The Touch

A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter. Mark 1:40-45

We have heard the story of the leper Jesus healed many times. The leper was pretty bold to approach Jesus as he did. The Bible says that Jesus was surrounded by crowds, and lepers were required by Jewish law to stay away from people. In order for the leper to draw close enough to Jesus to engage in conversation, he would have necessarily forced his way through a crowd. Lepers were required to shout out “unclean, unclean” when anyone came near, so he must have been warning everyone, even as he kept walking toward Jesus. Can you imagine how you would feel if you heard this sound, then looked over your shoulder and saw a hideous leper coming toward you? They were not supposed to do that!

People must have backed away from the leper and stepped aside to avoid any contact. A path would have opened up whether or not anyone wanted the leper to get close. His disease was so dreaded, and the consequences of ritual uncleanness were so dire, that nobody wanted to touch or be touched by him. In a different story, friends wanted to bring a crippled man to Jesus, but nobody made space for them; they had to go up and tear the roof apart in order for him to get close to Jesus. But it was different with leprosy. Everyone was terrified by lepers. Nobody even wanted to breathe the same air as a leper. When the leper came close to Jesus, everyone else would have pulled away to give him plenty of room.

I remember seeing a series of photographs of a petri dish on which a bacteria culture had been grown. After they grew the bacteria, they injected a penicillin mold culture in the center of the dish. I think it only took one day for the penicillin culture to kill the bacteria culture so that a ring of dead bacteria formed around the penicillin. The penicillin culture appeared to have a halo, formed by the space between that culture and the bacteria fighting for its life at the edge of the dish. The space around the leper that crowded in to see Jesus probably looked a lot like that penicillin halo in the petri dish.

I doubt people then were very different from people today. There is no evidence people have changed much in all of human history. They would have been angry. Not only did he take the place of numerous people who had thought they had advantageous spots near the famous rabbi, but their places were taken by a vile, filthy, leper. He had no right to be there. They were surely shouting, even screaming at him to go away, to get out of the way, to take his unclean self back to wherever he came from. Nobody was pushing him, however. Nobody, nobody would touch this man.

I wonder how long it had been since anyone touched him. Students of mental health say that human beings need to be touched. Newborn babies fail to thrive if they are not touched. Elderly people wither away if they are not touched. People need the connection with other people that is created by human touch. Doctors and nurses know that simply laying a hand on the arm of an anxious patient can help reduce that anxiety. Touch creates and builds important bonds in our relationships with family and friends. When we are deprived of touch, our bodies crave it the way they crave food. Human beings need to be touched, and this leper would have been suffering from serious sensual starvation.

This is why the apex of this story is not really the moment in which the leper’s disease disappeared. The real climax of the story is the moment Jesus touched the leper.

The leper was so bold. It was no doubt boldness born of desperation, but the fact is that there were many lepers, but only one pushed in close to Jesus and asked for healing. He spoke out of almost faith. He said, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” A lot of people say similar words accusingly. They say, “God could end wars if he wanted to.” Or they say, “God could stop cancer if he wanted to.” Their words that hint at faith are actually scornful accusations that God has failed them. He has his nerve claiming to be omnipotent while evil continues to hurt people. I don’t hear scorn or accusation in the leper’s words, but I do hear hesitation. He didn’t simply assert that he knew Jesus had the power to heal him. He had pushed close to Jesus physically, but his faith was still at the outskirts of the crowd, peering in, waiting to be invited. “If you choose…” he said.

It was this fearful, tentative, barely living faith that moved Jesus to compassion. What a great word, compassion. I like this word better than the NRSV’s choice of pity. The word compassion conveys Christ’s empathy with this man who wanted so much to be healed and who wanted so much to believe that he could be healed. Jesus felt the loneliness and fear and faintly breathing hope in the heart of this man so disconnected from humankind by his disease that he had a halo of empty space around him where he stood in front of all the people he had displaced despite his fear that maybe Jesus would not think he deserved to be healed. Jesus felt what the leper felt. That is what compassion does. He felt the misery of never being touched that only compounded the misery of the disease. Jesus had compassion for the man before he even worried about the disease. Jesus reached toward the man, and you can just imagine the communal gasp before his hand ever reached the man’s skin. Jesus would dare to touch a leper? Jesus would dare to become ritually unclean just to be nice to a leper?

Jesus touched the leper.

Only after the leper had a moment to savor a loving human touch that quieted his fears and confirmed his faith did Jesus say the important words, “I do choose. Be made clean!” A sentence worse than death was reversed and the leper was healed.

There is more to the story, but nothing compares with the moment that the savior of the world reached out in compassion to touch an outcast. We read that Jesus took on our humanity by being born in the flesh. We read that he accepted our limitations and endured our pain. But I think few stories about him make this clearer than this moment when he shared the full human anguish of that miserable, reviled leper. After all, until Jesus spoke, nobody, including the leper, knew that Jesus would actually heal him. Jesus felt the deep need of this man for God’s love and human love and acceptance and relationship. He knew how very lonely the man was. When friends dropped a crippled man at Jesus’ feet because they hoped for a cure, Jesus astounded everyone by saying, “Your sins are forgiven,” something that had nothing to do with making the cripple walk, because Jesus had compassion and knew what that man needed even more than he needed to walk. When a wretched, desperate leper pushed his way into Jesus’ presence, Jesus knew that he needed to feel human even more than he needed to feel free of leprosy. Jesus responded to the greatest need first.

I don’t know anyone who can heal a leper by saying, “Be made clean.” I can’t do it, either. But any of us can show compassion. There are lots of people who need to be touched. There are lots of lonely people. There are lots of people who think nobody cares what becomes of them. We may not be able to work any miracle that actually removes the source of misery in their lives, but each of us can show compassion the way Jesus did. There are numerous lessons to be learned from this story, but this is a lesson for every person. Show compassion. Don’t be afraid to be the hand of Jesus that touches someone who doesn’t have the guts and presumption to push his way forward. In the Lord’s Supper, we receive Christ’s body and blood, and this experience makes us truly the body of Christ active in the world. No matter what our failings are, and no matter what our callings are, each of us can be the hand of Christ touching others and sharing the love of Christ wherever we go.