Leprosy is a debilitating and contagious disease. In ancient Israel lepers were the untouchables. It was not unusual for people to run in the opposite direction from any leper who came too close, or even to stone him. A leper was subject to certain religious laws that meant he could not associate at all with his family, must live outside the city and was banned from worshiping at the temple (Leviticus 13 and 14; Leviticus 22:4-9; Numbers 5:1-4).
On the day a leper approached Jesus we can imagine the horrified reaction among the multitudes following Him. We can imagine also the infected man’s sheer desperation. Just by coming within speaking distance of Jesus and others, he was breaking the law. He worships, prostrating himself before the Man he knows is his only hope. “Lord, if you are willing, You can make me clean.” Not: ‘if you would like to think about it, maybe’, or ‘if you are in the mood’, but if You are willing.
This man is acknowledging that Jesus has the right to decide whether he lives or dies. He is acknowledging Christ’s absolute sovereignty over his future. Jesus’ response confirms that He is indeed sovereign, but also willing. “I am willing; be cleansed”. I AM is willing, therefore be clean! And then He does the unthinkable. He touches the untouchable: eye to eye, hand to hand, skin to skin. And the leper is no longer a leper. (Matt. 8:1-4)
Not long after, a Roman centurion appears on the scene. His valued servant is paralysed and suffering greatly. We know the servant was highly valued because Roman centurions had no problem replacing servants, or slaves if we are to be more accurate, but this centurion desperately wants his servant to live. There is no attempt by Jesus to point out the evils of slavery, or to take the centurion to task over the oppressive policies of the Roman occupying forces. “I will come and heal Him” He says. No! says the centurion. That’s not what I want. Just say the word and I know my servant will be healed. (Matt. 8:5-9)
Roman centurions were not the most popular people in Israel. On a scale of one to ten they probably ranked somewhere in the lowest four along with lepers, Samaritans and prostitutes. Not only was their presence a constant reminder to Israel that a foreign power ruled over them, but they were Gentiles. To the Jewish mind in Jesus’ day Gentiles were idol worshipers, and as such they were unclean and beneath contempt. No Jewish rabbi would stoop to enter a Gentile’s house, yet here was Jesus offering to do just that.
But a connection takes place between Jesus and this unclean Gentile that amazed even Jesus (Mat. 8:10). This centurion recognizes in Jesus something that had escaped the Jewish leaders: an authority that was not bestowed by any human agency. He knows about authority and he knows that this Man’s authority is greater even than his own. With utmost respect he declines Jesus’ offer to come to his house, no doubt knowing such a visit would not help Jesus’ reputation and not wanting to add to His problems with the Jewish leaders. Jesus commends him for his faith and the servant is healed in that very hour.
A recognition, a request and a response. Something deep and divine has taken place between Jesus and this ‘unclean’ one that very few present could have perceived.
Not long after, Jesus, weary and hungry from the day’s activities, enters Peter’s home for some much needed rest. The women of the house are busy preparing food and comfort for their honored guest, but one woman lies listless and still, consumed by a blazing fever. Immediately Jesus approaches her, reaching out to touch her burning flesh. His touch is enough to rebuke the fever and restore her health. She opens her eyes and gazes silently into His. He gently lifts her to her feet and she rises, healed, to serve Him His meal. (Matt. 8:14-15, Mark 1:31-32)
Not a word has she uttered. She knows Jewish rabbis do not touch women. And she is an old woman now. The days of her youth are past. These days few notice her, let alone hear the desires of her heart. She is of little value in this society where women are the servers and child bearers, and old women have outlived their purpose.
We don’t know why this woman, mother of Peter’s wife, was living in this house. It is possible she was a widow and had no living sons of her own to take responsibility for her in her old age, as was the custom. Regardless, Jesus knew why she was there. She was there to serve Him, because that was the only thing a woman in her position could do to show Him her devotion. And He knew that was her unspoken prayer. Breaking with all convention, He sought her out, He touched her and then He received from her.
The untouchable, the unclean and the unheard are still among us, often much closer than we realize. They have not gone away. Nor has Jesus ceased seeing, hearing and touching them. These days, though, it is our hands that must touch for Him, our eyes that must meet theirs, and our smile that must show them a different reality.
Recently, as we travelled by car on an interstate trip, I listened to the young man in the back seat behind me worshiping as he sang his heart out to the Lord he loves. The purity of his worship broke my heart, bringing moist tears to my eyes. I know well this young man’s almost impossible journey, because he’s my son. I shared a little about him in the post Challenging Behaviours. From the beginning his road has been a difficult and lonely one. The combination of autism, mental illness and related issues can leave those like him feeling untouchable, unclean and unheard in this world.
But Jesus sees. Jesus hears. Jesus knows. Jesus touches. And Jesus connects. And from that connection comes forth worship in Spirit and truth, and an experience of God at a depth few of us understand or are allowed to witness. And when we do we are left humbled, awed and undone by this mysterious and fearful love of a God who searches for and reaches out to the untouchable, the unclean and the unheard…..and gathers them joyfully into His arms. Thank you Jesus.