The timeless literary classic Diary of a Wimpy Kid provides an account of the trials and tribulations of life in middle school. Greg Heffley, the book’s narrator and protagonist, describes a particularly trying tribulation known as the cheese touch. There was a piece of moldy cheese on the playground blacktop that had been there as long as anyone could remember; one day, an unfortunate student touched it, unwittingly unleashing a terrible scourge on the school. He had the cheese touch, which was like an extremely serious case of the cooties. For years, the cheese touch was passed from one unfortunate student to another by touch, and those who were infected became outcasts. Greg and his friends expended a great deal of energy avoiding those who were infected.
Many religious people through history have taken a “cheese touch” approach to spirituality. The main goal is to avoid contact with someone who is infected by sin. The world is divided into neat categories of clean and unclean, and we clean folks need to keep our distance from the unclean ones.
But Jesus took a radically different approach. One of the most audacious things about him was the way he interacted with the moldy, slimy people around him. Luke 5:12-14 records a striking scene in which Jesus encounters someone the world considers unclean. Lepers were not the most popular folks in Jesus’ day. In addition to the gruesome physical consequences of their disease, they had to deal with social and spiritual ramifications that were even worse. The disease made them unclean. They were contaminated. Unacceptable. Trash. Living corpses. People assumed their condition was God’s punishment for their sin, and that they were contagious. If you were a leper, you had to announce your presence wherever you went so that clean people could avoid contamination. You had to sit in the leper section of the school cafeteria. You couldn’t go to worship with friends or sit in the stands at your daughter’s Galilean Junior Soccer League game. You had to move away from family and friends and live outside town with other unclean people. And for as long as you had the disease, you would experience no human touch. No hugging your spouse. No holding your children. No touch.
Luke says that a leper approached Jesus. Most rabbis would have seen him coming and thrown a rock at him, instructing him to stay away from people he could contaminate. But when Jesus saw him, he didn’t resist or run. He wasn’t repulsed – he was filled with compassion.
The leper fell at Jesus’ feet. Jesus didn’t drive him away for being unclean or lecture him for breaking the law by approaching him. The leper spoke, stating that he knew Jesus was able to heal him and he hoped Jesus was willing.
Jesus responded by doing something the leper never would have thought to ask him to do.
“Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. ‘I am willing,’ he said. ‘Be clean!” And immediately the leprosy left him. – Luke 5:13
Jesus touched a leper!
The leper had broken the rules by coming to Jesus. Then Jesus broke the rules by touching the leper. Jesus decided that the man’s need was more important than his own safety, and more important than the Old Testament purity laws. Jesus touched him!
And Jesus didn’t have to touch him. He had the ability to heal from a distance, as he would demonstrate a couple of chapters later by healing a centurion’s servant located in a different zip code from him. Jesus could have told the guy to stop when he was 20 feet away and spoken the words of healing through a megaphone. But Jesus knew that as much as the guy needed to be healed, he needed to be touched. So he touched him, and then he spoke the words of healing. And the leprosy was gone.
Instead of obsessing about keeping himself clean, the audacious Jesus gets his hands dirty. He doesn’t fear the uncleanness of others. Instead, he brings his cleanness to them. In a world that assumes that the holy thing to do is to move away from the person who is unclean and broken, Jesus consistently moves in the opposite direction.
When there is a demon possessed man living in a tomb on the outskirts of a pig farm, Jesus is moving toward him rather than away from him. When there is a Samaritan woman with a severely flawed relational track record, Jesus shares a drinking bucket with her instead of going to find another well. When there is a tax collector doing his dirty business on the side of the road, Jesus calls him as a disciple instead of crossing to the other side. And when there is a man covered in leprosy on the ground in front of him, Jesus touches him instead of driving him away.
Jesus embraces unclean folks like us in the midst of our messiness. Our brokenness doesn’t make Jesus say, “Eww, gross – stay away from me.” Our sin doesn’t frighten him away from us. We can’t be too unclean for him. He will touch us and heal us.
And the order is important. He touches us, and then he heals us. He doesn’t require that we get cleaned up before he welcomes us. He touches us while we are still unclean. He knows about every flaw, every ugly sore. And he audaciously reaches out and touches us.
Want to explore further?
- Read all of Luke 5. Note the ways that Jesus interacts with everyone he encounters differently than most religious people would.
- Read Luke 7:1-10. What do you make of the different healing methods Jesus employed with the leper and the centurion’s servant?
- Do you ever wonder if Jesus would reach out to someone like you? Tell him thanks for the good news that the answer to that question is a loud “yes!”