Jesus: The King of Kings and Lover of Lepers
The way Jesus Himself interacted with leprosy victims is a great illustration of God’s compassion for us.
Jesus lived in a highly superstitious time, when most people believed that leprosy was the result of a curse or of some incorrigible and hidden sin — not unlike modern Eastern religious systems that teach that your current place in life is the direct result of the karma, or lack thereof, in your previous life. It’s also not unlike the bad advice that Job, the Bible’s iconic figure of suffering, received from his nice, “godly” friends when they barked at him to repent before his sin caused even more problems.
In first-century culture, and especially among the ultra-religious elite, a victim of leprosy was often believed to have been afflicted by God.
His disease resulted from some sin, attitude, or choice that deserved just punishment, and one of God’s chief tools for administering such justice was the infliction of this debilitating, humiliating, and miserable disease. It was the application of the age-old law of retribution — bad things happen to bad people.
So anyone — even well-to-do people and sophisticated, religious, respected members of society — unfortunate enough to “catch” this disease would immediately be banished from society, condemned to a life of shame.
Should a leprosy victim ever have to travel back into town, he would have to announce himself as he walked through the streets, hands covering his upper lip: “Unclean, unclean, unclean!” In fact, even in recent history, in some parts of the world lepers have been required to carry a bell to warn others in the streets that they were approaching.
Leprosy, above all things, produced fear — and not the simple startlement of finding a spider crawling across your shoulder. This was incapacitating, panic-inducing fear.
If you were walking down a market street with your kids, and you heard the hoarse cry of “unclean” from an approaching leper, you would immediately, without hesitation, drop everything you were doing to get you and your family as far away from the approaching leper as quickly as possible.
Most modern people can’t comprehend the kind of terror that leprosy produced.
This cultural context is essential to understanding why Jesus’ interaction with lepers was so absolutely startling, and such a potent demonstration of the length to which God will go to extend grace even to people whom society believes are the least deserving of it. But then, isn’t that the definition of grace?
Jesus was often observed in conversations with prostitutes and tax collectors just after giving a cold shoulder to the wheeling-and-dealing Sadducees or refusing to get in a ceremonial tiff with the always-arguing Pharisees. But fooling around with leprosy victims went far beyond even that. These were the people despised by the most despised people in society. Even the greedy tax collectors wouldn’t dare get close enough to extort the lepers. And lepers were too disgusting for the prostitutes to sell them their services.
Even Jesus’ disciples thought His interaction with lepers was reckless — even dangerous. Yet, almost as quickly as we’re introduced to Jesus in the gospel of Mark, we find Him running into a man with leprosy. His reaction is a showstopper.
Jesus didn’t run away, turn His head, or try to avoid the diseased man.
No doubt the man had yelled “unclean” as he entered the city of Capernaum in a desperate effort to seek out the new Rabbi who was rumored to have the powers to heal even leprosy.
When Jesus saw the man, the Bible says He was “filled with compassion” (Mark 1:41). Filled means just that. He was topped off, almost pouring over with compassion. He was moved, as some other translations have put it.
When Jesus saw this rejected, isolated, abused, and very sick man, He was immediately moved from somewhere deep inside to care about this man. It was His first and immediate reaction. Most people were immediately repulsed, should they be unfortunate enough to stumble upon a leper. Jesus immediately cared for him.
Then Jesus did something absolutely absurd. The Bible says, in Mark 1:41,
Jesus reached out His hand and touched the man.
Another author has imagined the emotion of a moment when Jesus met a leper, from the perspective of the leper:
He [Jesus] stopped and looked in my direction as did dozens of others. A flood of fear swept across the crowd. Arms flew in front of faces. Children ducked behind parents. “Unclean!” someone shouted. Again, I don’t blame them. I was a huddled mass of death. But I scarcely heard them. I scarcely saw them.
Their panic I’d seen a thousand times. His compassion, however, I’d never beheld.
Everyone stepped back except Him. He stepped toward me. Toward me.
Five years ago my wife had stepped toward me. She was the last to do so. Now He did. I did not move. I just spoke. “Lord, You can heal me if You will.” Had he healed me with a word, I would have been thrilled. Had he cured me with a prayer, I would have rejoiced. But He wasn’t satisfied with speaking to me. He drew near me. He touched me. Five years ago my wife had touched me. No one had touched me since. Until today.
