Touching the Untouchables

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : Luke 5:12-13

While he was in one of the cities, there came a man full of leprosy; and when he saw Jesus, he fell on his face and besought him, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” And he stretched out his hand, and touched him, saying, “I will; be clean.” And immediately the leprosy left him. And he charged him to tell no one; but “go and show yourself to the priest, and make an offering for your cleansing, as Moses commanded, for a proof to the people.”

Luke 5:12,13 rsv

That word untouchable has always held for me a special kind of sadness. A large hereditary group in India has been known for generations by that name. In traditional Hindu belief and practice, these people defile by contact any person, food, or drink of a higher caste person. For that reason, all those within this group are strictly segregated and restricted to the most menial kind of work. They are social pariahs, outcasts, people to be despised and shunned. Try to imagine what it must feel like to be one of the untouchables, looked down on not only as unwanted, but as an actual menace.

We have people like that in our society today, don’t we? They are the sufferers, for example, with AIDS. Those with this disease may have difficulty getting the medical attention they desperately need, securing a job, or if they are children, even being welcomed in a classroom. An atmosphere surrounds them of fear and reproach. They are today’s “untouchables.”

In the social world of Jesus’ time, lepers were the untouchable people. They were not allowed to live in ordinary neighborhoods. They could not mingle with the citizenry. It was theirs to live outside the city walls in situations of indescribable squalor and degradation. If a healthy person chanced to come near one of them, he was required to cry out “Unclean, unclean,” covering his lips, moving away.

One day Jesus met a man like this. Listen as I read about him in Luke, chapter 5, beginning at verse 12,

While he was in one of the cities, there came a man full of leprosy; and when he saw Jesus, he fell on his face and besought him, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” And he stretched out his hand, and touched him, saying, “I will; be clean.” And immediately the leprosy left him. And he charged him to tell no one; but “go and show yourself to the priest, and make an offering for your cleansing, as Moses commanded, for a proof to the people.”

FULL OF LEPROSY

Think first about who this man was. Here is the only thing said about him. He was a man “full of leprosy.” He was not defined by his appearance, his stature, his color. We have no idea what he looked like. He was not described in terms of his life work, as we often do with people: “He’s a mechanic” or “He’s a truck driver,” or, “She works in a local bakery.” Nothing of that kind is here. There is no hint of what nationality he was, what race, where he was born, what his family was like. Nothing is said about his lifestyle or his character.

There was one overwhelming reality about this man made in God’s image, this man who could be a man after God’s own heart. He was full of leprosy. That filled his cup, made up his life, summarized him.

After all, he could have no dwelling among the healthy, no continuing family associations, no employment among his fellows, no security, no supports to his self-esteem, no prospects, no hope. Leprosy had ended all of that when it invaded his body. Now his emptiness was filled with one dreadful reality: he was a leper.

GROWING IN FAITH

Notice next what this man does. He sees Jesus. He becomes aware of the Lord’s presence, looks in His direction, focuses attention upon Him. You can almost see faith beginning to arise in his heart. Faith is, you know, a kind of vision, seeing things in a new way, becoming aware of new possibilities in the presence of Jesus. If we who serve Christ can get people in their helplessness and hopelessness to behold Him, to look toward Him, wonderful things can happen. That’s the aim of all our preaching. A preacher is a voice crying, a finger pointing, “Behold, the Lamb of God. There He is; look at Him.”

Then the man falls on his face. He couldn’t really have been close to Jesus at this moment. It must have been prostration at a distance, but it expressed a total self-abasement, a humbling in the dust. Falling on our faces before someone is a recognition of great worthiness in another, of wonder and worship.

It’s tremendously encouraging when people humble themselves before Jesus, when they recognize His worth and begin to give Him praise and adoration. Again, it’s a sign of faith on the grow, visibly deepening.

Then the man appeals. He prays. This is faith’s further expression, when it becomes articulate. First there is vision, then body language, now voice. He besought Jesus. He asked for something. He pleaded. The word for praying here is often translated supplication. Faith is growing strong in this entreaty. It’s the characteristic approach of a child – expressing dependence, trust, expectation.

The man was definite in what he sought, no question about that. He wanted healing, cleansing. Everything was focused there, all his hopes and dreams gathered up in this one request, “Jesus, I want to be healed, to have the flesh again of a normal human being. Do this one thing for me.”

Next, in a poignantly beautiful way, he expresses his total confidence in Jesus’ power, Jesus’ lordship over disease, “You are able to cleanse me.” It’s as though he had said, “This isn’t too hard for You, Lord. Nothing is. No miracle is beyond You. I know that You can do all things.” Talk about faith! It’s fairly shouting now in this man.

The only thing He’s not sure of is Jesus’ willingness, “Lord, if You will,” he asks, “if You are willing.” Everything depends on that. “If you simply say the word, if You even will it to be so, the healing will happen.” That’s what the man is expressing. “I know You can, Jesus. Will You do it for me? Will You? Will You?”

