The Walking Dead and the Unclean – Greg Albrecht
While Jesus was in one of the towns, a man came along who was covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he fell with his face to the ground and begged him, “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.” And immediately the leprosy left him (Luke 5:12-13, my emphasis).
During the first century A.D. leprosy was a generic term for a variety of disfiguring and fatal skin diseases. Lepers were forbidden to be around others. They were forbidden to enter cities. They could not earn a living and had to depend on charity. Once determined to have leprosy a leper could no longer “go home” to see their families and loved ones – they were forced into isolation.
Lepers were required to warn anyone who seemed to be getting too close and thereby entering an “impure” space to call out “unclean.” Lepers were the “walking dead” of that society – dead men and dead women walking. Religion of the day and age regarded the “odds” of a leper being healed almost as improbable as someone being raised from the dead.
In the Jewish culture dominated and defined by the old covenant leprosy was viewed as God punishment for sinful behavior. God didn’t love them. Humans didn’t love them. Lepers were impure, unholy and unclean. They were truly the walking dead.
Anyone with such a defiling disease must wear torn clothes, let their hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of their face and cry out ‘Unclean! Unclean! As long as they have the disease they must remain unclean. They must live alone; they must live outside the camp (Leviticus 13:45-46).
The law stipulates that only those whose heart is pure and whose hands are clean (washed) may ascend to God and stand in the holy place of God’s presence (Psalm 18:20, 24:3-4). The Old Testament law contains many purity laws concerning human touch and concerning clean/unclean foods that may or may not be eaten.
One can only imagine the shame and guilt internalized by lepers as they were forced to call themselves “unclean.” Lepers were thus commanded by the law to proclaim their lack of worthiness, value and love. The leper did not self-identify himself to Jesus as “unclean” but he asked Jesus to make me clean (Luke 5:12). Luke suggests the leper was “in town” and that he came close enough to Jesus to throw himself as his feet. The leper broke the law. Jesus healed this law-breaker.
Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. Jesus didn’t give this law-breaker a hell fire and brimstone sermon, condemning him, but instead reached out and touched him. In fact, according to the law Jesus himself became unclean as a result of touching “the unclean.” Jesus broke the law.
According to the gospel, purity flows from Jesus, God in the flesh, to the leper so that the leper is made whole, pure and healed. This is not the only time in the Gospels that Jesus broke the purity laws of the old covenant. The gospel imparts spiritual purity over against physical purity. When Jesus said “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8) he is obviously not referring to purity that is gained by obedience to law.
Jesus of course could have healed the leper from a distance, refusing to make physical contact. But he chose to directly confront the law with the gospel. He chose to heal this man not simply of a fatal and horrific skin disease but restore the total well-being of the leper – cleansing him physically, emotionally, spiritually and psychologically. He touched the leper. He identified himself with the leper. He touched the untouchable and redeemed him. He still does.
Jesus brought his love, mercy and grace to the leper. He touched him. He was there with him, though no one else would be … for good reason … the law prohibited them from doing so. Jesus touched the leper to show him his love, and impart his complete healing, in every sense of the word.
We don’t know that much about the power of touching and being touched, but we do know that humanity at large is starving for affection, tenderness, love, acceptance and forgiveness. We do know that our world is a world of isolation, quarantine and division, on virtually every level. The grace of God is complete and total healing, in and through Jesus Christ our Lord.