The touch of Jesus was all it took to yank this man out of his misery and re-create his story. Within seconds, the leper’s life course was totally altered one more time.
When hopeless situations come face-to-face with Jesus, things change, and this leper’s life was changed forever.
Jesus’ touch activated something inside of that man, and it must have produced one massive biological fireworks display.
Can you imagine the chemical reaction as that man’s predicament met the power of his Creator? There were probably sparks flying off of his DNA in every direction as twisted things straightened and numb things were resuscitated and life infused death to make something beautiful again out of this man whose days had been numbered. It was the moment where this man’s soul heard the voice of his Creator again, and the miraculous stepped into the inevitable and made a dying man dance.
Jesus was a healer, but He wasn’t just a healer — He was the healer who used His very hands to catalyze His miracles.
And we see Jesus doing this all through the Gospels — at least five times in the book of Mark alone. Jesus willingly, frequently touched the men and women others tried to avoid. He not only interacted with these rejected ones. He reached out and touched them.
He wanted, and was willing, to be close to them. That closeness was not the sign of a weak God who meddled with the undeserving, but of a strong God who could heal the sick and perform an even greater miracle: giving dignity back to the despised.
Grace and God’s power are friends, not enemies, of one another. It is not a weak God who associates with weak people, but rather a strong God, attracted to the opportunity to be powerful in their weakness.
Grace is hard. It shows not God’s weakness, but His incredible strength.
The God Who Dirties His Hands
Grace is the word we use to describe the means by which God allows people to overcome their differences and become close again, and Jesus demonstrated this grace by touching the leper.
Touching someone is an automatic sign of intimacy. It is often tender, compassionate; it is a bridge not just from a hand to a shoulder but also from a heart to a heart. You touch people you care about. You touch people you like. You touch people when they need to know that someone cares about them. When your friend gets a tragic midnight call, and she comes running to you seeking comfort, what do you do? You give her a shoulder to cry on, right? You don’t dole out calibrated answers to her hard questions about the unfairness of life. You don’t tell her that you “understand what she’s going through.”
You do one simple thing. You execute the power of touch. You put your arm around her as she weeps on your shoulder, so that if she knows nothing else, she at least knows that someone cares about her.
Jesus didn’t keep His distance from the messy world that He descended into when He left heaven’s golden streets for earth’s dusty Middle Eastern villages, filled to capacity with the poor and frustrated, the disenfranchised and the rejected.
Jesus didn’t revel in His priceless glory — rather, He gave Himself completely to the opportunity to make the inglorious feel that they mattered to God.
He “made himself of no reputation, and took upon Him the form of a servant,” and He intentionally reached out and touched those whom society rejected (Philippians 2:7).
In fact, to Jesus, the ones respected by society were often the dirty ones. It wasn’t the lepers and the prostitutes and the tax collectors who disgusted Jesus. It was the religious elites, the politically empowered, the rich and the powerful.
The Pharisees had no excuse — they were the guardians of the truth, but they had long traded a love for truth for a love for power. Jesus expected those whom society deemed “sinners” to live like “sinners,” but He must have been so disappointed to find that those who had memorized the Torah were blind to their own pride and self-righteousness. They needed God’s grace as much as the sinners they wanted to stone.
Jesus cared little about impressing the important people. He was too busy getting His hands messy with the regular ones, and He didn’t need friends in high places to change the world. In fact, eventually, those in high places would murder Him, and by doing so, unintentionally and unknowingly, save the world.
Amazingly, Jesus’ grace would be kind and strong enough to provide forgiveness — even to them.
Excerpted with permission from Dirty God: Jesus in the Trenches by Johnnie Moore, copyright Thomas Nelson.
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Doesn’t it amaze you that Jesus not only shunned the high society He could have enjoyed and instead hung out with the lowlifes? Hated people? Those looked down upon? Prostitutes? Thieves? And that He reached out and put His very own hands on those with deadly diseases because His love compelled Him to do so? Do you feel that level of love reaching out for you, touching you too? Come, join the conversation on our blog! We’d love to hear from you about Jesus’ shocking touch! ~ Devotionals Daily