Sympathy

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Matthew 8:1-4

You probably know about Jesus’ compassion and sympathy for suffering people, but you might not have noticed how he often expressed it.

A lot of people are uncomfortable with touching – me for one. A quick handshake or a pat on the back is no problem, but I have trouble with demonstrative public displays of affection. And as for hugging strangers or kissing mere acquaintances, well that’s right out. This is not necessarily a boast; I’m not proud of my hang-up about physical contact. It’s just the way I am, it’s in my genes, it’s part of the price I pay for being a conservative, middle-aged man descended from a long line of stiff and uptight northern Europeans. But if you happen to be like me, let’s not allow our natural reticence about touching other people put us off from recognizing how important it can be.

One of the most appealing of all Jesus’ many attractive qualities was his sensitivity to suffering and his sympathy for sufferers. No one with his kind of fame and power was ever more demonstrative of tenderness and compassion towards needy people. Many of us feel bad when we hear about someone who is experiencing great pain or trouble. Some of us might even try to do something to help. But very few of us are willing to get directly involved in a messy situation of need. We don’t like to get our hands dirty, either figuratively or literally.

Some years ago, when our children were younger, my wife and I thought it would be a good experience to spend part of a vacation involved as a whole family together in service. So we spent a week as volunteers at an inner-city Christian ministry. We cleaned out filthy apartments, served in a soup kitchen, helped in a used clothing store. Our kids more or less hated it, and to tell the truth, I wasn’t real thrilled about the work myself. Yet we were at it for one short week, just five days. I wondered how people could serve in that kind of work permanently, for weeks and years, for a lifetime. I found myself thinking the same thing last year as I stood in Mother Teresa’s hospice for the dying in Calcutta. There volunteers were constantly moving down the long rows of the cots, tending to the most basic physical needs of the poorest of the poor, dying people who had been brought in to spend their final days in some measure of peace, dignity and comfort. How do these Christian care-givers do it? Where do they find the strength to serve? How can they stand the sights and sounds and smells, all the distasteful tasks?

The answer is simple. They are only following the example of their Lord, Jesus Christ. The Bible tells how Jesus, though he was by very nature divine, did not consider his exalted position as God to be something he should cling to, but he voluntarily gave it up and humbled himself to enter the world as a man. And then he stooped even lower, becoming a servant who spent his entire life attending to the needs of others. Jesus never shrank from human suffering. He willingly immersed himself in the lowest and worst situations. Jesus Christ was not afraid to get his hands dirty in ministering to the sickness, poverty, and squalor of his world. He used those hands, part of the body which he took up in his incarnation, to reach out and touch suffering people with healing and hope.

COMING DOWN FROM THE MOUNTAIN

Consider, for example, this story from the Gospel according to Matthew.

When he came down from the mountainside, large crowds followed him. A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.”

Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately he was cured of his leprosy. Then Jesus said to him, “See that you don’t tell anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.”

Matthew 8:1-4

“As he came down from the mountain . . .” What mountain is that? Jesus had just finished his famous Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). He had been teaching the crowds what it means to live a life that is pleasing to God. It was a sublime moment. Jesus had never been more eloquent, the crowds – for that matter, the world – had never heard more profound and beautiful teaching. Now Jesus comes back down to earth, so to speak. As he does, he’s immediately confronted with an instance of profound human need. A leper came to him – in another account of this incident Luke (5:12-14) tells us that the man was “full of leprosy;” (that’s the medical doctor noting on the chart just how bad the case was). This leprous man fell down before Jesus and asked for healing.

He had no doubt about Jesus’ ability or power to heal. The only question in the leper’s mind had to do with Jesus’ willingness. You see, in that time and culture lepers were the most revolting of all people. Their disease was incurable, and produced hideous symptoms. It was a sort of living death. What was perhaps even worse, they were considered impure, unclean, contaminating. They were literally untouchable. So there was a real point to this leper’s hesitant statement, “Lord, if you are wiling you can make me clean.” Jesus’ response was immediate and dramatic. He “reached out his hand and touched the man.” “I am willing,” he said. That touch was eloquent; in its own way it said as much as the great Sermon that went before it. We pass over this detail without letting it make much of an impression on us. But we ought to ponder it at length. Jesus Christ actually stretched out his hand to touch a leper, and healed him.

A SYMPATHETIC TOUCH

It was a touch of God. What it must have been to be touched by God when God had hands and fingers! What would it be like to feel the skin of God on our skin? What does it really mean?

I wonder if you have ever noticed how much Jesus touched people who were suffering, how often he conveyed his sympathy for them, his concern by means of his hands? The gospels are full of examples. Jesus touched people as he healed them.

