“Incensed, Jesus reached out his hand, touched him, and said, ‘I do want to. Be clean.’”
Mark 1:41 (Common English Bible)
A provocative cartoon has recently circulated on social media that depicts an elderly woman arriving for worship. She approaches “her” seat in the sanctuary, touches a young man seated with his family on the shoulder and says, “I understand you are newcomers. Welcome. So glad you’re here. Oh, by the way, you’re in my pew.” The cartoon is unsettling for those who have worshiped regularly for some time. We have seen it. For some, it was their shoulder that was touched. Any sincerity of welcome dissipates when the woman makes it all about her – and her one desire to have her seat returned. It is an all too common narrative, placing oneself before others.
Here, in this unfolding drama in Mark’s Gospel, a leper thrusts himself into this narrative – a me first approach to life – and asks if Jesus would write another narrative, one that places others before self: “If you want, you can make me clean.” (Mark 1:40b) What must the leper have felt? All he desired is a cure for his skin disease. Because of his disease he was an outcast. When he was outdoors, he was feared and shunned by everyone. Whenever he came within close proximity of others he was required to cover his face with a cloth and cry, “unclean,” so that no one came closer to him and risked infection. It was self-imposed isolation – or isolation required by religious law, which makes it all the more heartbreaking.
There is good news in this story. Jesus ignored the conventional taboo of remaining at a distance from such people, went right up to him, touched him and released love and healing into the man. Jesus’ gesture was instinctive, gracious, and spontaneous. It was the natural expression of someone who lived in an alternative narrative that placed others first. It was of no concern to Jesus what others may think of him. The result was that the man’s isolation was dismantled and health restored. I imagine that every time this man told his story – and Mark tells us that he “started talking freely and spreading the news” – he would bring the story to a climax by saying, “He touched me!”
Jesus wrote a different narrative in this encounter with human need. Entering swiftly and readily into the midst of people’s joy and sorrows, Jesus provided the world with an alternative way to live. Rather than keeping people at arm’s length, perhaps justifying this response that their misery is their fault or the result of poor choices, Jesus welcomed people with warmth and affection – particularly those who had great need. Whenever Jesus confronted misery, illness, and loneliness, his heart grew larger. Jesus asks those who would follow him to do the same. Today we have conquered distance and now travel the world with considerable ease. What remains, Jesus teaches, is that we close the distance we have between one another.