The disease that people were afraid of in the first century was not malaria, or scarlet fever or polio or the plague. The disease that created the greatest fear in the first century was leprosy. People feared leprosy like our culture is afraid of cancer, heart attacks, or AIDS. A person positively diagnosed with leprosy in Jesus’ day had little to hope for; because it caused blindness, permanent nerve damage, and disfigurement. People could lose the use of their hands or feet, because, over time, the decreased sensation resulted in repeated injuries to and even loss of limbs.
But as tragic as the disease itself, was the false idea that leprosy could be spread by a mere touch. The Law of Moses stipulated that a leper must be quarantined from the rest of society; cut off from family, jobs, synagogue and temple, with no one to help them except, perhaps, another leper. Leviticus 13: 45-46 states that afflicted persons had to wear ripped clothes and keep their hair messy so that others could spot them more easily. They were required to cover their mouths and cry “Unclean! Unclean!” as others approached, for if anyone touched them they too became unclean. All of this is to say that “lepers” were the outsiders, the untouchables, which is the backdrop of Jesus' extraordinary encounter with the man in Luke 5: 12-16:
12 Once, when he was in one of the cities, there was a man covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he bowed with his face to the ground and begged him, "Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean." 13 Then Jesus stretched out his hand, touched him, and said, "I do choose. Be made clean." Immediately the leprosy left him. 14 And he ordered him to tell no one. "Go," he said, "and show yourself to the priest, and, as Moses commanded, make an offering for your cleansing, for a testimony to them." 15 But now more than ever the word about Jesus spread abroad; many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. 16 But he would withdraw to deserted places and pray.
The fact that this man approached Jesus at all is amazing, given the rules that isolated him. Yet, in his brief interaction, we see that Jesus touched those who no one touched, and moved toward those who others were repelled by. So how can we honor our Lord as the “toucher of untouchables” today?
As those who were once outcasts, we can identity with strangers and untouch-ables as Jesus did. (12). The fact that a leper broke all convention to come close to Jesus was already a sign of his desperation. Bowing low with his face to the ground he begged him, “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean!” (12) What was it about Jesus that this man felt the freedom to approach him like this? Obviously he knew that Jesus had the power to heal him, but I believe there was something else…a kindred spirit. He knew in his heart that Jesus could identify with him.
Throughout his ministry, Jesus knew rejection. After all, he was almost thrown over a cliff after his first public sermon, he was maligned by the religious leaders, and then condemned and crucified on a cross. As Isaiah prophesied, the Messiah would be “despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity” (Isaiah 53: 3). Jesus identified with the outcasts not in theory, but as one who was himself rejected and despised. One of the highest principles of the Mosaic Law which Jesus ran a highlighter over was the command to treat others as you would want to be treated (Lev. 19: 33-34). In Ex. 23: 9 we read: “You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt,” and again in Deut. 10:10, “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” I have long thought that Jews and Palestinians, both people of the Book, should sit down and read these verses together…and then pledge to obey God by treating each other as “the stranger” in the land whom God has called them to love. Both peoples have a history of being despised and oppressed by other nations…an experience that God says should inspire them to love.
Paul uses this same language to remind Christians at Ephesus to remember where they came from…that we “who were aliens…and strangers…who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Eph. 2: 12-13). There is therefore no stranger, no matter how strange, that I cannot identify with…because I myself was a stranger and an alien, far from God and without hope in the world because of my sin, until Christ rescued me, and called me to himself. Thanks be to God! But it is not enough to identify with someone…we must next go on to pray for them and show them compassion.
As recipients of God’s grace, we can pray for and show compassion to those who have received little. (13) The first thing Jesus did in response to the man’s request to be healed was to stretch out his hand and touch him (‘hyato means “he grabbed hold of him,” a man who had not felt a human touch since he had become ill. Hear me! If Jesus had backed up ten feet and had only spoken his healing -- it would have been a different miracle! “The whole gospel is in that grasp” Dale Bruner says. So Jesus touched him, but then he said: “I do choose!” He told the man what he needed to know: that he wanted to heal him, that his desire was for him to be whole and healthy once again. Finally, he said: “Be made clean …Immediately the leprosy left him.” The main difference between us and Jesus is that He can choose when and how he wants to heal…we can’t. What we can do is to draw near to those who are hurting. What we can do is offer them the touch of compassion and prayer trusting that he is bringing his healing to their lives through the action of the Holy Spirit, the trials and challenges of life, and their apprenticeship to Him.
One day, as Francis of Assisi was riding on horseback he met a leper. He had always felt an overpowering revulsion when he saw these sufferers, but with great effort he conquered this aversion, dismounted from his horse and, in giving the leper a coin, kissed his hand. The leper then gave him the kiss of peace, after which Francis remounted his horse and rode on his way. Several days later he took a large amount of money to the leper hospital and, gathering all the inmates together, he gave them the money and kissed each of their hands. In the past he could not have touched or even looked at lepers, but when he left them on that day, what had been so horrific to him was transformed into something beautiful. As Jesus’ followers one of our prayers needs to be… “Lord help me to see those who I have formerly despised and feared as those whom you love, whom you have touched, whom you are drawing to yourself, and healing by your grace.”
