"Untouchable to Unstoppable"
by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts March 7, 2004
Preached at Irvine Presbyterian Church
Copyright © 2004 by Mark D. Roberts
Scripture Reading: Mark 1:40-45
40 A leper came to [Jesus] begging him, and kneeling he said to him, "If you choose, you can make me clean." 41 Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, "I do choose. Be made clean!" 42 Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. 43 After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, 44 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." 45 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.
Being Left Out
It's a terrible thing to be left out, to be excluded.
Children can traumatize some poor soul by telling her: "We don't want to play with you anymore. We don't want you to be our friend." It's one of the saddest things I've ever seen among children. But exclusion like this doesn't stop in childhood.
In my first year of high school, I wasn't what you'd call a "cool kid." Pimply-faced, oddly-dressed, terribly-insecure, I longed to be accepted by "in crowd" of my school. Many of them went to Young Life, so I did too, hoping I'd be noticed and included. But, apart from an occasional "How's it goin'?", I was invisible to the kids who were older, wealthier, better-looking, and infinitely more popular than I was. I remember many times leaving club meetings completely alone, aching to be accepted and included by those who didn't give me the time of day.
Can you relate to this at all? Have you ever experienced being left out? Maybe because you weren't cool enough. Or maybe because you were the wrong race or ethnicity. Or maybe because you weren't perceived as being successful enough, or rich enough, or good enough to count.
If you take your most painful experience of being excluded, and multiply it by fifty, you're not even close to what had happened to the leper in our story this morning.
The Leper's Story
We don't know the specifics of this man's story, but it isn't hard to fill in the blanks because the experience of every leper in the time of Jesus was more or less the same. Leprosy - the term covered a variety of skin conditions in the first-century - meant, first of all, that you were physically sick, often without any hope of a cure. But physical illness was just the beginning of your woes. Because other people didn't want to contract your disease, you were excluded from common society. You were forced to live outside of your town, to wear distinctive dress so everyone knew to avoid you, and to stay away from all people except for other lepers. Moreover, though you were a Jew, you were excluded from the synagogue because you might infect others, and from offering sacrifices in the Jerusalem temple, because you were ritually unclean. For this reason, nobody would touch anything you had touched, let alone touch you. You were cut off from virtually all human contact, existing in a world filled with despair, desperation, and death. You were, in a word, untouchable.
Now, supposing this was your life - if you could even call it a life - when all of a sudden you hear there's a prophet in the area who, it is claimed, heals people. A glimmer of hope beams in your heart, only to be obscured by dim realism. "There's no way I'll ever even find this healer. And if I do, I can't go anywhere near him. And even if I did, he'd back away from me because he's a holy man and I'm unclean. So even if I seek him out, in the end I'll just be more discouraged, more hated, more hopeless." But your desperation overwhelms your better judgment, so you decide to put everything on the line for the tiny hope of healing. Staying far back from the prophet, you watch and wait for just the right moment, when he's alone and could be approached secretly. Finally your moment comes, and you rush forward to meet the only one who can make your life better. Begging and pleading, you fall on your knees before the healer, saying "If you choose, you can make me clean" (1:40).
What was the leper really thinking when he said this to Jesus? Perhaps: "If you choose, but you probably won't. If you're willing, but why should you give two shekels for me. If you want to, but who ever wants to help me, you can make me clean. Not just well physically, but clean, clean so I can be restored to my community, clean so I can have my family and friends back, clean, so I can come into the presence of God in the temple. That's what need. Not just healing. I need to be clean. And you're my only hope. You can help me, if you're willing."
Here is a response to Jesus we haven't seen before. It's the response, not of hopeful faith, as we saw last week in the friends of the paralytic, but of dire desperation. It's looking to Jesus as your very last and only chance for life. It's a cry for mercy, an agonized cry for help.
Notice how Mark describes Jesus' response: "Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, "I do choose. Be made clean!" (1:41). Isn't that astounding?! Let's unpack this description bit by bit.
First, we're told that Jesus was "moved with pity." He didn't respond to this man with clinical objectivity, but with a tender heart. He felt empathy, allowing the leper's pain to become his own. In a moment he joined the leper in his suffering.
I want to stop right here so you won't miss this point. Jesus Christ is not standing far away from you, shooting his saving power in your direction from his distant heavenly perch. Rather, he has drawn near to you through his Spirit, even as he once drew near through the Incarnation. His heart is open to you. No matter what your condition, no matter what your need, you can always count on Jesus to understand and to care for you.
