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Pastor Glenn McDonald: Touch Matters

Every day during this season of Lent we’re looking at the miracles of Jesus – his spectacular displays of supernatural power that are reported in the Gospels.    


A Leper Approaches Jesus


Touch matters.


Laura Guerrero, co-author of Close Encounters: Communication in Relationships, cites recent studies that even a seemingly insignificant touch from a restaurant server often yields a bigger tip.  People shop longer and make more purchases if they are touched by a store greeter.  And strangers are more likely to say Yes to a request for help if there’s even the briefest physical contact.


She notes that human beings are incurably social.  “Lots of times in these studies people don’t even remember being touched.  They just feel there’s a connection, they feel that they like that person more.”


That seems to ring true in the National Basketball Association as well.  Psychologist Michael Kraus studied the degree to which NBA players shared chest bumps, high fives, and backslaps throughout a recent season, and noted a higher correlation of success for the higher-touch teams. 


Whenever we’re plunged into grief or distress, physical contact is more than just comforting.  It helps provide deep healing for our souls.


But the most compelling confirmation of the power of touch is what happens when physical contact is taken away. 


Multiple studies have confirmed that solitary confinement of prisoners is far more damaging than once assumed.  Forcing someone to go for extended periods without hearing, seeing, or touching other human beings has lasting negative impacts on both body and mind.  Nelson Mandela, who spent years in solitary while unjustly imprisoned by the South African government, recalled that his isolation was the hardest thing to bear. 


During Bible times, one category of individuals in particular was forced to live without the blessings of touch.


That was the leper. 


Leprosy (or Hansen’s disease, as it is commonly known today) cast its victims into a living hell.  Progressive neurological damage slowly rendered one’s extremities, then limbs, and finally major organs non-functional.  The ulcerations that accompanied this painfully slow “death by inches” were often frightening to behold.  A leper might linger as long as 30 years after diagnosis.  But during that entire time, from the point of view of the community, he or she was a “dead man walking.”    


Lepers were considered cursed by God.  They were spiritually unclean, and contact with them (of any kind) rendered an uninfected person unclean as well. 


No leper could enter a walled city, let alone Jerusalem.  Temple worship was absolutely forbidden.  Lepers were required by law to dishevel their clothing and hair as a heads-up to others concerning their condition.


Scottish Bible scholar William Barclay notes that they were required to stay at least six feet away from other people, but if the wind was blowing from behind them, that distance had to be 150 feet.  When lepers saw “normal” people approaching, they had to get off the path and shout “unclean, unclean!” as a warning. 


If a leper did nothing more than put his head inside a house, the entire house became unclean, all the way up to the roof beams.  One rabbi refused to eat an egg that had been purchased on a street where a leper had recently walked.


Incredibly, it was illegal even to offer a word of greeting to a leprous man or woman.  They were the most rejected of human beings.  As late as the Middle Ages, priests were known to bring lepers into the sanctuary and to read the burial service over their very-much-still-alive bodies. 


That’s because, for all intents and purposes, lepers were already dead.


Which brings us to Jesus’ first miracle in the Gospel of Matthew. 


Imagine what it was like to be the leper who encounters him in Matthew 8:1-4.  He can neither touch nor be touched.  If he is a husband or father, he is forbidden by law to embrace his own family members for the rest of his life.  In fact, his present behavior, as stated in verse two, is completely out of bounds: “…he came to him.”  Lepers were not allowed to approach others.


In fact, lepers knew what awaited them if they dared to close the distance to other people.  Rabbis boasted about the stones they threw at lepers.  Instead of a remedy for this curse, they offered only condemnation.


Going on in verse two, the leper kneels before Jesus. “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” 


Bible scholar Dale Bruner dissects this startling request.  First, there is a submissive spirit: He calls Jesus “Lord.”  Second, there is respect: “if you are willing.”  There are no demands here, no sense of entitlement.  As Bruner puts it, “Faith does not honestly know if the Lord in every case intends to heal.”  And third, there is confidence in Jesus’ competence: “You can make me clean.” 


What will Jesus do?


He can stand at a distance and speak some authoritative words of healing.  In fact, that’s the very thing he will do on several occasions in the future.  But, as Bruner notes, that would make this an entirely different kind of miracle.


Instead, he steps forward.  He breeches the societal walls that have been erected to keep lepers in their place – a place beyond human touch. “He stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, ‘I am willing; be clean!’” (v. 3). 


It was accepted wisdom that this physical transaction could have only one outcome: Uncleanness would flow from the leper to Jesus.  The teacher from Nazareth was now defiled. 


But the leper’s ulcerations vanish.  His gnarled body is restored.  The one way street is actually oriented in the other direction: Cleansing, healing, and hope are flowing from Jesus to the leper.  The curse has been removed.  His life can begin again. 


Here’s how the filmmakers behind The Chosen decided to depict this encounter:  Jesus heals the Leper - The Chosen (


Perhaps you’ve imagined yourself as beyond the touch or compassion of other people.


You’ve concluded that you’re infected with an incurable spiritual disease.  Because of the affair.  Or the divorce.  Or the prison sentence.  Or the discovery of the websites you’ve been visiting.  Or the shame of failing to be the person you know you ought to be. 


You cannot imagine going to church.  Or opening up the secrets of your heart to most of the Christians you know.  It wouldn’t surprise you if they blew your cover.  Or even threw stones at you.


But perhaps you can imagine going to Jesus.


You feel unworthy of being touched.  But you are not beyond his touch.


The One who broke all the rules in order to bring wholeness to lepers is still in the business of touching the untouchable.


Even you and me. 



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