“The Touch of the Lord”
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, September 26, 2021
Reading: Mark 1:40-2:12
Very recently someone sent me a fascinating article from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. They thought that I'd be interested in it because it speaks about the relationship between COVID-19 and one group of people that exist in the world. As I read this report by the special rapporteur, I was metaphorically thrown into the back of my seat. Alice Cruz, UN Special Rapporteur on the elimination of discrimination against persons affected by leprosy and their family members, said a substantive setback was brought on by COVID-19 and 2021 began with concerning trends.
There was around a fifty percent decrease in the diagnosis of new cases, but an increase in the number of people diagnosed with irreversible physical impairments as a result of late diagnosis and well-founded concerns over an increase in transmission rates and new cases among children, who may be more likely to be diagnosed with already irreversible physical impairments. Persons affected by leprosy must be recognised as a severely vulnerable group in relation to COVID-19 vaccination, given that many of them are immunocompromised and multilateral action may be key to saving their lives. Who would think that leprosy is still around and is still so dangerous and prevalent in the world? Or, that COVID-19 would be a threat to people with leprosy?
As I read this report, it was disturbing because there are 200,000 new cases of leprosy every year in the world, predominantly in India, but also in many other countries, and those numbers are rising. The United Nations is concerned about it. Reading this, I felt as if two worlds were colliding in my head. The one world is the world of the Bible, where leprosy is quite prevalent, and the other one is our day and age, where one barely gives it a thought. A collision of two worlds.
I went back into the Bible and read about how they dealt with leprosy and realised not only how prevalent it was, but how pernicious, and how it impacted on the spiritual lives of the people who contracted it. I looked at the Book of Leviticus, Chapter Fourteen, and there are very strict guidelines given to how to deal with lepers. My friends, some of this is going to sound eerily familiar to us now. The first thing they had to do if they were diagnosed with leprosy, was to visit a priest and declared ritually unclean. Then it outlines a complex system to deal with it, such as getting two birds and sacrificing one, mixing the blood of that bird with hyssop and other things, and then sprinkling it on the infected person. They are to wash, shave, and – this sounds amazingly familiar – go into quarantine for seven days.
When they return, they're supposed to shave off all their hair, even their eyebrows, present sacrificial lambs to bring into the holy place under the supervision of the priest, and maybe then, they would be declared ritually clean again. Now, it was an ancient and not very effective way, of dealing with the problem. They knew that some quarantine needed to protect and preserve the community, and that was really the heart of what was going on here. It was a matter of public care, but of course, it was an awkward and antiquated way of dealing with it.
But as I look at the symptoms of leprosy, I realise that because it was so visible, it upset people and they wanted to keep their distance from it. Without sounding overly dramatic, let me just tell you what happens to a leper. When they contract this particular bacterial infection, they have what you call nodular leprosy and the folds of your skin around your eyes, nose, chin, and forehead, start to become disfigured and close up. After a while, your eyes begin to stare, because they do not have their normal movement. As it progresses, you smell, no matter how often you clean yourself. Eventually, your limbs become numb and because you cannot feel things, you injure and damage them, and they are eaten away. It’s a horrible disease, which goes right to the heart of a person’s appearance. It’s visible, it’s vicious, and it’s virulent. So, you can understand why, in biblical times, that they put in place separation between the lepers and people.
Which brings me to our text today. This is what I mean by the colliding of two worlds. When I look at the story of Jesus and the lepers, it astounds me because, contrary to all convention, contrary to the law itself, and even public safety, Jesus goes out of his way to reach out to a leper. The more I read this story, the more I realise that there is much that we learn here, not only about leprosy, but about Jesus. And not only about Jesus, but about God. We find the heart, the convictions of God for human beings and I am amazed at what a few phrases have to say to us. My goodness, my friends, I think this is as relevant today as it was in biblical times.
Let’s start out with one phrase, and it’s the phrase made by the leper: “If you choose, you can cleanse me.” First, the leper must have heard about Jesus. Word must have got out that Jesus was performing healings, and there was another one that followed with the paralytic, which we can look at in another time, maybe in November. But clearly this leper knew that Jesus was someone he could go to. But you notice, he didn’t say, “If you can heal me.” As Fred Craddock rightly points out, the only barrier to him being cleansed in the mind of the leper, was not himself, but Jesus. “If you choose to heal me.” If you make the decision to heal me, then I will be healed. This was an amazing act of faith on the part of the leper.
It probably occurred somewhere around the synagogue, which we looked at a couple of weeks ago, a public place of worship. Lepers would often beg for alms, gifts, but they weren’t allowed into the synagogue, because of the distancing that was required. A leper asking a person who has become notorious for doing great and wonderful things, and hearing the chatter that Jesus was the Messiah, he nevertheless, in faith, went to him. Believe you me, the leper would have known that Jesus had to make a choice, known what this meant for Jesus. He would have understood that by asking Jesus to do this, medically was a threat to Jesus. Jesus could have contracted leprosy just by being in the presence of the leper.
