January 27, 2019: Touch

Pastor Steve Mechem

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Mark 1:40-45 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.


Hansen's disease.

In 2019, about 2 million people in the world are permanently disabled because of Hansen's. If untreated, the resulting problems related to Hansen's are devastating.

Now, most of the 250,000 people world wide (and 150 in the U.S.) who contract Hansen's Disease this year will be diagnosed and treated in such a way that it will have little impact on their daily lives.

Early detection mitigates most of the symptoms. Untreated, Hansen's Disease is contagious but just barely. 95% of us have a natural immunity against the bacteria and the other 5% must be in prolonged close contact with untreated Hansen's to stand even a small chance of getting the disease.

Hansen's Disease affects the nerves, the skin, the eyes and nose. Symptoms include skin blotches, nodules and swelling, muscle pain, nose bleeds, severe numbness, the reabsortion of fingers and toes into the body, and a loss of eyebrows and eyelashes.

Eventually paralysis and the loss of digits occur. Quite often, Hansen’s patients suffer severe injuries because they don’t feel pain when cut or burned or when the skin is punctured. While not terminal, life-threatening infections are common in people who go untreated.

But since Hansen's is both diagnosable and treatable, victims of the disease can do quite well today.

This has not always been the case.

Back when Hansen's Disease was one of the conditions known as leprosy, it was believed to be highly contagious and fatal. Thus, when one was diagnosed, one was literally cast out of organized society.

While the way leprosy was treated changed from culture to culture, it generally meant isolation, social stigmatization and the moniker “untouchable.”

This was particularly true in first century Galilee.

Let’s say I live in the first century. I am a stone mason. I make a decent living from my work and love and support my wife and four children.

I have felt achy and had some joint pain for a while but what else is new. I have noticed some swelling but haven’t paid too much attention to it.

And then one day, I notice that there is a blotch on my forearm, maybe 4 inches long and 2 inches wide. I am immediately filled with fear, because I know what this might be.

I don’t tell my family or my employer about my blotch. Over a few weeks I notice three more blotches appear two on my legs, one on my other forearm. I keep myself covered and don’t say a word.

One day, at work, I am lifting some stone over my head, my sleeves fall down and a coworker sees the blotches on my arms. I cover them up as quickly as I can and act as if nothing is happening.

But something is happening.

My coworker tells everybody about my blotches, including my boss. People immediately move away from me and don’t want me around. My boss yells at me for being at work and sends me to the priest. It is the priest who pronounces the diagnoses of leprosy, (because everybody knows clergy people are smarter than doctors when it comes to these things). LOL

The priest looks at my arms, my legs, checks my body for swelling. After his check up, he says to me the thing I can’t bear to hear, “you have leprosy.”

I am not allowed to go home to my family. I am immediately sent out of the community.

People will go to my house and they will take all my family’s possessions and pile them outside in the dirt. There they will set them all on fire hoping to burn up the disease.

And then, some men, covered from head to toe, will come to my house and dismantle it. My wife and children and anybody else who is living with us is cast out, forced to live with friends or relatives.

There are around Galilee, a number of small groupings of lepers who live outside of the towns. I find a group of these lepers and they become my new, sad, diseased family.

Several in the group are seriously deformed- some from the disease itself, and others from injuries they have received because they can’t feel pain in their legs or arms. And some have been injured by passersby.

As a leper, I am required by law to notify anybody who comes close to me of my condition. I shout at them “I’m a leper, I’m a leper.”

If people see me before I see them, and they can tell that I am sick, they are required by law to pick up stones and throw them at me to make sure that I don’t get too close to them. Often, those stones make contact.

Family members, and people with charitable hearts, will bring us things. They leave them in a pile out side our encampment. And after they are gone, we walk out to the pile to get what they have left. Quite often, fights break out over food or clothes

Once the priest declares that I am a leper I am stuck. Now if by chance, the priest is wrong and the blotches go away, I can be restored to society by being declared clean by the priest.

But for most lepers The diagnosis is a death sentence- a slow lingering death of an untouchable. Day after day, month after month, year after year alone, with others who are just waiting to die. That is the life of the leper.

Truly untouchable. Truly miserable.

Jesus is on preaching and healing tour in Galilee. Everywhere he goes, the crowds are full of sick people who want to be healed.

One day as he is preaching, a leper approaches him. He is recognizable because he’s wearing rags for clothes, and because there is deformity in his body.

But the leper approaches Jesus which means he walks though the crowd of listeners, breaking every rule there is about leprosy.

The crowd freaks out over the man but are afraid to grab him and throw him out. They just gasp.

The leper comes to Jesus and he kneels.

Jesus stops speaking, looks at the man kneeling before him, and he hears the man speak, “If you choose, you can make me well.”

The leper has no doubt that Jesus can heal him; Jesus has been healing people all over Galilee. What the leper does not know is if Jesus would be inclined to heal him- after all he is a mess- untouchable, cast out, left alone.

He has come to question whether he is worthy of any grace or kindness. And so when the leper says “If you choose,” he speaks from a place of honesty.

The NRSV says that Jesus is moved with pity for the leper. Other translations say compassion, or felt sorry for, the Common English Bible reads incensed.

The Greek word is σπλαγχνα, which literally means “guts.” In Greek understanding the seat of the rawest, deepest emotions is the gut, the intestines. The direct quote in Greek is “Jesus guts were moved” or in a most unfortunate translation his “bowels were moved with compassion.”

What Jesus feels isn’t sympathy or empathy. It is visceral, real, raw. Jesus sees the reality of the disease and it breaks his heart.

He reaches out to the man and touches him. This is the first time this man has been touched since the priest declared him ill. Maybe it’s been weeks, probably years. maybe decades, and in this moment the hand of love touches his cheek.

The crowd erupts at this.

After letting his hand linger on the leper’s face, Jesus says, “I choose to.” Please notice that the touch come before the healing.

Immediately the leprosy is gone, the splotches heal up, the swollen parts are no swollen, the nodules disappear, and perhaps even the fingers begin to reappear.

Jesus tells the man not the talk of the healing but to go straight to the priest so that he can return to his family.

Although instructed not to tell anyone how he was healed, he tell everyone he sees. The already significant crowd soon swells with more people and Jesus slips away. But people keep coming, hoping to be touched.

What the leper needed, besides healing, was to be touched. It meant he was valued, significant enough for grace.

As we join Jesus as healing agents in his ministry.

As we help bring healing
with our words,
with our presence,
as we listen,
as we act,
as we pray,
the question we should always be asking ourselves is, what is the need before us?

Mother Teresa wisely observed, “Loneliness is the leprosy of the modern world.”

Our σπλαγχναs should be moved as we are privileged to join Jesus in the task of making a difference.

Amen.