When Baby Boomer kids in the 1950s weren’t pondering the threat of nuclear war, they were fretting about something far closer to home.
We’re talking, of course, about cooties.
Cooties were imaginary, invisible creatures that could be transmitted by touch – usually by swiping one’s hand on someone of the opposite sex. This was equivalent to declaring, “You’re it!” As we played the game, the newly infected person could not immediately pass them back, but had to work through the agency of a third party. Of course, you could always protect yourself by getting a “cootie shot” – an index finger jammed onto your shoulder by a friend or ally. None of my buddies, as far as I can remember, were cootie anti-vaxxers.
We knew those nasty little creatures weren’t real. But it so happens they represented a real-life memory from earlier in the 20th century.
Soldiers mired in the trenches of World War I were routinely infested with lice. “Cooties” appears to be a variation of “cuties,” a British slang term for lice and other biting parasites. They also earned the nickname “arithmetic bugs,” since “they added to our troubles, subtracted from our pleasures, divided our attention, and multiplied like heck.”
At its worst, the game of cooties became a way to disparage another human being. The “infected” person was different somehow – perhaps dirty, or disabled, or simply new to the playground. “She’s got cooties” was a way to erect a social barrier.
Something like that happened on a large scale during Bible times.
People afflicted with a variety of skin diseases – especially leprosy, now known as Hansen’s disease – were, according to Old Testament legislation, ceremonially unclean.
For all intents and purposes, lepers were treated as people infected with spiritual cooties. Leprosy was visually frightening. As it slowly advances, it cripples hands and feet. Extremities like ears, noses, and fingers may fall off. Today we know that leprosy is not highly contagious. But in the ancient world, it was assumed that proximity to lepers would produce spiritual and hygienic defilement.
Therefore lepers were ordered to provide fair warning to “regular” people. They had to dishevel their hair and clothes, step at least a dozen feet off public pathways, and shout, “Unclean, unclean!” to those who were approaching.
Lepers were typically quarantined to live out the remainder of their lives in so-called leper colonies. They were banished from temple worship. They were not allowed to enter walled cities. Imagine a life in which you could never share a hug with a non-leper, never touch a friend, and never embrace even your spouse and children.
No wonder leprosy was thought to represent the curse of God. It was a living death.
Which is why it’s so incredible that Jesus drew near to lepers. He reached out and touched them. And, in something that could only be explained as a kind of “reverse cooties,” he actually healed them.
Even though modern medicine has helped eradicate leprosy, it remains a reality in a number of impoverished corners of the world. Author Philip Yancey became a friend and colleague of the late Dr. Paul Brand, who for years served as a physician to multitudes afflicted with Hansen’s disease in India.
Yancey reports that one night Dr. Brand found himself in an open courtyard that was packed with lepers. The air was heavy with the mingled odors of poverty, stale spices and treated bandages.
After a while the patients began to ask if he would speak to them for a few moments. Did the doctor have any encouraging words?
As he looked over this gathering of "untouchable" human bodies, his eyes were drawn to their hands. Most of the hands he saw were drawn inward in the familiar "claw-hand" of the leper. Some had no fingers, some were just a few stumps. Many patients sat on their hands or otherwise kept them out of sight.
"I am a hand surgeon," he began. "So when I meet people, I can't help looking at their hands. The palm-reader claims he can tell your future by looking at your hands. I can tell your past. For instance, I can tell what your trade has been by the position of the calluses and the condition of the nails. I can tell a lot about your character. I love hands."
Brand went on, "How I would love to have had the chance to meet Jesus and study his hands."
He described what it might have been like to see the hands of Jesus as a little one, childishly grasping in the earliest years, then clumsily holding a brush or stylus in school. Then came the rough, gnarled hands of Christ the carpenter, with the broken fingernails and bruises that inevitably come from working with a saw and hammer.
"Then," Brand continued, "there were his crucified hands. It hurts me to think of a nail being driven through the center of my hand, because I know what goes on there, the tremendous complex of tendons and nerves and blood vessels and muscles. You can't drive a spike through its center without crippling it. In that act Jesus identified Himself with all the deformed and crippled human beings in the world. He shared poverty with the poor, and weariness with the tired – and clawed hands with the crippled."
The effect of those words on the lepers was astonishing.
Could it possibly be true that Jesus identified with them – those whom no one else would touch? One by one the leprosy patients brought forth their hands and held them high for all to see, not ashamed at that moment that they were deformed and crumpled.
That’s because someone else, the very Someone who had created their hands, had once known their pain, and had even been resurrected with a body that still bore the imprints of those nails.
Perhaps you’ve imagined yourself as beyond the touch or sympathy of other people.
You’ve concluded you’re infected with spiritual cooties. Because of the affair. Or the divorce. Or the bankruptcy. Or the prison sentence. Or the abortion. Or the shame of not-good-enoughness. Or the fact that you never remember hearing “I love you” or “I’m so proud of you” from your parents.
But you are not beyond the touch of God’s love.
The One who broke all the rules in order to bring hope to lepers is still in the business of making cooties irrelevant.