dramatically call forth a dead man from a tomb.  No, it was the woman’s iron grip on hope – a hope that she would not let go of – that ultimately healed her.

I think this is why Sam Cooke’s song has held such spiritual and even theological power for me.

By not including the actual healing in his song, Cooke focuses our attention on the faith of the woman, and in doing so he shows us what real faith is: a hope that persists – and that does not depend upon receiving what you ask for.  Cooke’s song freezes the woman at the very moment when her faith is most apparent and most powerful: before she gets what she so desperately wants.

Like the Israelite people as a whole, the woman held onto a faith in the possibility of deliverance, based upon the belief in a God who is fundamentally faithful in nature, a God who keeps his promises – no matter what the past or present may say.  Even when everything else has failed, when the present situation holds seems grim, she still reaches out. That is real faith.

A Faith That Persists

I don’t know why Sam Cooke chose this particularly Bible story to bring to life. (There are certainly many others to choose from.)  And I don’t know why he didn’t include the moment of healing.  But I wonder if it has something to do with the way he might have recognized his specific historical situation in this particular story.

In 1954, less than two years year before he wrote this song, the Supreme Court had struck down the specious “separate but equal” doctrine regarding public education. One year earlier saw the Montgomery Bus Boycott, kicked off by Rosa Parks, another faithful woman whose cry for deliverance became legendary.

In retrospect we see these events as the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, an example of Martin Luther King’s claim that the “moral arc of the universe bends toward justice.”But in 1956, it’s hard to imagine that Sam Cooke had anything more than faith and hope for the deliverance of Black people in America.  Nonetheless, the man who would later bring us the greatest of all Civil Rights Era songs, “Change is Gonna Come”, certainly knew what it felt like to cry to God faithfully for deliverance, and to keep raising one’s voice despite the testimony of the past or even the present.

This song allows Cooke to bring to life a Biblical character who manifested the kind of faith that was familiar to him and his brethren – even, I might say, the only kind of faith that he knew: a faith that persists despite the realities of the past and present, a hope that is based solely on the knowledge of the faithfulness of God. Which is enough. Faith doesn’t need to be more. If it does, it is not faith.

Maybe this is why Cooke chose this story, and why he did not include the moment of healing in the song. Maybe, in 1956, he could not bring himself to sing a song in which a faithful person receives immediate deliverance. But that did not keep him from creating a song about faithfulness and hope that can teach us much today.

Faithfulness Today

Today, many Christians today looks for signs, or messages, or proof that God is hearing our prayers. Yet this song provides a powerful example of what real faith is: a hope based on the knowledge that in God is a God who keeps his promises – even when we don’t get what we want.

This ought to give us great comfort. It ought to keep us from losing the hope that is so crucial if we are to work for justice and peace in this world. And it ought to keep us focused on the eternal story in which we are invited to participate, a story in which justice, mercy, and peace are destined to defeat death, sin, and hopelessness.

This can give us some much-needed perspective, and it can also help encourage us in our faith. If we don’t get what we want, or need, right here and right now, that in no way means that God is not faithful. It doesn’t mean that we don’t have enough faith, It doesn’t mean that God is not listening, or that God is not there.  It just means that we need to keep reaching out, just like the woman in Matthew’s gospel.

No matter what individual or global challenges were are facing, from addiction to depression to climate change to racial violence, this song can remind us that real faith does not depend on God giving us what we need. It depends on our belief that God is a faithful God. It reminds us that all we need to do is hold onto our faith, and that – somehow, in some way, even if we don’t understand it – that faith will make us whole.

Jesus held onto this hope as he faced the cross. So did his followers, even the ones who never saw his resurrected body.  As Christians today, we need to follow Jesus’s example. We need to walk in his steps, living lives dedicated to justice and never giving up hope. This is the kind of faith is central to the Good News of our faith, and it is our job as Christians to live as if we believe it.

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