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Jesus and the Leper:
the Touch that Restores

In our LGBT community, we know something of the reality of being a leper.
by Thomas Novak, OMI - DCD National Chaplain

A leper came to Jesus, begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can declare me clean.”  And becoming angry, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him.  “I do choose; Be made clean!”  Immediately the leprosy left him and he was made clean.  And snorting with indignation, he sent him away at once, saying to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone! But rather, go back, show yourself to the priest and make an offering prescribed by Moses as a witness against them.”  But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.  (Mark 1:40-45, as translated by Ched Myers in Binding the Strong Man)

In the liturgical churches, this little passage is read in “Year B” on the Seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time (in 2009, on February 22nd).  It is one that has special meaning for oppressed minorities, included the LGBT community.

We all know that in Palestine in the time of Jesus, a leper was feared as someone with a dreadful communicable disease.  It is said that when they met other people on the road, they had to warn the passers-by by calling out “Unclean! Unclean!”  Lepers could not come into the cities but had to stay outside, apart from the rest of society. 

To touch a leper, it was believed, would be to risk catching the disease.  There was a health risk.  However there was also a spiritual risk.  To touch a leper would mean that you would become spiritually contaminated – ritually unclean.  However, a temple priest had the authority to declare a leper clean (Leviticus 14:1-32), allowing the afflicted man or woman to re-enter the city and live like everyone else, participating once more in the all the rituals and activities of daily life.

The Greek words that Mark uses to describe Jesus’s reaction when the leper kneels before him indicate that Jesus was moved by a strong emotion.  Often these words are translated as pity.  However, Ched Myers, the famous American scripture scholar, says that in early versions of the gospel, the words used suggest that the emotion Jesus felt was anger.

Why would Jesus be angry?

Perhaps the clue is in the words that the leper speaks to Jesus:  “If you choose, you can declare me clean.”  The implication is that others had made a choice and that they had chosen not to declare the leper clean, not to release the man or woman from the nightmare of being an outcast.  It may have been the thought of those who failed to show compassion who were the objects of Jesus’ anger.

Who were the ones who could have chosen to declare the leper clean?  They would of course, have been the priests.  Perhaps, like the priest and Levite in the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37), they feared that they would be become ritually unclean if they came too close to the leper and that they would not be able to perform their duties in the temple.  Perhaps they feared the risk of contracting the disease.  At any rate, as if seeming to understand the position in which Jesus could find himself, the leper leaves Jesus an opening:  “If you choose”, he says.  It is as if to say, “I will understand if you too decide to pass me by…”

What does Jesus do?  Not only does he stay with the afflicted man or woman; he reaches out his hand and touches the suffering one.  Only then does he declare the leper clean. 

In touching the leper, Jesus knows that he risks becoming infected.  But just as importantly, he knows that he will be labelled as unclean – that he “could no longer go into a town openly”.  As the leper knelt before him, challenging him to do something about his or her condition, Jesus made his choice.  He chose to reach out and touch the leper.  He chose to put his reputation and his work at risk and to become associated with the outcast, to become a leper with the lepers. 

In our LGBT community, we know something of the reality of being a leper.  Sometimes we have experienced ourselves as the outcast one.  And sometimes we have treated others, even within our own LGBT community as unclean, and have hesitated to welcome them, maybe even to acknowledge them.  

Jesus challenges us to open our hands and to know the power to welcome and heal for which our hands were made.

Touch can give life, healing, affirmation.

A touch may be made

In lust, in violence, or to humiliate.

Every time we touch another human being;

every time we allow ourselves to be touched,

we take a risk.

The touch may be welcomed

Or it may be rejected as an intrusion.

Our touch may bring us closer to one another

or it may build a wall

or it may push the other away.

Whenever we touch another human being in compassion and love

we too risk contamination;

we risk that our touch will be misunderstood,

that others will judge us and declare us unclean.

Lord, may we not be afraid to touch one another;

may we always touch each other as you touched the leper,

as you touched the little children,

as you touched your friends

as you touched even your enemies.

When we touch one another

may it always be with compassion and love;

may it bring life to those that we touch

and may every touch be a seed of community,

a community of compassion and love.