January 11, 2013
Dear brothers and sisters,
I have been tied up with a client engagement the last two days. It’s good to reflect on the good news for today from Luke 5:12-16.
Now there was a man full of leprosy in one of the towns where he was; and when he saw Jesus, he fell prostrate, pleaded with him, and said, “Lord, if you wish, you can make me clean.” Jesus stretched out his hand, touched him, and said, “I do will it.” And the leprosy left him immediately. Then he ordered him not to tell anyone, but “Go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed; that will be proof for them.” The report about him spread all the more, and great crowds assembled to listen to him and to be cured of their ailments, but he would withdraw to deserted places to pray.
The entire 13th and 14th chapters of Leviticus deal solely with leprosy. It was obviously serious business. A person who was diagnosed by a priest to have leprosy was declared unclean. He or she must go about crying, “Unclean, unclean” so as to warn others and must take up dwelling outside of the community. Lepers were banished, isolated, bereft of human contact. As Barclay writes, “[T]he psychological consequences of leprosy were as serious as the physical….The leper was hated by others until he came to hate himself.” If a person was healed, there was an elaborate purification ritual proscribed and performed by a priest as atonement.
Mark notes that Jesus was moved by pity to cure the leper but was stern with him in telling him to not tell anyone. Luke chose to emphasize the power of Jesus’ will and word. So what Jesus did in touching the leper was anathema. He broke the rules. Barclay states, “[I]t is of the very essence of Christianity to touch the untouchable, to love the unlovable, to forgive the unforgivable. Jesus did — and so must we.”
I believe that, but I have a hard time living it. It is very nearly impossible for me to touch someone whose condition is repulsive to me. It takes all I my will and a kind of little prayer in telling myself, “I can do this.” The human touch in itself is healing. It lets me know that I am human, that someone cares about me. I try to keep that in mind when I encounter someone who aches to be touched, to be accepted as they are. Sometimes when I go to the hospital to give communion to the sick and sometimes dying, I have to go through this same ritual, to overcome my own queasiness, to be stern in telling myself to get over myself. Sometimes a patient will let me know that I am a greater gift to them that day than the eucharist. Sometimes a patient is so lonely and so tired of being pricked and prodded but not touched compassionately, not having their hand held, that there is a kind of desperation in their face. They are so grateful for a little companionship, for a little sign that someone is interested in them, that it moves me to pity and enables me to stretch out my hand and touch them. That’s when I know that I’m being used, that it is Jesus touching them, not me. Even though I have those experiences every so often, I still go through the same struggle to get over my reluctance to reach out and touch someone, to be caring and compassionate to another human being.
Jesus knew the rules, but his heart ruled instead. He simply loved people and showed them. That’s what he expects from me if I’m going to call myself a Christian. Let my heart rule, reach out to others in love — “to touch the untouchable, to love the unlovable, to forgive the unforgivable.” That’s what my faith should be all about. Reach out and touch someone this weekend, especially someone who maybe no one else will touch like the leper in this story.