That Jesus felt pity for the leper is striking, but it's nothing compared to the next part of Jesus' response: "Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him" (1:41). Jesus didn't have to do this, of course. He was able to heal with a word. But that wasn't enough in this case, so Jesus touched the leper. He touched the untouchable. He touched the man who hadn't been touched for months, probably years. In so doing, he touched more than the leper's skin. He reached deep inside and touched his aching heart.
Psychological studies show that people who are deprived of human touch become deeply wounded in their psyches. Children who aren't touched become insecure and fearful. Adults who aren't touched become depressed and distant. We need human touch to be whole people, and that's what Jesus was offering to the leper.
I can only begin to imagine how it must have felt for this man to have been touched by Jesus. When I went away for my first year of college, I left almost all physical contact behind in California. Sure, I'd occasionally shake a hand back at Harvard, but nobody ever hugged me. As a typical out-of-touch male, I didn't realize what I was missing until about a month and a half into my freshman year. My uncle was interviewing for a job down at Yale, so he made a quick trip up to Cambridge to see me. When he greeted me at the train station, he embraced me, and it felt so good. Right then I realized what I had been missing during those six weeks with very little human contact. After our visit, my uncle had to say goodbye. He hugged me as he left. As I turned to go back to my dorm, I realized how much I missed being touched. I felt terribly alone, almost worse than before my uncle's visit when my emotional senses had been dulled. It was a very low moment for me.
By touching the leper, Jesus demonstrated his compassion! What's even more astounding is that by touching this man, Jesus made himself ceremonially unclean. According to Jewish law, Jesus would not have been permitted to enter the temple until a certain amount of time had passed and he had made appropriate cleansing sacrifices. Moreover, when you consider that the Pharisees, the dominant religious force in Jesus' environment, believed that ritual cleanness was next to godliness (literally), you can begin to understand how radical Jesus' action really was. By choosing to touch a leper, Jesus was saying that access to God was being opened up in completely new ways.
My friends, if you'll allow me to mix metaphors a bit, let me say that Jesus isn't afraid to touch you, to get his hands dirty by becoming involved in your life. Jesus is not a Lord who gives orders from afar, but a friend who enters into the ambiguity and confusion - the "uncleanness" -- of your daily existence. He's willing to have you as a member of his body, even though you're blemished. He's willing to receive your worship, even though it's not completely pure. He's eager to have your service, even though you come with mixed motives. Because you and your life are messy, Jesus is willing to get messy with you.
After feeling pity and touching the leper, Jesus healed him. With a simple phrase, "Be made clean," we're told that "the leprosy left him, and he was made clean" (1:41-42). I've remarked before how striking it is as you read through the gospels how little is made of Jesus' miracles. The descriptions of healings are usually, as in this case, understated. What's missing? No fire from heaven, or glorious descriptions, or shrieks of joy. Nothing we might associate with the infamous faith healers on television. No, if anything, Jesus' healings are taken for granted as just one part of a larger story. Among other things, this confirms the reliability of the gospels as historical sources about Jesus. The gospel writers aren't making things up as they go along, playing up the supernatural powers of their hero. Rather, they're telling the story simply, honestly, and truly.
After healing the man, Jesus added a clear command: "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" (1:44). What an odd thing to say! Why should the leper keep quiet? And why, of all things, should he go see a priest and do what the Jewish ritual law commands?
What seems so odd to us would have made perfect sense to the Jews of Jesus' day, who knew the Old Testament law so well. Leviticus 13 contains exacting procedures for determining if someone has leprosy, and therefore is ceremonially unclean and must be removed from the community. The diagnosis of leprosy is the responsibility, not of the local doctor, but of the priest. Similarly, Leviticus 14 explains that the priest is the one who determines whether someone has been healed of leprosy. When the priest makes this determination, there is an elaborate ritual of cleansing and restoration. Therefore, only with the priest's okay will the leper healed by Jesus be returned to fellowship with other people and even with God in the temple.
Thus, by telling the former leper to go to the priest, Jesus is showing his concern that this man experience more than physical healing. Jesus won't be satisfied until this man is fully restored into his community, and that can only happen if the local priest acknowledges the healing and helps the man go through his ritual cleansing. The ritual isn't just formalism. It's a rite of reconciliation between the man and his former life, his friends, his family. It's akin to the party thrown by the father of the Prodigal Son. It's a sign of healing, new life, restoration. It's a sign that the kingdom of God has drawn near.
