Touched by the hand of God
A sermon on Mark 1: 40 -45 by Ron Ham, 16 February 2003


The Gospel of Mark is written in direct, unadorned language and this is nowhere clearer than in this passage: “A leper came to Jesus, begging him, and kneeling, and saying to him, ‘If you will, you can make me clean.’ But the language stirs our imagination and makes situations vivid. This desperate leper, accustomed to repeated rejection, came begging, kneeling, and you can hear the cry that followed those postures, saying, “If you will, you can make me clean.”

Whenever this leper had dared to approach anyone else, not to be healed by them but to request food or even to sample a little human concern, he had learned to expect rejection. He read this in their faces and in the body language, sometimes accompanied with sharp words. But Jesus, “moved with pity” (the Greek word expresses the deepest concern and compassion), “stretched out his hand and touched him.” Touched him! Touched a man with disgusting skin and active contagion.

The account goes on to record that Jesus said, “I will; be clean”, and then describes the man losing his leprosy and being sent off to get a certificate from the priests confirming his healing; they were qualified to diagnose the disease and its disappearance. If we can try to put ourselves into this man’s shoes, we will know that the touching was what he needed more than anything else. What were kind words alone to this man who had not felt the miracle of human touch since the day the awful skin complaint began to spread across his body?

Jesus touched him! This is one of the most profound things recorded in the Scriptures. We can put it beside the great theological statements also found in Scripture, if we remember the opening words of Mark’s Gospel. “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” “Jesus touched him” stands alongside the elegant comment in the Prologue to the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word; the Word was with God, and the Word was God. And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” What is that, if it is not at least this: “Jesus touched him”?

The Apostle Paul’s remarkable comment is that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.” What is that if it is not at least this: “Jesus touched him.”? And what is “Jesus touched him”, if it is not Paul’s other gem of a statement about Jesus: “Christ Jesus was made in the likeness of human flesh, and humbled himself.”?

When we use the fine theological concepts of these passages of Scripture, and speak the word Incarnation, we are speaking not only of the greatness of God, but also about the humility of God. Greatness and humility in God become real in the touch of the Son of God on the flesh of a leper.

Once the man was clean, there is a surprise sequel. Jesus sent the man away with instructions to say nothing to anyone, which is to say among other things, “Please don’t advertise this or I will be overwhelmed with patients.” Jesus did not have a marketing bone in his body! What a medical practice he could have developed! Why did Jesus not go on a crusade, like some rampaging evangelist, until all Israel was healed of illness and set free from the suffering which goes with it?

Jesus knew that the problems people face are not only the illnesses and physical and mental deformity which are so common. There are other “illnesses” common to us. Jesus saw them in the legalism of religious leaders which bound people’s lives with impossible rules, in bigotry which isolated people from each other, in political power wrongly used, in arrogance, prejudice and selfishness, all of which damage individuals and poison communities. Jesus urged the leper to go quietly, as though he was saying, “Please, my friend, don’t crowd my time and limit what I have come to do by talking up your healing.”

And just as this incident of Jesus touching a leper gives immediacy to the great theological statements about the Incarnation, it also raises the great questions which our theology tries to answer. “Why does God not change things so that all suffering is ended, all violence halted, all war outlawed, and justice is made to cover the earth as the waters cover the sea?

Sending the leper away with instructions not to advertise his cure in case the flood of response might crowd his life, suggests a beginning answer to the question of God and human suffering. God searches for ways to tackle all human dysfunction: sometimes with an immediate healing of a human illness, as with the leper; sometimes by the development of human skills in researching and finding solutions to human diseases and physical illnesses; and sometimes in confronting injustice by calling prophets, religious and secular, who expose misuse of political power, promote commercial integrity, and work against international corruption.

How else can God keep the intention to make humankind in God’s image, while upholding human freedom? God retains God’s freedom to work with our human freedom, and God does it with endless patience, love, grace and judgment, as Jesus did in first century Palestine.

Let me draw a modern picture which may show what it means to claim that God is touching the world and its people across the wide spectrum of our sinful yet wonderful existence. I visited my son Anthony in 1998 while he was backpacking in the Middle East. In Damascus we were staying in an old Damascene house built around a vine-covered courtyard in a narrow street close to the old town.

One day in our backpacker’s hotel, a young Palestinian man, who had left the Middle East as a child to live in Sweden and was back on a nostalgic visit, came into the courtyard in his beautifully cleaned and pressed trousers. “See these”, he said. “I had these done at the little laundry down the street for 40 Syrian pounds (about $A1.50).” I had two pairs of very grubby trousers covered in desert and city grime, so I took them to the laundry. Next day I collected two pairs of spotlessly clean, beautifully pressed trousers.

There were two old men in the laundry and one of them, about 65 or 70 years old, stood from early morning until late afternoon bending over a table patiently and meticulously pressing shirts and trousers with a huge iron. With unfailing courtesy, and obvious pride in his work, he handed over the pristine garments to the citizens and visitors in Damascus - and had probably done this for most of his life.

I thought of Jesus when I later remembered that laundry man, and again when I read this Markan passage about Jesus touching a leper. God in Jesus Christ was bending over our grubby humanity, and still does, touching it to make it clean, and to iron out its creases so that human beings and human community might regain their colour, shape and original purpose.

The story of God bending to touch humanity in Jesus has a double ending; his opponents finally killed Jesus, because he touched a leper and many others to life, and because he touched their precious power and influence and showed it up for what it was. He lay three days in the grave. But then God touched Jesus into life, proving that not even the violence of our human hatred and blindness, visited on Jesus, can turn away the love of God

“Jesus touched him.” This was the hand of God placed on a world God would not give up. We who read this story of a leper, and who know that Jesus has also touched us, are sent to do his healing — as a church community in word and deed, and as individuals as we offer to God our personal, gifts, work, opportunities, contacts and prayers every day.