The man in today’s Gospel scene takes a tremendous risk by approaching Jesus. He is a leper and so considered unclean. The appropriate response for him when someone is coming into their general vicinity is to give as wide a berth as possible, if not remove themselves from view, or to make themselves known to be unclean to any passerby.
This state of uncleanness was not a mere sense of hygiene. This was considered ritual impurity. So anyone touching a leper would be considered unclean not because they contracted leprosy themselves, but merely by touching the person in some way. For this reason, lepers were ostracized from family, friends, and the larger community socially as well as being forbidden to worship. This is a horrific state to find oneself in, for as human beings we are social beings who want to belong, to be a part of, to be loved.
The leper cast aside all social norms and fell prostrate before Jesus and said, “Lord, if you wish, you can make me clean” (Lk 5:12). Jesus knew full well the social norms, and it is very telling that not only did Jesus heal the man, he healed him by placing his hand on the man. He could have easily said, “I do will it. Be made clean” (Lk 5:13), without touching him and the man would have been healed. There are Gospel accounts of Jesus doing just that.
Jesus says more in his willingness to touch the leper than he does even with his words of healing. He places himself on the same level with the man by removing the tremendous stigma of him having to be separated from human touch. Jesus becomes present to him in his condition of forced isolation and in that simple touch Jesus comes close and in doing so, he will no longer be kept at arm’s length but restored to community and fellowship.
This is what the Son of God has come to do. He has come close to all of us. He has become human so we can see the face of God, we can feel the tenderness of his touch, and we are understood when no one else is there to understand. Jesus has come close so that we know that we are not alone, that we are loved more than we can ever imagine, more than we can ever mess up, more than our worst mistake. Jesus has come close so we can experience how it is to belong, to be loved and to love others in return so we too can come close to those too often are kept at arm’s length.