Summary: How Jesus responded to those who were unclean teaches us a couple of lessons.
If I were to ask those of you who are mothers, do you like for your children to come up and give you a big hug, I suspect you would say, “Of course!” But, let me ask you, are you always anxious and willing to have your beloved child run up to you and put their arms around you?
Most of you know that our son Josh is working at Makoto’s. Sometimes he clears the tables, sometimes he washes the dishes, sometimes he helps prepare the food. But, no matter what he does, he always seem to come home smelling like shrimp and covered in grease. It’s not uncommon for him to come in the door, walk toward Sueanne with his arms open and say, “I love you, Mom. Give me a hug!”
And invariably, she will say, “Get away from me! Don’t touch me! Go get cleaned up and then you can hug me.” She doesn’t like to touch that which is unclean.
Now that’s not always the case. Mothers don’t always shy away from dirty children. Imagine this: You hear the distressed cry of your child and look up: Your 2-year-old son has tripped out in the yard, he’s skinned his knees and he’s covered in mud. And now he comes running toward you, tears streaming through the dirt. He’s got mud on his clothes, his face, his hands, he’s got blood dripping down his leg.
What do you mothers do? Do you say, "Don’t come near me!" Do you say, "You made your mess -- now go clean it up!" Now to an older, responsible child, you might say that. But not to a young child, one who can’t clean himself. No, you take him in your arms, not concerned a bit that you’re getting your own clothes dirty. You comfort him, then gently clean off all the dirt and the blood. You love him, you clean him, and you comfort him.
That child comes to you, in effect saying through his tears: "I’m a mess. I can’t clean myself. If you’re willing, you can make me clean." And you’re always willing.
Today we want to see how Jesus responded in exactly this way to a leper -- for a Jew, the ultimate in uncleanness. And this incident will leave us with a couple of lessons -- one that has to do with how we ought to treat those around us that are in less than desirable circumstances. The other lesson has to do with the realization that Jesus is willing to cleanse us, just as he did the leper, when we humbly come to him.
The story begins in Mark 1:40. It simply says, “Now a leper came to him…”
Here was a man who had leprosy. Now in the Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments, the word “leprosy” is a broad term which includes a wide range of skin diseases. The very worst of those diseases was what we know as leprosy today, a condition which is also called “Hanson’s Disease”. We don’t know how severe the problem of this particular leper was, but let’s assume he had modern leprosy.
It’s a horrible disease. It begins with little specks on the eyelids and on the palms of the hands. Then it spreads over the body. It bleaches the hair white. It covers the skin with scales and oozing sores.
But that’s just what happens on the surface. Down under the skin, leprosy eats its way through the nerves. And soon the victim loses all sense of touch and pain, initially in the fingers and toes, then spreading up the arms and legs. So, a leper can’t feel anything. That may not sound so bad. The last time you stubbed your toe when you trip over a chair on your way back to bed, you probably wished that you didn’t feel anything. Or the last time you hit your thumb with a hammer or burned yourself on a hot pot. But what sounds like it might be nice is absolutely horrible. Because without the sense of touch, a person with leprosy eventually damages his toes, fingers, and feet. He will bump into objects, cut himself, get infections -- and not even notice.
Dr Paul Brand is a missionary who has conducted a great deal of research on the disease. He explains that in a leper colony in India, many of the lepers were missing fingers and toes. A lot of them seemed to lose them at night, for no apparent reason, they just disappeared. When someone finally stayed up all night to watch and see what happened, they found that rats were chewing off their fingers and toes at night -- but the victims didn’t wake up, because they didn’t feel anything.
So as leprosy advances, a leper doesn’t even look human. No fingers. No toes. Many of them blind. Ulcerated growth all over their face. Nobody wants to get near them, nobody wants to touch them. A leper becomes utterly repulsive -- both to himself and to others.