“If they knew this about me, they’d never talk to me again. I don’t know how I could handle seeing them again in church if they touched that part of my life.” Thoughts like that fill all of us. It’s part of the human condition. It’s something that we all have to deal with. There are parts of us that we think no one can help us with that no one can or will want to touch. We keep parts of ourselves on the outskirts of our faith. Have you ever thought, “I don’t think God likes this part of me” or wondered if he could work with you as the big mess that you are?
On the flip side of the same coin, there are some of us who don’t want to touch people in their messiness. “I don’t want to touch him. His uncleanness might rub off on me. Such was the attitude of Christians towards blacks in the 1800’s. This was the attitude of many conservative Christians when AIDS really came on the scene in the 1980’s. I say this is a human condition because it doesn’t affect only Christians.
In India the whole social structure, their caste system, is based on who is or isn’t touchable. People in the lowest caste are called untouchables. Refusing to touch something unclean and have it rub off on you even became part of the religious practice of God’s people. One of the laws in the old covenant simply said, “Or if any one touch any unclean thing, whether it be the carcass of an unclean beast, or the carcass of unclean cattle, or the carcass of unclean creeping things, and it be hidden from him, and he be unclean, then he shall become offensive.”
Many Christians feel the same way about the world in general. We are often concerned that, if we interact too much with the world, we will be defiled and made unclean. That leads many of us to limit our interaction with the world to “only as necessary” encounters. We do what we can to avoid contact with the world around us. But we cannot be clean without being touched by Jesus. And we cannot followers of Jesus and not touch the world around us.
Touch is an important aspect of communicating with someone. There is something intimate and close about touching other people. Maybe this is why touching is taboo in many settings – the intimacy is too much for some people to take. In terms of OT religion, the intimacy of touch made the uncleanness of one person rub off on another. In some cultures, touching is a way of showing solidarity-of being connected with someone else. I used to work in the public high school system and it was not uncommon to see two girls walking down the hall holding hands. Not the boys, of course, because American men don’t do that!
There is something intimate in touch, and our culture has said that it’s just not right to see men acting in that way. In the middle east and Asia you can see men walking down the street holding hands. They aren’t lovers – they are simply relative or close friends who are connected to each other. Everyone who sees them knows that to mess with one means taking them both on. Touch communicates intimacy and connection. So it’s a big deal when the spiritual leaders of God’s people said that unclean people had to remain outside of populated areas. It’s an even bigger deal when someone decides to break these taboos! One time, as Jesus was walking along:
A leper came to him, begged him and said, “If you wish, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand, touched him, and said to him, “I do will it. Be clean.” And the leprosy left him immediately, and he was made clean. Then, warning him sternly, he dismissed him at once. Then he said to him, “See that you tell no one anything, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed; that will be proof for them.” The man went away and began to publicize the whole matter. He spread the report abroad so that it was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly. He remained outside in deserted places, and people kept coming to him from everywhere. (Mark 1:40-45)
This is the attitude most people have with diseased people. No touchy! Stay away. I’d rather not come into contact with you. And here this man with some sort of skin disease approaches Jesus. You can just imagine the horror on the faces of the original audience 1900 years ago…. “So a leper came to Jesus….” “What!?!? Oh, no he didn’t!” It’s shocking. He should know better.
But still he comes to Jesus. And he’s got nerve. “If you wish, you can make me clean,” he says. Skin diseases can be serious things. They aren’t easily cured. Years ago I had a skin condition that I could not identify. I was red, splotchy, and itchy. It freaked some people out to look at me or be near me. They kind of kept their distance. Even one of the doctors I went to walked in the room and looked at me from afar. Then he took me to the dermatologist who diagnosed me in 10 seconds (don’t worry, I’m fine!). Not even my doctor wanted to get to close without knowing what was going on! Rabbinic opinion stated that it is as difficult to cleanse a leper as to raise the dead! Good thing this leper came to the right guy!
The amazing part of this story is not that the man with a skin disease came to Jesus. The amazing part is Jesus’ response. Jesus stretches out his hand and touches the diseased man. And immediately the man became clean. Here’s the neat thing – Jesus doesn’t become unclean by touching the leper; the leper becomes clean by Jesus’ touch. The filth that is in one person does not stick to others, nor does outward uncleanness defile people who are clean of heart. So [Jesus] touches him in his untouchability.
If Jesus doesn’t blink before touching a scabby, diseased man, how does Jesus look upon me? We’re all untouchable in some way. None of us is perfect. The apostle Paul admits that when he says, “It’s not that I have already reached this goal or have already become perfect. But I keep pursuing it, hoping somehow to embrace it just as I have been embraced by Christ Jesus.” So there is something in all of us that appears untouchable to others. We struggle with addiction. We struggle with past sexual abuse. We struggle with slander. We struggle with impurities of every kind that, if people could see the real us, would keep others far off at a distance. We would live away from others and cry out, “Unclean! Unclean!” And Jesus reaches out his hand and touches us in our untouchability.
In the Gospel of Mark this healed man is the very first missionary! Should we be quiet about Jesus? No. When Jesus touches us in our uncleanness the only appropriate response is to go out and tell others! When was the last time God touched you? When was the last time you told someone else about God touching you?
After the healed man went back into town and told about what happened, so many people swamped Jesus that Jesus wasn’t able to go into town any more. There’s an ironic reversal between Jesus and the diseased man. Initially, the man is forced on the outskirts and Jesus can travel in and through the towns. Then Jesus touches and cleans the man and the man can now go into town and Jesus is forced to stay on the outskirts because of the mobs of people and has to remain in the deserted places.
Similarly, Jesus has done a role reversal with us – he has taken our place on the cross. The disease of sin that would have been our undoing is now undone as he takes it on himself. This is the good news that we need to be sharing with others! “Hey, Jesus touched me! Let me take you to the foot of the cross so he can touch you too!”
There’s an old Gaither song that goes, “He touched me, oh, he touched me. And oh, the joy that floods my soul. Something happened and now I know, he touched me and made me whole.” Are you willing to let others know how God has touched your life?