THE LORD’S TOUCH

The first thing Jesus did in response must have totally amazed this leper. We don’t know how far away he was standing at the time, but Jesus moved toward him, closed the distance, came near. Then He did the unthinkable. He stretched out His hand and touched him. Think of how frightening it must have been for the leprous man, but how affirming also. Think how astonishing it must have been to the onlookers, even scandalizing to some of them. Jesus was violating the taboo, stepping across the forbidden boundary. What courage, what compassion was expressed in that touch!

And remember who Jesus is. That’s the deeper point of all this. Jesus is not merely a human healer, full of pity. He is the Lord of glory, God come to visit us in a human life. In Jesus, God is reaching out to touch the untouchables. What a disclosure of God’s heart toward people, His amazing identification with us in our lot, His willingness to take on what we suffer from! What a hint in advance of what the Lord Jesus will later do in taking upon Himself all our sins and sorrows, in dying on our behalf so that we can live!

Now Jesus answers all the man’s questionings. He clears up any mystery that may possibly remain. To the question, “Will You, Jesus?” He says, “I will.” He wills it. His whole life of ministry, death and rising again say that. Our total well-being is His loving aim. He not only has the power. He has the heart. Hallelujah!

Jesus speaks the word of sovereign authority now, “Be cleansed.” Again, His word makes things happen. The divine fiat “Let it be so” is a heavenly mandate that nothing can withstand. Creative power goes forth from Jesus, making this man completely well.

WHAT NOW?

But that’s not the end of the story. Jesus has some instruction for this man newly restored, who marvels at what has happened to him. First, he is to tell no one. That’s a surprising word, isn’t it? Doesn’t Jesus want His mighty works to be known? Doesn’t He want others to discover what He’s able to do, so that they also will believe His claims? Apparently not, at least at this point. It’s quite a test of obedience that Jesus is proposing to this man, isn’t it? Tell no one? When your whole life has been gloriously changed and you’re no longer a leper, no longer untouchable? Tell no one? But that was the word.

Rather, he was to go and show himself to the priest. That was the procedure required in the Old Testament when a leper was to be certified as cured and re-admitted to normal society. He had to demonstrate to the authorities that he was clean. In a way, Jesus was saying to the man that he was to let his healing speak its own message. Let the world see the difference that Jesus had made in him. That was to happen first. He was to bring the offerings to God which Moses had commanded, thus to express his awareness of God’s doing the healing and his own deep gratitude. All of this was ultimately meant to be a witness to the people, a sign of God’s gracious work. But all of that in its time, in the way the Lord had intended.

So that’s the story of Jesus’ touching this untouchable man. What does it mean for us? It surely means that for us there can be no “untouchables,” that is, none whom we despise, whom we shun, whom we avoid at all costs. Medical and sanitary precautions, of course, have their place, but they must never shut people out from our caring. To have the love of Christ in our hearts is to be compassionate toward people in need, all kinds of need. It’s to reach out and touch them with some meaningful communication of our love. We can’t, as the followers of Jesus, withdraw from doing that.

Remember how Jesus talked to women in public when that wasn’t customary to do? How He chose to go through Samaria, though Samaritans were despised by the Jews? How He went to Zacchaeus’s house, though Zacchaeus was a scorned, hated publican? How He outraged the comfortably religious by eating at a table with sinners? It was all a part of His ministry, reaching out to touch those untouchables with a healing, accepting love. Following Him has to mean something of that for us, a willingness to step across the boundaries; identify ourselves with the despised, take some risks, and thus bear witness to this marvelous grace of Jesus.

But that’s not the only message. All of us have something in common with this man full of leprosy. If the truth were known about your life, if who you are could be capsulized in a phrase like this, what would it be? Are you filled with anxiety perhaps, almost consumed by fear? Are you filled with resentment, with bitterness over the way you may have been wronged? Are you filled with despair perhaps over the way life has caved in on you, or perhaps filled with guilt and shame over the way in which you’ve hurt people or made such a mess of your own life? Whatever it is that’s consuming you, filling you, cutting you off from others, ruining your life, souring your hopes, remember this nameless man, this one full of leprosy and what happened to him in the presence of Jesus.

In the preaching of the gospel, right now, Jesus of Nazareth is passing by, this One who loved and healed, who died and rose again. Take a long look at Him. Fix your attention on Him as that leprous man did. Humble yourself before Him. Recognize Him as Lord and give Him praise. And then, like that man long ago, call on Jesus out of the depths of your need. Tell Him what you really want. Make your appeal to His heart. Tell Him both your longings and your uncertainties. You’ll never appeal to Jesus Christ in vain. He’s able to help, able to heal and, O friend, He is abundantly willing. That’s the gospel. Call upon Jesus Christ and you will be saved.

Prayer: Father, we stand amazed at the kind of love with which You have reached out toward us, in our unworthiness, in our guilt, in our lostness. O Lord, may every person sharing this message know about that great love and call upon You for salvation. And may all of us who do believe, then embody this kind of love in the way we treat people. In Jesus name. Amen.