As Christ’s followers, we can welcome into our community those who He is drawing to himself. (14)
When Jesus said, “Be made clean” he was using a technical term which means “to make ritually acceptable.” After which “he ordered him to ‘Go…and show [himself] to the priest, and as Moses commanded, make an offering for [his] cleansing, for a testimony to them.” Why? Because Jesus not only wanted to heal this man physically, he wanted to mainstream him back into the community from which he had been ostracized. Make no mistake, Jesus had already welcomed him into his circle (when he touched him) but he also wanted to mainstream him into the larger community. Unless the priest declared him ritually clean, he could not rejoin his friends and family or worship in the temple.
Because the Gospels are very specific in naming the outcasts whom Jesus touched…like this leper, or the woman of Samaria, or the tax collectors and prostitutes he spent time with, we must not avoid naming those in our society who Jesus is calling us to move toward with Jesus’ compassion.
- There are the physical lepers: those who suffer from AIDS or other serious diseases, those who may feel ugly or unattractive, or those whose illnesses are so long-lasting that few want to care for them.
- There are the psychological lepers: those with mental illness or psychological disabilities, "about whom others make jokes, but for whom they make no time" (Father Roger Landry).
- There are the economic lepers: the homeless or the destitute poor, those who have been shut off from society and the things most of the rest of us take for granted.
- There are the social lepers: those who have been bullied at school or harassed at work, who live in fear, or who feel completely alone; and those who have felt despised, and misunderstood because of their sexual identity…even to the point of taking their own lives.
- There are the racial lepers: those who are ostracized and excluded, depending upon where they live, because of skin color, ethnic background or immigrant status.
- Then there are the pedophiles, prostitutes, drug addicts, and death-row inmates, those who have committed very public sins, and those who think that their sins can never ever be forgiven.
Our attitude to such persons should be like that of our Lord…who reached out and touched this man, and then healed him. Notice the sequence: Jesus did not choose to heal the man first, and then touch him. No, he touched the man first...and then healed him! That is, he first embraced him and welcomed him...and then he did the healing work that he alone can do. If you think your job is to fix people before they can be part of Jesus' community then you've got it backwards; because it is here in the grace-filled community of his followers that Jesus intends for people to experience acceptance and increasing wholeness, repentance and forgiveness, as His sons and daughters.
As those fearing disapproval we can seek instead God’s approval (15-16). After Jesus healed this man the crowds increased, and “many [gathered] to hear him and to be cured of their diseases” (15). But Luke tells us that Jesus did not remain among these crowds indefinitely but “would withdraw to deserted places and pray” (16). Jesus knew that he must always be focused on the Father’s will…and not the approval of people. He knew that very soon the religious leaders would begin to take offense at him, and even plot his death because of the things he was doing. Instead of being afraid of them, he sought instead to be about the Father’s business. To begin to love the unlovable and touch the untouchable will inevitably bring the scorn of some and the approval of others, but Christ calls us to seek instead His kingdom and His righteousness. In the same way, He invites those who have felt like outcasts to find their identity not in the approval or disapproval of others, but in their new life as His devoted disciples.
I saw a documentary recently about the son of Kirk Smalley, 11 year old Ty, a boy who was repeatedly harassed at school for two years because of his size. I realize “bullying” has become a frequent topic of conversation these days and some may be tired of hearing about it…but I couldn’t ignore this story. When Ty retaliated one day by fighting back he was suspended. That’s when Ty, a week before he was to complete the 6th grade, decided to take his own life. That tragedy changed the course of Kirk’s life. Kirk Smalley’s mission is to go from school to school to tell his son’s story. He calls it “Stand for the Silent.” He reminds students that bystanders witness 85% of the bullying in schools, but only intervene in 10% of the cases. At one point he asked, “How many of you have been bullied?” Many hands went up. Kirk said to them, “I love you. You are somebody.” Then he asked a different question, “How many of you are bullies?” One boy with his head bowed dared to raise his hand in that auditorium,dared to raise his hand before a man whose son lost all hope because of a bully like him. Kirk looked at him in the eyes, and then said, “I love you. You are somebody.” I think Kirk knew that more than anything, that’s the message that boy and all those children, needed to hear.
When you and I say, “I love you, I welcome you, and I invite you to join me in following Jesus” it makes God’s love real, even to someone who has felt abandoned by God and by others…because it is the power of God’s grace and the message of his forgiveness that we need most. It is the love of God that is able to draw us away from self-hatred and despair; and give us courage to love ourselves, love the unloved, and touch the untouchable. Here and now, our Lord who knew what it was to be “despised and rejected by others” invites us to receive the signs of his sacrifice for our sin and shame, and the power to touch others, no matter how untouchable, as he has touched us.
Lamb of God, as You have loved us, so may we love one another - especially those who feel forsaken, outcast, or oppressed by others. By the power of Your Holy Spirit, we want to bless those who bear the burden of loneliness, grief, affliction, or unconfessed sin, who are tired of praying, asking, or waiting. May they know by our love that You have not forgotten them, that You are compassionate and gracious, and that they can come to You confidently. As You reached out to touch the man with leprosy, help us to draw near to those who hurt with Your healing hands…hands that were stretched out upon the cross to bear our sin and shame, to take up our infirmities, and to carry our sorrows (Isaiah 53). Amen!