He would also realise, because he had been excluded from worship, excluded from the temple and holy rituals, that Jesus would then be identified with someone who is considered a sinner or an outcast. He would have known that Jesus was sacrificing, in a sense, his own purity. He would have also known that if Jesus did this, according to the traditions of Leviticus, he would have to go into quarantine, and his ministry could be threatened.
I think it is fitting that it’s in Mark. Chapter One, the beginning of the Gospel of Mark, where this story occurs. Very early on, meeting and dealing with a leper, could have derailed the entire ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. So, let’s be clear here; when the leper said, “If you choose,” he knew that Jesus was seriously going to have to make a choice; a choice that could prejudice his ministry. But Jesus’ response is earth-shattering. We are told, he responded with pity from the depth of his being. He responded with compassion, and with extreme care. Jesus did not respond with revulsion, he did not recoil from this person, he did not say, “I'm not going to have anything to do with this person.” He did not back away. He knew that this leper who knelt in front of him was serious, and Jesus, from the depth of his soul, Jesus had compassion upon this leper.
Here we get to the heart of this story. It was an outreach from God to the weakest and most vulnerable in society. Now, I know that there are many arguments made these days for the existence of God, and there is a big debate between Christians and believers, and atheists. I must say, I was recently sent a piece by Lee Strobel, who is the great Christian writer, known for becoming a Christian after having been an atheist. I must say, it really shook me. Strobel said the following: “To continue in atheism, I would need to believe that nothing produces everything, non-life produces life, randomness produces finetuning, chaos produces information, unconsciousness produces consciousness and non-reason produces reason. I simply didn’t have that much faith.” Fabulous.
You can make all the arguments for the existence of God; apologists can roam the world with strong advocacy for reasonableness of the existence of God, but what about the nature of that God? Where do we find what God is like? We find what God is like in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Here we have God’s Son reaching out to a leper from the depths of his being, from a heart of compassion and of love and of acceptance. Here we find God, not only as a remote idea, contrary to ideas that may obfuscate, or even cause us to question his existence. Here is a God who reveals the very nature of his being. This is what makes this so dramatically powerful. Then the piece de resistance, we read, “Jesus reached out and touched him.” He touched him, the one thing that you would think Jesus should not do, he did. He physically engaged an outcast. He risked his own sense of purity and life for the sake of the leper.
The more I think about that, the radical nature of what Jesus was doing there, the more I realise that touch is important. It’s incredible, is it not, during this pandemic, how many of us have lacked the gift of touch, not able to hug someone, even close to you at times, not able to shake hands or embrace. Touch is important, it means so much.
The great Dr. Baird, who was a health missionary in India, once had an encounter with a leper, and he hugged the leper. The leper recoiled and began to cry, and Dr. Baird said to one of the translators in Tamil, “Why? What have I done wrong?”
He said, “For many years nobody has physically touched him.”
For that leper outside that synagogue with Jesus, to be touched was dramatic. Jesus did it to show the kind of incarnational nature of his ministry. He did not and was not just a spiritual guru or mentor, he was someone who got down into the places of human need, and physically touched. When Jesus did that, it was a foretaste of the sacrament of holy communion, which we’re celebrating next week. Jesus said to those disciples in the Upper Room, “This is My body broken for you.” To that leper, by touching him, Jesus was saying, “This is my body broken for you.” The ultimate expression of God’s compassion and care.
The final part is the declaration that the leper was cleansed. Jesus did not come up to this leper and say, as one would assume, “I will pray for you.” He cleansed him. He didn’t say, “I wish you well, go in peace.” He cleansed him. Jesus did not offer him platitudes, he reached out to him in a profound way. And is that not, in a time where there are diseases, restrictions and virulent illness, something that we should be not only praying for, supporting and advocating in every way that we can?
I must confess, as I read this text – and I read it over many times over the last few days – I have been struck not only by the compassion, but the courage; the courage of the leper to go to Jesus, and the courage of Jesus to touch him. That courage wells up from something much more profound. It comes from a heart of deep, deep compassion. And if I am honest with you right now, I am troubled by two things that are opposite sides of a coin. I am troubled by those who demonstrate outside hospitals, who will not take seriously the plight of their fellow human beings and those caring for them. And the anger that comes from people as a result of them objecting to wanting to do the best for our society is, I think, a terrible thing. Likewise, the anger that sometimes is shown to those who are the most vulnerable, for those who are confused, and for those who have not made up their mind about vaccinations. I do not agree with people who can take a vaccine and don’t, I think they're wrong, but anger and hatred and despising, where is that in our Gospel? Where is that in Jesus of Nazareth? It’s nowhere to be found.
Our anger as a society needs to calm and people need to listen, watch, and learn from Jesus of Nazareth when confronted by people who are vulnerable and ill. He showed compassion, he gave of himself, he offered himself from the depth of his being. As a society, that is the kind of compassion we need for each other right now. And that is why I think that UN report shakes us a bit. When you realise that people are so vulnerable, so at risk, our hearts should be full of compassion. For that, it seems to me, is what our God is like. Amen.