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Touching the Outcast

Who are we afraid to touch?

There was a time when people were afraid to touch patients with AIDS or be anywhere near them. Elizabeth Kubler Ross, the famed author of the book, On Death and Dying, tried to establish a work with AIDS patients in Highland County, Virginia, many years ago. However, she was, basically, driven out of the county, I believe, in part, by fear. On the positive side, on a worldwide level, Princess Diana helped many people to overcome their fear of AIDS by meeting with AIDS patients and actually touching them.

In our text for today from Mark 1:40-45 we are going to read about someone in the ancient world who most people were afraid to touch, most people except Jesus. Listen for God’s word to you….

A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, 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.” 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.

I want to examine with you this morning several key phrases from this text. The first one is: a leper came begging.

In the time of the New Testament, the term “leprosy” covered various types of skin diseases including psoriasis where the body becomes covered with white scales. With the practice of medicine being in a very primitive state, obviously these different types of leprosy, the incurable and the non-fatal, were not distinguished in Jesus’ day.

According to Leviticus, any such skin disease made the infected person “unclean”. They were cast out of the fellowship of humanity. In the days of Israelite wandering in the desert the leper had to live outside the camp. They were required to walk around with their clothes torn, their heads bare, a covering on the upper lip, and they had to cry out when anyone came near, “Unclean! Unclean!” Thus, the person infected with leprosy had to endure, not only the physical pain of their disease, but also the mental anguish and heartbreak of being completely banished from human society…shunned.

The Hebrew Scriptures make it clear that by approaching Jesus in this manner, this leper was breaking the law. However, obviously, that did not matter anymore to this sufferer; he just wanted a way out of his pain and misery…at any cost.

I wonder…has this ever happened to you? Have you ever been approached by a beggar, maybe not someone with leprosy, but a beggar of any kind? It is almost impossible to walk or even drive through any major city in the world today without having this happen. I know I have had it happen to me. Perhaps your response is like my usual response. Perhaps you turn away. And why do we turn away? Maybe we turn away because we are afraid that our gift will be abused, or that the beggar’s claim on our help is not legitimate, or we think that there are agencies better suited to help than we are. Perhaps we are afraid that our giving to a beggar will simply encourage him or her to remain in their beggar status.

Whatever our response to suffering or reason for it, one thing is clear: Jesus did not turn away from this beggar with leprosy. I think the lesson is that Jesus never turns away from any of us in our need.

I wonder … have we ever gone to Jesus begging for anything? Have we ever got down on our knees in humility like this beggar and asked Jesus, desperately, to meet our need? If not, I believe we all need to get to the point where we will do just that. If it takes hitting “rock bottom” so to speak, then it will be worth it, just to realize what our need has always been.

The second phrase I want to examine from this passage is: moved with pity. Jesus was moved with pity by the sight of this leper. Some early and reliable manuscripts of the New Testament actually say that Jesus was moved with anger. One can see why later scribes might replace with word for “anger” with the word for “pity”. It seems more acceptable. Thus, the word “anger” may be the original one.

Why was Jesus angry? Obviously, Jesus was not angry at this man or at the interruption. Perhaps he was angry “at the evil which spoils human nature in any shape or form.”[1] Maybe Jesus was angry at the injustice of an entire system that kept this man isolated from the human community he so much needed. Perhaps Jesus was angry about the lack of love shown to this sufferer. Maybe it was all the above.

I wonder…are we ever moved, as Jesus was, by the pain of the world? Do we ever feel pity, or even anger, because of the suffering of others? Are we moved, not simply by a passing emotion, but moved enough to do something about the suffering and pain of the world?

I have been to the island of Molokai, part of the Hawaiian chain of islands, where there used to be a leper colony. We flew over the island in a helicopter and then landed on one of the beaches. Our pilot explained to us that the lepers used to be dropped on the island by boat because in those days that was the only way of reaching the place. They would be dropped, not on land, but in the water, and even upon the jagged rocks in the water, because those who were dropping them off did not want to make contact with the leper colony. As horrifying as that is, perhaps it is a typical human response to suffering. Our bottom line response to suffering is to try to protect ourselves from it.

However, one man finally came along who had a different attitude. Father Damian was moved enough by the suffering of lepers to live among them as their priest. On March 19, 1864, Damien landed at Honolulu Harbor on Oahu as a missionary. Bishop Louis Désiré Maigret, the vicar apostolic of the Honolulu diocese, put out the call for priests to go as missionaries to the leper colony on Molokai. After much prayer, four priests volunteered to go. The bishop’s plan was for the volunteers to take turns assisting the inhabitants. Father Damien was the first priest to volunteer, and on May 10, 1873, he arrived at the secluded settlement, where Bishop Maigret presented him to the 816 lepers living there. Damien’s first course of action was to build a church. However, his role was not limited to being a priest. He dressed ulcers, built homes and furniture, made coffins, and dug graves. Six months after his arrival at Kalawao he wrote his brother, Pamphile, in Europe: “I make myself a leper with the lepers to gain all to Jesus Christ.”

