by Rev. Fr. Paulose T. Peter, New York
"Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him".
This verse is culled from the episode of Jesus healing a man with leprosy as recorded in the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark and Luke. The plight of lepers in Old Testament times is best described in Leviticus chapters 13 and 14. Leprosy is a disease, appearing in dry, thin and white scabs, either on the whole body, or on certain part of it with violent and painful itching. It is an infectious and highly contagious disease that can contaminate garments (Lev 13:47) and even homes (Lev 14:34). Therefore, lepers were kept in isolation away from the society and condemned to die in seclusion. In the olden days, since the disease was deemed incurable by any human intervention, its cure was attributed to the sovereign power of God alone. For this reason, it was up to the priests as representatives of God to pass judgment whether or not a leper is fully healed (Matthew 8:4). The various symptoms of this dreadful disease were viewed as a curse from God and the sufferings and miseries of the infected person as the result of his sins thereby falling out of favor with God. Hence legal ordinances were the norms of the day to deal with lepers and their environment.
The miracle of healing the leper by Jesus hits the nerve center of the presumed relationship of sin and sickness. “The priest shall offer the sin offering, and make an atonement for him that is to be cleansed from his uncleanness.” (Lev 14:19). Whether there is any truth in the Old Testament belief that God punishes people with sickness has been a baffling question which was relevant then, applicable today and pertinent tomorrow as well. The closest we can get to read the mind of God on this question is to find out how Jesus, the Son of God Himself performed in situations involving those with the dreadful disease of leprosy. In a wider sense, the real question is whether or not God is responsible for our difficulties. The Psalmist lodged a complaint to God: “Awake, O Lord! Why do you sleep? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever. Why do you hide your face and forget our misery and oppression?” (Psalm 44:23-24). Some people think that every trouble going down the road stops at their house and they are hit hard on their wallets with medical bills that drain their family finances. Some others think that life is totally unfair because they experience great pain and sorrow in their lives, despite all their efforts to be good and morally upright human beings. There are others who are puzzled at the sight of those who mess up their lives so badly but still stay enormously rich, enjoying a good family, good health and adequate finances. In other words, why bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people? It is quite natural for people afflicted with maladies begin to wonder what they have done wrong and why they are being punished. Under such circumstances they begin to think that God hates them and continues to wonder whether God is love. What can we say to those people? How can we comfort or console them?
Before we actually take a closer look at the questions raised above, let us think for a moment on the kind of world that Jesus himself faced. The religious leaders of His day were constantly monitoring Him to see if he did something wrong or said the wrong thing. In an effort to trap him, they constantly plotted against him, holding His feet to the fire over every frivolous law they could come up with. They suffocated Him by heaping accusations against Him for eating with sinners, freeing the woman caught in adultery and for healing the sick on Sabbath; the list can go on and on. Jesus made the people happy by healing the sick, performing miracles for their good and feeding thousands with few loaves of bread. Yet He could not satisfy the religious biggies of the day who scrutinized every word He said and watched every step he made. Was Jesus at fault to deserve such stiff opposition from the religious leaders of the day and to endure the horrendous suffering we read in scriptures and visibly portrayed in “The Passion of the Christ”, Mel Gibson’s movie? For arguments’ sake, we may be tempted to say it doesn’t matter because after all Jesus was Son of God. May be we have a point there, but then what about ordinary people like the disciples and believers who were killed by stoning, cut to pieces with saws, butchered with the sword, mocked, flogged, tortured, hung on crosses and burned at the stake? (Hebrews 11:35-38). How about Job, “the blameless and upright” man who “feared God and shunned evil”? When “there was no one on earth like him” according to the Scriptures, was it because of his fault that he lost his children, his health, his wealth and everything he held so dear to his heart? Wasn’t he sailing on the same boat with those innocent believers who lost their job, died of deadly diseases in their youth, went broke on family finances and met with an unexpected divorce or death of a loved one, causing a U-turn in their lives almost overnight?
Having said all that, let us find out how Jesus handled the leper, the man who has been kept away from society and left to die with no assistance from anyone at a time when the prevalent belief was that God punished him for his sins with a horrible sickness. The Scriptures record that Jesus stretched out His hand and touched the leper. It is important to note that Jesus touched him when lepers were branded as untouchables. If you and I were to touch him, we would have touched him only after he was cured for fear of contracting the disease.
The word ‘touch’ can have several meanings. It can be a physical touch. The woman with a bleeding disorder touched the cloak of Jesus. When Heads of State and Government meet each other they shake hands as an outward expression of how much they want to work together between their countries. We have seen pictures in which the Prime Minister of Israel and the President of Palestinian Authority shaking hands with President of the USA standing in the middle. Such handshakes are avoided as far as possible between representatives of nations with no diplomatic relations. In other words, shaking hands in this context would be recognition of each other. Yes, when Jesus physically touched the leper, the leper was recognized. History was in the making when Jesus gave this big recognition to a man who was alienated from loved ones and from the whole society all his life and left to die in alienation. When I asked someone recently how a certain funeral went, the reply was “it was a very touching Service”. Though there was no physical touch involved, that person felt the feeling of touch. Yes, the leper felt the touch of Jesus in his heart. He must have felt the warmth of that touch in every fiber of his being. Jesus could have kept his hand off him by accepting the norms and beliefs of the day. Instead of abandoning him as an outlawed criminal whose sufferings were well deserved as many had thought in those days, Jesus restored the man, not only his health but also his human dignity, integrating him back into his family and to the society.
Leprosy has become an endangered illness these days. Thanks to the efforts of World Health Organization and other vigorous National programs to eradicate this deadly disease. There are not very many lepers around us to be touched. Therefore, we should make an earnest effort to touch the lives of loved ones around us, the down-trodden among us and the helpless in our society. There are many out there who are hurt in many ways and who are in desperate need to be touched. When we bring that gentle feeling of touch into our families, we convert our houses into homes where we feel at home as opposed to staying in our own houses where no homely feeling exists. A healing touch can mend broken relationships; restore peace and harmony in our homes and bring back civility and respect in our society. During this Great Lent, let us ‘reach out and touch someone’.
May God bless.
Great Lent Resources - Home
Jesus Heals a Man with Leprosy
by: Rev. Dr. V Kurian Thomas, Valiyaparambil
Devotional Thoughts for the Sunday of the Leper
by Jose Kurian Puliyeril
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