It could have been a scaly rash on his hand that wouldn’t go away, or an itchy dry spot on his leg. Any change in the appearance of the skin, any blemish, blotch or sore, meant a visit to the priest who would take a look and declare the person unclean, “Stay away from people, don’t touch anyone or anything, and come back in a week.”
Seven days later the priest would take another look, and if the spot had healed or shrunk, he would declare the person clean. But if the spot was still there or had grown larger, the purity code was clear: You had to be isolated. You had to wear torn clothing and let your hair go unkempt; whenever you encountered people, you had to cover your mouth and cry, “Unclean, unclean,” to warn them of your presence; you had to live alone, banished from the community, in a hut or a cave in the wilderness, or in one of the empty graves on the edge of town.
The tragedy was that you may not have been very sick physically, but in terms of human social intercourse your life was over. You were dead. You would not be touched by anyone again – not your wife or your husband, not your children or your parents, not your best friend, not even the stranger on the sidewalk whose hand brushes against yours in passing. You were untouchable, for even if your skin condition wasn’t contagious, your unclean status was. Whoever touched you or was touched by you crossed the line from life in community to almost complete social isolation.
Given that cultural context, it is remarkable that the man in our story had the audacity to approach Jesus without shouting, “Unclean, unclean.” Perhaps word had spread among the untouchables that Jesus taught with authority and drove out demons. Perhaps it wasn’t desperation that drove the man to ignore the law, but hope: if this Jesus could heal the sick and command demons into obedience, he could also bring wholeness to entire communities, and bring back to life those who had been banished and excluded from it.
Now when he came to Jesus he didn’t say, “Take care of this nasty rash for me, will you?” He didn’t ask for treatment for his skin condition. He declared that Jesus had the power to restore him to life, and dared him to do it, “If you choose, you can make me clean.”
And Jesus, moved with compassion, stretched out his hand – across the vast divide that separates unclean from clean, profane from holy, life in fullness from an existence in empty tombs – Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him. Touched his hands, pushed back the torn rags and touched his arms, touched his face, reached around his shoulders and held him, the Holy One of God holding a human being who had been excluded from all things human, a human being who could barely remember what life was.
“I do choose. Be made clean,” and it was so.
Are you holding your breath? You should, because Jesus just rendered the entire purity code obsolete. An entire system, carefully built to protect the holy by defining and excluding the unclean and profane – the entire system is suddenly out-of-date. Holiness no longer needs protection from the polluting potential of blemishes, irregularities and other imperfections, because the Holy One of God is playing offense, taking life in fullness that is contagious and unstoppable deep into the opponents’ territory.
Jesus hugs the leper and declares, “You’re in. You belong.”
According to the code, Jesus now is unclean. According to the code, Jesus now bears the man’s condition and belongs outside the camp. Jesus brings life, but that very act pushes him one step closer to isolation, one step closer to the empty tomb on the edge of town. The man deprived of life in fullness and the One who embodies it, are trading places.
If you want to protect orderly life by excluding the irregular, difference on the surface becomes a prime target. Pimples, blotches, blemishes – the trouble with skin conditions is their visibility. Visible difference makes social exclusion so easy.
You may laugh or cry at the thought that something as common as a rash could lead to exclusion, but we exclude people for reasons just as laughable or sad all the time. First we determine what’s regular, and then we begin to exclude the irregular. We define what’s normal, and then we push out what’s deviant.
But the truth is, all of us are frail. All of us are wounded. All of us live outside of some carefully maintained circle of insiders. All of us live with the curse of perfection.
The real affliction is under the skin where we hide our failures and our jealousies, our contempt for others and our deceptions. We hide them because we are afraid that once they become visible, no one will want to look at us, let alone touch us anymore.
The good news comes to us in a simple line: “If you choose, you can make me clean,” and Jesus said, “I do choose.”
Jesus has chosen to touch us and declare us clean, and not a single imperfection could keep him away. Now we know that our healing and wholeness are not only our desire, but also God’s will.
“See that you say nothing to anyone,” Jesus sternly warned the man, but he went out and proclaimed it freely. I don’t think he willingly ignored Jesus’ urgent instruction; I’m convinced he couldn’t help it. He had been a dead man walking, and now he was alive – how on earth could he have kept that a secret? Go back and quietly sit in the empty tomb? No way.
The word was out, traveling on the lips of witnesses and in their hands: because now some were no longer afraid to cross lines and touch the untouchables. They were not afraid to walk on the bridge Jesus had built when he reached across the deep divide between God’s holiness and the world disfigured by sin.
Moved with pity, the text says, moved with compassion Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him. Once he’s touched us, we too reach out; moved with compassion, we walk across to the other side and touch those whom life has pushed to the margins.
Amy Gopp, Executive Director of Week of Compassion, reminds us that just this past week there were ice storms in Kentucky, tornadoes in Oklahoma, bushfires in Australia, floods in Costa Rica, continuing violence and suffering in Gaza, Orissa, and Sudan; and just this past week we were able, through Week of Compassion, to respond with gestures of support and solidarity, certainly not meeting all the needs, but letting people know that they are not alone, not forgotten. We call our ministries of disaster response and development Week of Compassion, but we know the real transformation comes from our daily walk of compassion.
Moved with pity, our translation says, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him. Some Bibles, including those in our pews, have a footnote here that says, "Other ancient authorities read anger." What this means is that some of the ancient manuscripts of this gospel contain a different version of this verse, one that reads, “Moved with anger, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him.”
The scholars have been exchanging learned arguments why which version should be preferred as original, and the question is not easily settled. If it was anger, at what or whom was Jesus angry?
Psychiatrist Scott M. Peck tells of a breakfast conversation with his wife during the time Peck was working on a book dealing with evil. Suddenly their young son spoke up saying, “I know what evil is.”
Of course the grown-ups were mildly amused at their child’s naivete, but decided to indulge him for a moment. “What is evil?” his father asked.
“Evil,” responded the boy, “is live spelled backwards.”
His father was impressed enough to write it down. Wisdom from the lips of a child. Evil is whatever gets life backwards, against the will and desire of the creator of life.
So perhaps Jesus was angry that religion could get life backwards with the best of intentions, and that the guardians of God’s holiness could become prison guards of outcasts.
Perhaps he was angry at rules and systems that add to a person’s sickness the additional burdens of exclusion and the pain of isolation.
Perhaps he was angry because we spend so much of our energy on keeping out those who are different, those who don’t measure up to our standards of purity or truth.
Perhaps he was angry because he could already see that his path could only lead to growing conflict with the line drawers and boundary keepers of the world.
I am grateful that we have two traditions of what it was that moved Jesus to stretch out his hand and touch the untouchable – anger and compassion. The two are not mutually exclusive, but go hand in hand. Anger at the powers that get life backwards, and compassion for human beings who in our weakness, fall victim to those powers.
I am grateful that in Jesus Christ the very holiness of God has invaded the unholiest moments in creation, not with coercive force, but with the power to redeem and embrace and restore.
Now the word is out: whomever we consider a threat to the perfect beauty of God’s holiness or the integrity of God’s people, Jesus is not afraid to touch. Whatever we hide from one another with fear and shame, whatever it may be we try so hard to hide even from ourselves, Jesus is not afraid to touch us. No matter how the powers that spell live backwards assail us, Jesus has come to touch us and hold us, and in his embrace our lives become whole.
The word is out: God’s word is not confined to the walls and gates of the boundary keepers; God’s word is free and at work in the world. The word is out through the words and actions of witnesses whose lips and hands proclaim the compassion of God. May we be among them.