Summary: “Mercy triumphs over judgment” is one of the most important declarations in all of scripture-- both for our own salvation, and in how we reflect God’s love for a fallen world.
Mercy Triumphs Over Judgment
(Read Mark 1:40-45)
Spiros Zodhiates was a Greek scholar and Christian leader who told of once preaching on the love of God to a leprosy colony in India. Their members were so moved by his message that they came forward to embrace him afterwards. He said that was a moment of truth for him, whether to receive their hugs or to protect himself. He chose to receive their embrace and trust that God would honor his decision, whatever its consequences. I heard him speak soon after that experience, while he was still waiting to see whether he had been infected. Thankfully, he escaped that fate. But I’ve always remembered the great risk he took for the sake of love.
“Filled with compassion,” Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing” to heal you, he said. Leprosy was, of course, one of the most dreaded diseases of that time, and still is today, for that matter, in places like India, which has 60% of the world’s new cases. Hear what the Law in Leviticus commanded of lepers in Israel: “The person with such an infectious disease must wear torn clothes, let his hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of his face, and cry out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ As long as he has the infection, he remains unclean. He must live alone; he must live outside the camp” (Leviticus 13:45-46). It would be hard to imagine living a more stigmatized life.
Think about it: torn clothes and ungroomed hair (to convey their sickly status), a cloth over the nose and mouth, always warning others by announcing their unclean condition, and banished from any family or normal social connections. And that’s even aside from all the gruesome deformities and horrific disability that come with leprosy by the wasting of extremities (hands, feet, nose and ears), as well as skin ulcers, nerve damage and muscle weakness. And if all of that wasn’t enough, in much of the conventional thinking at the time, leprosy was also considered God’s judgment for that person’s sins, adding yet another terrible layer of shame and misery.
“Jesus, filled with compassion, reached out his hand and touched the man.” Notice that he didn’t keep a safe distance when he healed him. We’re told by Luke that the man was on his knees “with his face to the ground,” (his forehead touching the ground)—meaning that Jesus would easily have been able to avoid touching him, but “he reached out his hand and touched him,” something he would have had to bend over to do.
That’s a key detail we shouldn’t overlook. To touch a leper brought contamination under the Law of Moses. This was never done. Jesus himself would now be considered unclean and was also exposing himself to contracting leprosy. But his compassion prevailed over everything else: over the Law, over his personal safety, and over any social judgments. And so many of Jesus’ healings were done that way, through personal touch: using spit and mud to heal a blind man, putting his fingers into the ears and spitting on the tongue of a deaf and mute man, and taking Jairus’ daughter by the hand to raise her from the dead. He valued the importance of touch. He wasn’t aloof or removed from common humanity like many of the religious elite in Israel, but his ministry was one of very real contact and closeness with those he healed. His love and compassion drew him close to those in need.
Did you ever stop to think about what kind of reputation Jesus would have had, associating with prostitutes and the greedy, traitorous tax collectors, and no doubt others from the dregs of society who were all attracted to his compassionate, wide-open embrace of mercy? He loved them, first and foremost, by going to them “to seek and to save the lost,” and by receiving them whenever they came to him--even eating with “sinners” and touching lepers, knowing it would provoke a powerful, judgmental reaction. And it certainly did, as we see throughout the Gospels by the reaction of the scribes and Pharisees.
Human nature being what it is, it isn’t hard to imagine the kind of gossip there would have been about how Jesus seemed to prefer the company of fallen women and all sorts of other unsavory characters. How could he be the Messiah, “a glutton and a drunk, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” (Mt. 11:19). And who were his worst critics? The self-righteous religious leaders, who cared more about their respectability than loving those who need love the most.
A woman tells of an awakening in her life that humbled her to see the outcasts of the world through the eyes of Christ’s compassion:
We were the only family with children in the restaurant. I sat Erik in a high chair and noticed everyone was quietly eating and talking. Suddenly, Erik squealed with glee and said, “Hi there!” He pounded his fat baby hands on the high chair tray. His eyes were crinkled in laughter and his mouth was bared in a toothless grin, as he wriggled with excitement.