More Than Mere Healing
Notice that Jesus offers more than just physical healing. On the most obvious level, the man needed to be healed of a dire disease. But Jesus goes deeper and broader. He touches the man, thereby ministering to his anguished heart. And he instructs the man to do what will bring healing to his broken relationships as well.
Jesus' business with us is much the same today as it was in the first-century. He offers, not just spiritual salvation, not just the healing of obvious hurts, but pervasive wholeness. I love the language of the King James Version of John 7 when Jesus, after being accused by Jewish leaders of breaking the law by healing on the Sabbath, asks: "Are ye angry at me, because I have made a man every whit whole on the sabbath day?" (John 7:23, KJV). Every whit whole! Every bit whole! That's what Jesus wants us to be.
Usually we come to Jesus with very specific needs. "I want confidence that I'll have eternal life after I die." Or "I need you to heal my marriage." Or "I want you to help my kids grow up okay." Or "I want to have more meaning in life." All of these fall within the parameters of Jesus' job description. But none of these are enough. Jesus desires, not only to heal what we want him to heal, but also to make us every whit whole, in body, mind, spirit, and relationships. He wants to mend our hearts and heal our families. He wants us to experience a depth of human community that far exceeds anything we have known before. He wants us to grow to be the people he has created us to be. And much, much more.
What are you coming to Jesus for today? What are your needs that have driven you to his feet? Whatever you are bringing, lay it before Jesus, knowing that he is compassionate and powerful. Nothing is impossible for him. But, know also that Jesus won't be satisfied until he has touched the real you, until he has reached deep into your heart to touch the deepest and most hidden places with his grace. He wants to cleanse you even as he once cleansed the leper, taking away your shame, your fear, your hidden hatreds, your false pride. He wants to remake you in his own image, until you think, and feel, and act like him.
Untouchable to Unstoppable
I love the way the healed leper responded to Jesus. The untouchable became unstoppable. Maybe I shouldn't be so excited about this, because the man flat out disobeyed Jesus. After all, Jesus said, "See that you say nothing to anyone," but the text goes on to explain that "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" (1:45).
It's not hard for me to understand why this man didn't follow Jesus' directive. He was so elated, so astounded, so thrilled, that he just couldn't contain himself. The untouchable had been touched, and healed, and cleansed, and he had to tell everyone. He reminds me of some of the newly pregnant women I have known in this church. A woman whispers to me as her pastor, "I'm pregnant, but it's early, so we're not telling anybody for a few weeks." She assumes that because I'm a pastor, I know how to keep a secret. And she's right, I do. But she doesn't. She just has to tell people her good news. So before too long the "secret" is everywhere.
You know, if I had been cured of leprosy, I don't think I'd have been able to keep quiet either. Besides, I've got plenty of experience disobeying Jesus about all sorts of things!
My friends, unlike the leper, you and I are supposed to respond to Jesus by telling everybody about him and what he's done. You may recall that Jesus told his followers to go and make disciples of all nations (Matt 28:19-20). In other words, we're to tell everybody, everywhere, about Jesus.
I know it sounds intimidating to many of us to speak of Jesus to others. But, here's the great thing, the more you experience the real Jesus, the more you'll be just like the leper in our story. The more Jesus heals you, the more you won't be able to contain your enthusiasm. The more he transforms your life, the more you'll want to share with others what he has done. Evangelism, in the end, isn't so much of a strict requirement as it is a spontaneous response to the matchless grace, love, mercy, and power of Jesus.
Called to Be Like Jesus
But, let me add, that our job isn't only to tell people about Jesus, we're also called to be like Jesus with people. Your job isn't just to tell the good news, but to embody the good news. And that's our shared task as a church. This means we are called to be like Jesus was with the leper - people of compassion, people who risk touching the untouchable, people who embody the good news of which we speak. When we do this, they'll be able to see Jesus in us, and they'll be drawn to him.
I mentioned earlier feeling excluded by the "cool kids" in Young Life. But I still went faithfully to club meetings. Why? Not because I had any real hope of eventually being accepted. No, I went because one person touched me in the way Jesus touched the leper. He was Kurt, the Young Life leader. He saw me when others looked right through me. He valued me when I felt like nothing. He not only spoke of Christ's love, but he embodied that love. So I ended up going to Young Life because wanted to be with Kurt, and I also determined that I wanted to be like him too.
Who are the "lepers" in your life, the people you need to touch with Christ's love? Who are the hurting people to whom you can bring healing? Jesus has sent you - and he's sent me - and he's sent us together - to be his body. We're the ones who touch with his touch. We're the ones who embrace with his arms.