Leprosy is and has always been a terrible disease. Today it can be treated with a series of antibiotics. We know the cause, we know the treatments, and we know that it is not nearly as contagious as was feared until somewhat recently. Unfortunately, there are still many people in the world who contract leprosy and are unable to gain access to the necessary treatments. And this is the result:
One of the main symptoms of leprosy is the loss of sensation in the hands and feet. Nerve endings in the skin become numb to all sensations – including pain. Thus, a scratch, prick, or burn can go unnoticed for quite some time – which leads to infection. If these infections go untreated, which is as likely in undeveloped nations today as it was in ancient Israel, then fingers, toes, and entire limbs may need to be amputated. The untreated disease will eventually cause the infected person a slow, miserable death as his organs gradually succumb to infection and shut down.
Under the Law of Moses, persons with such skin infections were commanded to be cut off from the rest of society. They were ceremonially unclean and were forced to live alone outside the city (Leviticus 13:45-46). There was no hope. There was nothing anyone could do.
Until Jesus of Nazareth came along, healing people and driving out demons.
In Mark 1:40, a man with leprosy came to Jesus. A leper was forbidden to approach those who were clean under penalty of death. In fact, they had to yell out, “Unclean!” so that people could keep their distance. This man approached Jesus unannounced – risking death.
We don’t know much about this man. But can you imagine? He might have had to leave his wife and children without ever getting to hug them and kiss them good-bye. He couldn’t work. He had no social life. He was cut off from the synagogue, so he couldn’t even worship God or go to the Temple to offer sacrifices. He might not have felt the touch of another human being in years! He was probably disfigured, unable to stand straight. Missing a few fingers and toes. Oozing, bleeding sores all over his body.
This really was his one last shot.
“If you are willing, you can make me clean.” What faith! He had never met Jesus. Up to this point Jesus had never healed anyone with leprosy. But this man knew without a doubt that Jesus was his one chance. He had full confidence that Jesus could heal him. The only question was – would He? Would Jesus dare get involved with this guy?
Jesus is willing. He says the words, “Be clean,” and the leprosy immediately left the man. That would be an awesome end to the story right there. Except we’re given this detail: Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out His hand and touched the man.
Jesus does the unthinkable. He touches a leper! That was considered a death sentence in His day. Anyone who touched something/someone unclean became themselves unclean. Why would he do that? There are other times when he heals lepers just by saying the word – no physical contact needed (Luke 17:11-14).
This is just the first time we see Jesus do this throughout Mark’s gospel. He meets peoples’ needs – not just their physical needs but their spiritual and emotional needs, too. Jesus could have just said the words and this man would have been healed. But this man needed more. He needed the loving contact of another human being. Jesus’ touch was a touch of compassion and love. There is power in human touch beyond that of Jesus’ physical healing. This was an emotional healing, too.
Jesus touched the untouchable. He took this man’s uncleanness upon Himself. He leveled the playing field and came down to that man’s level. That’s what this man needed. And it’s what you and I need on a daily basis.