There was Peter’s mother-in-law who lay sick with a fever: “And he came and took her by the hand and lifted her up and the fever left her” (Mark 1:31).

On another occasion he helped a man who was deaf and mute: “Taking him aside . . . he put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue; and looking up to heaven he sighed and said to him Ephphatha, ‘Be opened’” (Mark 7:33-34).

Then there was the case of a blind man. “And some people brought to him a blind man and begged him to touch him. And he took the blind man by the hand . . . and when he had spit on his eyes and laid his hands upon him, he asked him ‘Do you see anything?’” (Mark 8:23). Or the boy tormented by demonic, epileptic seizures, who convulsed and lay as dead: “But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose” (Mark 9:27). And don’t forget the young girl who actually was lying dead. Jesus, “taking her by the hand, said Talitha cumi, ‘Little girl, get up.’” And she did! (Mark 5:41).

Jesus not only touched suffering people who needed healing. He also touched struggling people who needed help, or reassurance, or a blessing from God, or just a sense that he cared. Think of Peter sinking in the sea as he tried to walk to Jesus across the water. Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. He touched the little children, gathering them in his arms and blessing them. He allowed himself to be touched, even by those whose contact would ceremonially defile him in the eyes of the law. There was a sick woman who reached out to him in a passing crowd because she thought, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed” (Mark 5:28). She was right. Another time a woman with a shady past came up to Jesus at a banquet and expressed her gratitude for his forgiveness by washing his feet with her tears and drying them with her hair. And especially there was Thomas, the disciple who doubted Jesus’ resurrection. More dramatically than anyone, Thomas was allowed to touch him, and all his doubts vanished in an instant.

But now think for a moment about why Jesus touched all these people, in particular this one man with leprosy who appealed to him for help. I don’t think that Jesus’ touch was either diagnostic or therapeutic. That is, he didn’t touch this suffering man in order to assist in healing him. Jesus wasn’t like our medical practitioners. Doctors, nurses, therapists – they all have to use their hands to treat diseases or injuries. But Jesus was different. He never needed anyone to tell him what was wrong with a person, he always knew. Nor did he have to touch people to make them well. Jesus could and did heal with a simple word. He didn’t even have to be present to do that.

So why did he touch this particular man, the man with leprosy – leprosy, with all its horrible features and associations; a leper, whose very contact would make Jesus unclean in the eyes of the law? Actually, nothing could really make him unclean. As one New Testament scholar has noted, Jesus was “the Pure to whom all things were pure; who was at once incontaminate and incontaminable . . . Another would have defiled himself by touching the leper; but he himself remaining undefiled, cleansed him whom he touched; for in him health overcame sickness, and purity, defilement and life, death” (R. C. Trench).

I think the reason Jesus touched this man is obvious. The leper had wondered whether Jesus was willing to help him, to have contact with him, to get involved in his messy life and its gross problems. Would Jesus take the time, would he be interested, would he care? Or would he be repelled? Remember what the man had said? “Lord, if you are willing . . .” That’s really an implied question: “Lord, are you willing? Would you really want to help someone like me, someone so hurting, so unclean?” Jesus didn’t offer the man only a verbal answer to his question. His touch was the answer. Jesus touched the man because he loved him, and to say that he loved him more powerfully than any words could. You see, touching is for those who love. Love can never be satisfied with mere words. It needs the grasp of a hand, an embrace, the feel of living skin on living skin.

TOUCHED BY GOD

Do you ever find yourself wondering about God? Not whether he can help you – you know that if there is a God he can do anything. But wondering whether he wants to help you. Do you sometimes wonder whether God even notices you, or if he does, whether he cares enough about you to get involved in the messy details of your life? Could God himself come to me and touch me with healing? Or are you thinking that the things inside your head or in your past – the stuff you keep hidden even from those closest to you – are so sure to gross God out that he’s only going to reject you? Well, guess what: God knows it all. He knows all about it. He knows things about you that you don’t even know. And he is still willing to touch you. He is reaching out his arms to embrace you right know.

You do realize that Jesus Christ has done far more for us than simply put his hand upon us. Christ allowed his arms to be stretched out on a cross for us, and still they reach toward us. Here is how one great Christian thinker put it: “In assuming our flesh, [Christ] has granted us more than the touch of his hand; he has brought himself into one and the same body with us, that we should be the flesh of his flesh. He does not only stretch out his arm to us, but he comes down from heaven even to the very depths . . . cleans all our dirt away, and pours upon us his own holiness” (John Calvin).

Maybe it would be a good idea to say thank you to him. And maybe you can show that by reaching out and touching someone else who is in need.