“(Jesus) reached out His hand and touched the man. ‘I am willing,’ He said. ‘Be clean!’ ” (Mark 1:41)
Social distancing has become the norm for weeks now. Everyone has to stay 2 metres apart, and after any trip out from the house everyone has to carefully wash their hands. Those in high risk categories have had to self-isolate. Anyone with symptoms must self-isolate for a minimum period. It’s been pretty tedious after a while, but we know it’s there for our good.
Social distancing is nothing new. In Bible times anyone with leprosy had to socially distance. They were to stay isolated away from others, they had to cover their faces, they had to be immediately identifiable by wearing torn clothes and letting their hair become unkempt. And if anyone came near they had to call out a warning of ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ (Leviticus 13 verses 45-46)
Reading Bible passages such as Numbers 12 verses 10-12 gives us a glimpse of what it was like to be told you had leprosy. It created a sense of fear and anxiety because of its incurable reputation – a little bit like the “cancer” word today. All that could be done then was to isolate away from others, with little or no hope. During the lockdown we’ve all had to isolate away from others for a period and got pretty fed-up with it. But imagine self-isolating with pretty much no hope of ever returning to normal society, friends and family. That’s what it was like for the leper in Bible times. And the disease was progressive – you gradually lost feeling as nerves were damaged, you grew weaker as muscles were weakened, your skin could develop ulcers. Often years after the initial infection.
The Bible doesn’t tell us about leprosy just for public health reasons. Leprosy was also an illustration of what sin does to us. Just like leprosy – sin is unseen, and it eats away at us on the inside, leaving us with little or no spiritual feeling or ability to respond to God. Incurable. Hopeless. Isolated not merely from other people, but isolated from God and His love. Isaiah 59 verses 1-2 put it like this:
“Surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save, nor his ear too deaf to hear. But your
iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you so that he will not hear.”
The difference with the physical disease was that leprosy affected a small proportion of very unfortunate folk. Sin affects us all. As Paul put it, “all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3 verse 23).
Antibiotics didn’t exist in Jesus day, and Luke 17 verses 11-13 tell us that lepers were socially distancing then. Luke tells that the 10 lepers in the account “stood at a distance” and called out to Jesus. They respected the rules. But Mark tells us in chapter 1 that the leper in the account broke the rules – he ran up to Jesus and knelt before him. And far from rebuking the man, Jesus also broke the rules. He didn’t move to distance himself - instead he came close, reached out and touched the leper.
It wasn’t that Jesus didn’t care about the rules. He knew people would have seen and potentially reported him to the local religious police, just as with today’s rules. And it wasn’t a photo-opportunity – he didn’t check that the cameraman had the shots he needed for tomorrow’s papers, and then move on to more important things. So why did Jesus break the rules?
The account says that Jesus was ‘filled with compassion’. Literally translated it means he was moved in his inner being – it got to him. He cared deeply about the leper’s condition.
And what about the leper breaking the rules? Why didn’t Jesus rebuke him? The man showed boldness as he ran up to Jesus. He knew it was his only opportunity. He showed humility as he knelt down. And he showed faith when he said to Jesus, “If you are willing, you can make me clean”. He trusted Jesus. And Jesus rewarded him rather than rebuked him.
Jesus shows the same compassion today for all who will follow the leper’s example. However hopeless our situation, however great our fears, whatever people might think, we can show the same boldness before God, we can trust Jesus compassion and readiness to forgive. And we can be “made clean” – not in the sense of the physical healing the leper experienced, but clean from all the sin in our lives. Jesus would say to us as he said to the leper, “I am willing, be clean”
Mark tells us in the account that the leper went away a changed man. Jesus asked him to keep it to himself, but he just couldn’t help telling others. The same is true today when someone becomes a Christian. It’s the best thing you can do!
For us the lockdown is coming to an end, and unlike the lepers in Jesus day we can look forward to meeting people more freely as the restrictions ease further. But maybe we’ve realised that there's a spiritual isolation – isolated from God Himself? Maybe we've realised that there's more to life than just the immediate here & now? Let’s follow the leper’s example – boldness, humility, faith. Find our more, ask the questions, forget what other people might think. And if we do so, we will find that Jesus is still filled with compassion.
Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.®