On Tuesday it was my turn to help with the food bank and a lady popped in who looked very unkept. Now most of those who come to us are grateful for what they receive, but this woman was so lavish in her appreciation. She was clearly in a desperate situation and was so thankful.
And then it happened – with what seemed to be tears in her eyes she extended her hand to shake mine. And what’s more, this was a grubby hand with dirty fingernails.
Time seemed to pause. With all that we are being told about washing our hands and not touching or being near one another – what was she thinking? My first instinct was to back away and politely explain why we shouldn’t, and technically that would have been right. But then a story of Jesus came to my mind that convinced me, rightly or wrongly, to reach out and accept.
For the record I made sure I washed my hands thoroughly with soap and water immediately after we had said goodbye!
And the story that convinced me to shake her hand is found in Matthew chapter 8. Jesus had just finished giving the greatest sermon of all time – The Sermon on The Mount: Blessed are the poor in Spirit; Love your enemies; Our Father who art in heaven…
About 1500 years earlier Moses had gone up Mount Sinai to receive God’s Law and brought down the commands that would pronounce all people guilty of sin and unclean. But Jesus – the Mediator of the New and better Covenant – went up a mountain to deliver God’s true law (the law that goes beyond external observance to the attitudes of our hearts) and He returned to forgive sin and to cleanse people.
And He powerfully and beautifully demonstrated this in His first encounter after coming down from the mountain. Jesus met a man whom we know nothing about – not even his name – apart from the fact that he was a leper.
Leprosy is mentioned a lot in the Old Testament to refer to various skin diseases. Sadly some people in poorer parts of our world today still suffer with leprosy. Unfortunately, many never recover and have to live as lepers for the rest of their lives.
What’s more, the Jews were given strict laws to do with purity which led them to force diseased people to self-isolate. We can probably relate in some way to that concept at this moment in time.
In Leviticus God commanded that lepers tear their clothes, let their hair hang loose, cover their mouths and shout out, “Unclean!” And they were to live alone on the outskirts of cities or towns, never able to see or embrace family or friends.
Anyone who came into contact with a leper would be considered to be unclean and would have to purify themselves, and any animal that touched a leper would be put to death meaning they couldn’t even have a pet as a companion. Lepers were completely isolated, unwanted, and uncared for, and many people therefore considered them accursed.
Interestingly, the Jews were to stay at least 4 cubits away from lepers – that’s about 2 meters, which is the distance we are told to keep apart from one another by the government. And people weren’t even permitted to greet lepers. I don’t know about you, but there have been times since the lockdown began when I’ve felt a bit like a leper. People crossing the road to avoid me, or having to walk down the supermarket aisle while others squirm and look at me as if I have the lurgy. Maybe you can relate.
Now try, if we can, to imagine feeling that way all of the time, and never having a home to go back to – always feeling alone, despised, rejected, desperate, and hopeless. Because that’s how the man who met Jesus must have felt.
When he came down from the mountain, great crowds followed him. And behold, a leper came to him and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I will; be clean.” And immediately his leprosy was cleansed.
Jesus healed the man; indeed, later in chapter 11 Jesus even pointed to the fact that He cleansed lepers as a proof that He was the Christ. But what is even more remarkable is that Jesus chose to touch him. He could have healed the man without physical contact, as he did many other people – especially considering that in touching the leper Jesus was breaking the law.
There are only two accounts in the Old Testament of lepers being healed – Miriam (Moses’ sister) and Naaman the Syrian – and on both occasions neither Moses nor Elisha touched them so as to remain clean themselves. Having touched the leprous man though, we read no mention of Jesus becoming unclean and having to purify Himself. Normally someone clean would become defiled when touching an unclean person, but when Jesus reached out the leper was cleansed.
Truly though, what this leper needed most was not to be cleansed, but to be loved. And when Jesus touched the untouchable He showed the leper the greatest expression of love. How many years do you think it had been since this man had been touched? He couldn’t even pet a dog without it having to be killed. And in loving this leper Jesus upheld the law He had seemingly broken, for love is the fulfilment of all of God’s commands.
Jesus did not hesitate to make contact. In fact, the Greek word for “touched” can be translated as “taking hold of someone”. I like to think that Jesus gave this man a big hug. We don’t know. But He did touch him. And when He did the leper didn’t encounter loathing, but concern; he didn’t encounter fear, but sympathy; and he didn’t encounter rejection, but love.
Though we may not have leprosy, we all know what it is like to feel unacceptable, guilty, isolated, mistreated, undesirable, and maybe even hopeless. May today’s story encourage us to bow our knees to Jesus our Lord whenever we feel this way, and cry out to Him – there is no one too dirty for Him to cleanse, or too far beyond His reach.
And may we consider that there are people out there, perhaps those living next door to us or those behind us in the queue, who feel as the leper did – especially at this time. I’m not suggesting we go around shaking hands – please don’t! But we are governed by God’s law of love, for Jesus has touched us – the untouchable – and now asks us to go and do likewise.