Leprosy in first century Palestine was worse than a life-threatening disease – it was known as the “living death”. Victims slowly deteriorated from, as best I understand it, a bacterium that affected the peripheral nerves. The obvious signs of leprosy were lesions on the skin. Eventually, the skin, eyes, limbs and nerves would suffer permanent damage.
To make matters worse, it was highly contagious. Lepers were ostracized from their communities for fear of infecting others. They were untouchable. Leviticus 13:45-46 describes a bit of the Old Testament Law concerning the poor soul who might have leprosy.
“The leprous person who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. He is unclean. He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp.”
What a terrible label “unclean” is. The Jew who had leprosy wasn’t merely diseased, he or she was defiled. Their very appearance was supposed to serve as a warning to others. They couldn’t come home. They couldn’t return to work. They couldn’t attend worship services.
Perhaps worst of all, it was the common misconception in those days that lepers were somehow being uniquely punished by God for sins they had committed. They didn’t understand medicine like we do today so people often equated illness and disability with spiritual punishment. It didn’t help that on three well-known occassions God did in fact use leprosy as a punishment for a specific sin (Moses’ sister who complained in the wilderness; Uzzah who stabilized the ark with his own hand; King Uzziah who offered incense in the temple).
Leprosy, then, didn’t merely have physical or medical implications, it had social, relationtional, financial and spiritual implications. What an awful stigma the leper lived with – alone. In the eyes of the people he or she was an appalling spectacle. Someone to avoid. In the leper’s own eyes he or she was a miserable wretch.
It was just such a person who approached Jesus in The Gospel of Mark, chapter one. Such was his desperation for healing and belief that if anyone could help him Jesus could that he fell on his knees and cried, “If you are willing, you can make me clean!” It was a risky act of faith. What would Jesus do? Previously He told His disciples that He had come to preach the gospel, not heal the sick.
He does just what we hoped. He was moved with compassion for the man and He does something risky of His own – He touches him. Jesus doesn’t care what other people will think. Jesus doesn’t worry about catching the disease. (I wonder if He could have caught the disease if it were in God’s plan. He was a man, after all, and His body was not sheltered from pain and suffering.) This may have been the first touch this man had experienced in years.
Of course, Jesus didn’t have to touch him in order to help him. Like on other occassions Jesus could have helped from a distance or through a messenger. All He has to do is say the word. But He touched Him. He touched the untouchable.
Then He healed him, or rather, He cleansed him. “I am willing, ” Jesus said in reply, “be clean.” And just like that the leprosy was gone, the bacterium was gone, the skin lesions were gone, his damaged face and hands were restored instantly. Not only was he physically healed, but this meant he could return home to his family and to work. The end of misery. The end of condemnation.
Compassion for those with HIV
Perhaps the closest we can come to understanding the plight of the first century leper is to compare it to the plight of the 21st century victim of HIV or AIDS. It is worse in Africa than in America. HIV has treatment as does leprosy now, but without it victims suffer a living death, a slow deterioration and it is contagious (albeit through narrow means).
Ostracism awaits the woman, man or child discovered with HIV, especially in Africa. They will be looked down upon. They will be stereotyped. They will be stigmatized. Some will think God is punishing them for sins they didn’t commit. Its a blessing that attitudes are changing in the U.S. – though maybe not everywhere. Still, the person with HIV or AIDS is pretty much considered the “untouchable”. Orphans with HIV are “hard to place” children for this reason.
But, Jesus touches the untouchable. He still does. He has compassion on them. He welcomes them. He cleanses them. He restores them. How? He is not here on the earth, how does He still touch the person or child with HIV and AIDS?
1. Through the gospel. The gospel is good news for everyone, especially those who feel themselves to be miserable wretches. The gospel is the good news that Jesus, the Son of God, lived and died in the place of unclean sinners so that their sin could be wiped clean and they could be reconciled to God the Father. It is the news that by faith alone in Jesus alone sinners can become adopted sons and daughters of God.
The gospel even takes HIV and AIDS away. It really does. Not immediately. Not in this short life. But in the next life, the resurrected life, there will be no more such diseases. Meanwhile, He permits HIV to remain – not in order to punish – but for some good, sanctifying reason. We may not know why He doesn’t heal HIV now but we know HIM and He does not make mistakes or do things without purpose.
2. Through us. The second way Jesus still touches the untouchable is through His Body, the church, the you and me who are Christian. I’ll skip all the ways Jesus’ Body can and does show compassion to those with HIV and AIDS and go right to adoption. Adoption is no less than radically touching an orphans life with love and acceptance and real big bear hugs without worrying what othes think or anxiety over catching the disease ourselves.
When parents bring home a child with HIV they are virtually healing the disease ’till Jesus comes. With the medical care parents can provide their children, the virus can become “undetectable” in their blood or at least managed. They can have a normal life with normal interactions and normal ambitions. They do not have to feel ashamed and will not feel “untouchable” anymore. Countless benefits await the child brought into a loving parent’s home, not the least of which is exposure to the gospel itself.
Through us Jesus still touches the untouchable. Better yet, when a parent cares for a child with HIV we are saying, “They are not untouchable.” People sometimes want to make adoptive parents out to be heroes but Jesus is the real Hero and this is one attempt to deflect all praise to Him who touched and saved an untouchable like me.