Father Damien’s arrival was seen by some as a turning point for the community. Under his leadership, basic laws were enforced, shacks became painted houses, working farms were organized, and schools were established. At his own request, and that of the lepers, Father Damien remained on Molokai for the rest of his life.
In December 1884 while preparing to bathe, Damien inadvertently put his foot into scalding water, causing his skin to blister. He felt nothing, and thus he quickly realized that he had contracted leprosy. Damien usually began every sermon by saying, “My fellow believers…” Later that same morning, he began his sermon by saying, “My fellow lepers…”

Father Damien died of leprosy on April 15, 1889, at the age of 49. However, before his death, as some of you may know, he was joined by a man known as Brother Joseph Dutton, who was born here in Stowe. The Blessed Sacrament Church is built on land that used to belong to the Dutton family. The artwork on the outside of the church depicts the mission to Molokai.
Thank God for people like Father Damien and Brother Joseph who, rather than turning away from human suffering, run toward it. As we too allow ourselves to be moved with pity by the pain of the world, we will be walking in the footsteps of Father Damien, Brother Joseph, and even Jesus.
A third phrase from this passage that I would like to focus on is: Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him.
By doing this, Jesus broke all appropriate boundaries according to the Jewish law. Why did Jesus do this when he could have healed the leper simply with a word? I believe Jesus healed this man in this way because he knew this leper needed a touch, not just a word.
Imagine the situation of this man. It may have been years since he had received human touch from anyone. Imagine how alone, how isolated he must have felt.
In an article in Psychology Today Ray Williams writes,
In Communist Romania, dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, in a pathological program to raise the birth rate through “science,” established numerous orphanages. When the world was able to see these orphans after his overthrow, they were shocked to see severe underdevelopment in their social skills and values. The commonality for all these orphans was a lack of human physical touch, particularly of the loving kind….
Daniel Keltner, the founding director of the Greater Good Science Center and professor of psychology at University of California, Berkeley, says “in recent years, a wave of studies has documented some incredible emotional and physical health benefits that come from touch. This research is suggesting that touch is truly fundamental to human communication, bonding, and health.” Keltner cites the work of neuroscientist Edmund Ross, who found that physical touch activates the brain’s orbitfrontal cortex, which is linked to feelings of reward and compassion. Keltner contends that “studies show that touch signals safety and trust, it soothes. It activates the body’s vagus nerve, which is intimately involved with our compassion response and a simple touch can trigger release of oxytocin, aka “the love hormone.” Keltner also describes the research that shows the economic benefits of physical touch, citing his own recent study of NBA basketball teams, concluding that teams whose players touch each other more win more games.[2]
Jesus was not a scientist, psychologist, or psychiatrist, but I believe he understood the need for human touch. Jesus knew that this leper before him needed a human touch more than he needed anything else. And by his touch, Jesus healed this man.
This leads to a fourth phrase I would like to examine: Immediately the leprosy left him.
“Immediately” is one of Mark’s favorite words in this fast-paced Gospel. Here we learn that Jesus’ power to heal is immediate, cleansing, and total.
I wonder: what do we want Jesus to deal with immediately in our lives today? What would we like Jesus to heal in us right now?
While it is true that Jesus healed the leper immediately, it is also true that Jesus does not always work that way. In our society filled with microwaves, fast food, and thirty-second sound bites, we want everything to happen immediately. However, life does not always work that way.
As someone once said, when we pray Jesus sometimes answers no, sometimes answers slow, and other times answers go! Sometimes when we pray, Jesus will answer our need immediately. However, we need to be prepared for the fact that sometimes he works his healing in us over a lifetime. In short, we need to develop patience.
In this case, Jesus told the former leper to go, but he told him to go quietly. Why?
Tom Wright explains that in Jesus’ time if a leper showed up in his hometown, claiming to have been healed, people would be deeply suspicious. This former leper needed to follow the Law of Moses about lepers, not to be healed, but to be seen by others as having been healed.
Perhaps Jesus was worried about news leaking out that he was doing things that seemed to challenge the authority of the Temple. Jesus was not afraid of attracting notice. (In fact, this miracle attracted so much attention that Jesus could no longer enter a town openly without being besieged.) Perhaps Jesus was concerned about attracting the wrong kind of attention. Some people might be angry with him for bypassing the Temple system. Soon the question might be asked: is this Jesus a loyal Jew? Can his message about the kingdom of God be true? Can we believe him? Perhaps he has gone too far. This Jesus is too dangerous.[3]
Jesus did not want this to be the reaction at this point in his ministry, so he wisely told the former leper to be quiet about his healing. How amazingly different from the way most of us would handle the situation if we were in Jesus’ shoes. We would want the story to be on the front page of USA Today with television coverage by CNN, and we might do everything in our power to ensure that our miracle would receive that kind of attention.
The difference between Jesus and us, as we saw last week, is that Jesus listened more closely to his heavenly Father in prayer. That is how Jesus knew when to be silent and when to speak up, when to minister publicly and when to retreat into solitude.
I wonder: what might we do to cultivate two things: greater, active compassion for those who are suffering all around us, and ears that more sensitively, deeply listen to our heavenly Father in prayer.
Given this two-fold challenge arising out of this text, it seems appropriate to me to end with the prayer known widely through Alcoholics Anonymous:
“God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

[1] Donald English, The Message of Mark, Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992, p. 63.
[3] Tom Wright, Mark for Everyone, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004, pp. 14-15.


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