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 when someone was coming into his general vicinity was 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 or being touched by a leper would be considered unclean. For this reason, lepers were ostracized from family, friends, and the larger community socially as well as being forbidden to participate in any communal 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, and 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, but he did so 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 does not keep the man at a distance but instead places himself on the same level as the man. Neither does Jesus become unclean, but the man becomes clean. The tremendous stigma of him having to be separated from something as simple, yet as significant, as a human embrace is removed. With that simple touch, Jesus comes close and in doing so, the man will no longer be kept at arm’s length but restored to his community and the opportunity for fellowship.
This is what the Son of God has come to do for us as well. He has come close to all of us. He has become human so we can see the face of God. We can experience the tenderness of his touch, and being understood when no one else can or is willing 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 mistakes, or sins.
Jesus has come close so we can experience how it feels to belong, to be loved, and cared for as we are. Having received this wonderful gift, we are then to come close to those for whom we have too long kept at arm’s length, to love as Jesus loved the leper.
One way forward from our present distrust and division is to do the same and be willing to come close, to sit with and experience one another, even while running the risk that we will be offended or offend, but all the while, being committed to staying the course and developing and deepening relationships. When we are willing to see each other as human again, to come close, to hold each other accountable, and to respect each other even when we disagree, then we might begin to see healing and hope for reconciliation, love, and unity.