And a leper came up to Jesus, kneeling and imploring him. “If you are willing, you can cleanse me.”
Feeling a visceral emotion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched him, saying: “I am willing. Be cleansed.”
And immediately the leprosy left him, and he was cleansed.
In the ancient land of Israel, as in some lands today, there is no group that was more outcaste than the lepers. In Jesus’ day there was no treatment. They lived in dispirited, outcast bands, begging at a distance for food to be left out for them.
Whenever others came near, lepers were compelled to wail: “Unclean! Unclean!” to warn them off. It is hard to imagine a more miserable and hopeless group of outcastes. They were the living who were treated as if dead. In that sense they were the living dead.
To make matters worse, they were commonly reckoned to be justly suffering for their sins. Leprosy was thought to be caused by evil, a disease from hell. The righteous people, who were lucky enough to be healthy, despised the unhealthy as sinners getting their just reward. Lepers were seen as sinners who were abandoned by God to the powers of corruption.
ENTER JESUS OF NAZARETH
Enter the Man from Nazareth. Here was a Person who refused to allow his behavior to be distorted by fear and superstition.
When one leper, made bold by the compassion he had witnessed from afar, dared to come up to Jesus, kneel and beg for help, Jesus was there for him. He did not step back with disgust, but stepped forward and did an amazing thing. “Jesus stretched out his hands and touched him.”
Yes, Jesus actually touched the unclean creature. Touched the fellow with the contagious disease. Touched the untouchable.
Can we even begin to comprehend what it meant for the unclean to be touched by a clean man? To be treated as something worthwhile? To be accepted in spite of the loathsome disease? To receive the touch of this Jesus in whom God was gloriously at work?
I doubt whether most of us, who are used to sharing kisses and hugs, or at least exchanging a friendly handshake, can appreciate the awesome power of that moment when Jesus placed his hands on the leper. The healing that happened was not only physical but also social and spiritual. The leper’s very humanity was being restored.
Jesus confirmed this total restoration by sending the ex-leper
off to fulfill the social and religious obligations. “Go and show yourself to a priest, make the offerings commanded by Moses, that the people may witness the proof of your healing.”
This story should speak powerfully to all those who today are deprived of love and respect. Those who are denied loving human touch. Or those who so despise themselves that they deny themselves the blessing of human touch.
In the film, In the Gloaming, directed by the late Christopher Reeve, a young man suffering from Aids comes back home to die. His mother gladly welcomes him, and his father tries to do so, though very awkwardly. But touch is not happening. The employed nurse, watching the mother hovering over her sleeping son, encourages her to touch him: “It’s okay. You can touch him.” At first she strokes his hair while he sleeps, then graduates to greater physical care for her son. At the end he is able to die with his head on her shoulder. But the father never gets over his inhibitions; he never touches his dying son.
This moving film underscores the way we find it hard, in certain circumstances, to lovingly touch even those of our own household.
THE UNTOCUABALES IN OUR COMMUNITY?
Which causes me to ask the question, who are today‘s untouchables?
I find it a bit disheartening the relative idleness of the church regarding the victims of aids. Are these the modern equivalent of the lepers of Jesus’ day? Do we covertly believe that AIDS is the evil disease visited on those who are worse sinners than we are?
What about illegal immigrants? That stream of people fleeing from poverty and who risk everything to hopefully make it to American soil? Are they numbered among the untouchables?
As Christian people what should are response be to these people seeking a better life?
A similar readiness to consign some groups of people to the ranks of the untouchables pertains to that of drug addicts. Are drug addicts worth our attention? Or are they like lepers in Jesus’ day, better kept out of sight and ignored? Think of the reaction when a church proposes to establish a clean needle exchange.
These programs don’t think they will cure any addict but that maybe they can keep them alive long enough to find their way to a clean life. The typical response seems to be it is better that drug addicts should die than the church be seen to be compromised.
Some would go further. I once heard it suggested that it would be better to round up all the addicts and have them medically executed. “No drug addicts, no sub-culture to tempt new groups of young people into the degradation.”
No addicts, no drug dealers. Swiftly clean our streets of the problem once and for all.
In some ways, that man’s “solution” was at least more honest than those who simply decide to ignore the issue. Looking the other way, keeping Christians hands clean, seems to be a denial of the way of Christ.
Gustavo Gutiérrez is commonly regarded as the founder of liberation Theology. Basically he says if you want to know where God is you will find God at work among the lowliest of the low, with the outcastes of society. Wanting to help with hands-on. The quintessential Christ is there for those who need him most.
Among the rules John Wesley laid down for those who joined his Methodist Society, was this one. “Go not to those who need you, but to those who need you most.”
Here is the critical situation: who among us really wants to reach out their hand with compassion?
Want to? Until we really want to, nothing will ever happen.
See the scene once more: The leper, kneeling in front of Jesus: “If you are willing, you can cleanse me.” & Jesus, reaching out his hand and touching him: “I am willing. Be cleansed.”
This is the crux of the situation the Church finds itself in. We have become a society that is so concerned with our own survival that we struggle to reach out and touch. As Bishop Mike Rinehart of the ELCA Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod says, “The turnaround of the mainline churches will happen when we in those churches care as much about those outside the church, as we do those inside. To embrace relevance, we will have to let go of survival.”
We should be moved, at a visceral level, like Jesus was, to
touch. To touch, the untouchable. To touch, the outsider. To touch, with no regard for ourselves.
This passage is core to who we are called to be as the Church. Jesus was not concerned with just the Jewish folks of his day. He was filled with compassion for all people. He ate dinner with prostitutes and tax collectors. He stood up for adulterers. He touched leapers.
Bishop Rinehart concludes his article, which I will make available, with these words: When we become a church for the world, the outsider, when the pain of staying the same (and dying of irrelevance) for those already here exceeds the pain of changing (and sacrificing old ways) for those not yet here, we will be the church for which God incarnate came to this earth and gave his life.