The Touch

outstretchedarms_image2The 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.

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Want to explore further?

  1. Read all of Luke 5. Note the ways that Jesus interacts with everyone he encounters differently than most religious people would.
  2. Read Luke 7:1-10. What do you make of the different healing methods Jesus employed with the leper and the centurion’s servant?
  3. 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!”

Jesus Is Worth It

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Three times in the Gospel of Luke we read about Jesus having dinner in the home of a Pharisee. Casa de Pharisee is a surprising place to find him, since Jesus and the Pharisees were not exactly BFFs. That probably had something to do with the fact that Jesus kept calling them names like “hypocrite” and “snake,” and he kept saying things that set off their theological propriety alarms. They weren’t very fond of his audacious habit of doing things only God could do, like forgiving sin and redefining the Sabbath. And it bugged them that he had really low standards for table fellowship, showing an annoying tendency to welcome sinners and eat with them.

But Jesus also welcomed Pharisees and ate with them. All three times we read about him in their homes, we see him conducting a clinic on how not to get invited back. He lectured and critiqued his hosts, and he told stories in which he used them as an illustration of what not to do.

The first Pharisee host to experience Jesus’ rudeness was named Simon, and his story is recorded in Luke 7:36-50. Simon invited Jesus and some other guests to dinner, but before they got to dessert an awkward party crasher showed up. A local woman “who lived a sinful life” (v.37) heard that Jesus was there and invited herself in. She stood behind Jesus, weeping. Then she began to wet his feet with her tears, and wipe them with her hair. Then she started kissing his feet and pouring perfume on them.

Luke describes Simon’s reaction:

“When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is – that she is a sinner.'” -Luke 7:39

Simon’s internal monologue reveals a fundamental assumption of the Pharisees: holiness requires separation from that which is unholy. The goal of the Pharisees was to be holy, to obey God’s law, and to help others to do the same. And they assumed that the way to stay pure was to stay as far as possible from that which was impure. The title “Pharisee” most likely comes from a word that means “separated one.” They invested a tremendous amount of energy in avoiding people and situations that might contaminate them.

Simon assumed that Jesus would share his pious repulsion from sinners. So the fact that Jesus was not saying, “Eww, gross” and running from the building to get away from the flawed female at his feet must have meant that he didn’t perceive what a sinner she was, which must have meant that he was not all that folks made him out to be.

But Jesus was fully aware of the woman’s sinfulness. He simply was not frightened of it the way Simon was. Jesus chunked the Pharisees’ ethic of quarantine from sinners and lived an ethic of embracing sinners. Jesus had the audacity to believe in reverse contamination – that his goodness would rub off on the sinful people around him. He touched lepers, and he rubbed shoulders with tax collectors, and he let sinful women do embarrassing things with his feet.

Luke 7:40 tells us that Jesus “answered” Simon, which is interesting and more than a little unsettling since v.39 says that Simon was talking to himself. Jesus told Simon a story about a moneylender who had two clients who couldn’t pay him back. One owed two months’ salary, the other owed two years’ salary. The lender graciously forgave both debts. Jesus teed up an easy question for Simon: which of the two clients would love the moneylender more? Simon gave the obvious reply that the one who had been forgiven more would love more.

Jesus then clarified that the nice little story was being enacted in real life at Simon’s dinner party. He basically said, “Let’s do a little comparison and contrast, Simon. I came to your house, and you didn’t even think I was worth basic hospitality: you didn’t give me water for my feet, or a peck on the cheek, or oil for my head. But this woman has not stopped adoring me since she arrived. She has poured out bountiful love along with her tears and her perfume.”

Jesus said that the woman’s abundance of affection flowed from her awareness that she had been forgiven a massive debt. Her love was fueled by gratitude for God’s grace. Simon, on the other hand, didn’t feel a need to show much love to Jesus because he didn’t think he owed Jesus that much. The fact that Simon viewed himself as a decent chap who didn’t need a lot of grace left him incapable of going overboard in his love for Jesus.

I confess that the scene at Simon’s table is deeply convicting for me personally, because I have much more in common with Simon than with the woman. You won’t often find me crying at Jesus’ feet. You won’t often see me going overboard in expressing my love for him. And I have to wonder if that lack of abandon is because on some level I don’t recognize that Jesus is worth it – I don’t grasp how much he has done for me – I don’t realize how big of a debt he has forgiven.

After Jesus finished hitting Simon (and me) right between the eyes, he turned to the woman and told her that her sins were forgiven. That pronouncement got the other dinner guests all stirred up over Jesus’ audacity, wondering just who he thought he was. Then he told the woman that her faith had saved her, and she could go in peace.

At the table of Simon the Pharisee, we learn that there appear to be no limits to Jesus’ willingness to extend grace. His willingness to offend is equally expansive.

What would happen if we dropped our Pharisaical pretentiousness, joined the sinful woman on the floor, and gave Jesus the lavish love he deserves?

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Want to explore further?

  1. Read Luke 11:37-54 and 14:1-24, the accounts of the two other times Luke describes Jesus dining in the home of a Pharisee. What jumps out at you about these stories?
  2. Search for “Pharisee” on biblegateway.com and scroll through a few of their encounters with Jesus. What do you think they found so threatening about Jesus?
  3. How would Jesus’ audacious words and actions have impacted you if you had been one of the other guests at Simon’s table? How do they affect you today?