Up Close and Personal
February 15, 2009
2 before Lent. ( 2 Kings 5, 1-14; 1 Cor 9, 24-27; Mark 1, 40-45)
I wonder what you think is the most amazing phrase from the Gospel reading that we have just heard?
For me it is “Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him”. The man that “him’ refers to was suffering from what modern versions of the Bible call ‘a dreaded skin disease’ and older versions call ‘leprosy’. Whether it was what we now understand by leprosy ( which is unlikely) or something else, it was regarded at the time as infectious or contagious, and there was no easy cure, if indeed it was a form of skin disease that was curable. Yet Jesus touched the man in order to cure him. In doing so, he not only risked catching the infection himself, but he immediately made himself ritually unclean – unable to eat with anyone else, unable to worship in a synagogue or the Temple until he himself had gone through a ritual of purification. He made himself as much as an outcast from normal society as the sick man was. Yet, Jesus went ahead and touched the man. It reminds me of the stir it caused when Princess Diana was filmed holding the hands of those suffering from AIDS/HIV, a disease that terrifies modern people as much as leprosy terrified the ancient world.
Yet this action typified the life and ministry of Jesus. As the wonderful prayer from Iona puts it “Lord God, in Jesus you touched the scabby, listened to the ignored, gave the broken something to hope for. You bandaged the broken with love, and you healed them”.
In Jesus we believe that God was with us and among us. Jesus lived in a time when many people believed that the world of matter was so evil that nothing divine could live in it; but the Gospels tell us that in Christ, God came among us in a human body. But though divine, he did not distance himself from ordinary people. He got emotionally involved with people and their concerns – he got angry at the way sick people were shunned and excluded, he wept with people who were mourning, he joined in celebrations of marriage and went to parties. He also got physically involved with human beings. He lived among the outcasts from society and ate with them. He allowed those who were unclean to approach him, and if they could not do so, he approached them. He touched the leper, the woman with a haemorrhage, the dead daughter of Jairus, the woman who lived a sinful life, and he healed them. He was no distant God cocooned in a temple, protected from the real world. In Jesus we see a God who is willing to get ‘up close and personal’.
We all know how important touch is in human life. Being touched, stroked or hugged builds up bonds of affection and trust no matter what age we are – and human beings who cannot bear to be touched are isolated from an important part of family and social life.
Touch is also important in healing; from the “Mummy kiss it better” to a child who has fallen, to the gentle massage that helps us to recover from serious operations, touch can help us to recover more quickly.
But it is not only physical touch that contributes to our well-being. We also benefit from eye contact and being spoken to. I am sure we have all experienced medical staff who don’t bother to introduce themselves to us, and who talk about us to other members of the team as if we weren’t there. Or officials who don’t look directly at you as they are speaking to you, and who treat you as simply a case number. Or even worse, a modern twist on this, the telephone enquiry system where you never encounter a real human being at all – just a series of recorded messages telling you which button to press next. All these things tend to dehumanise us, make us feel unimportant and destroy our self esteem. What Jesus did was exactly the opposite – he treated all those he met as so important that he was willing to risk his own health and his own place in society for their sakes.
The absence of touch and direct human contact highlights the difference between the healing of Naaman in the Old Testament and that of the leper in the Gospel. No wonder Naaman was annoyed when he reached Elisha’s house. He had risked ridicule by following the advice given by his wife’s small female slave to travel to a foreign country and seek the help of a foreign god. He had gone to the king, the ‘top man’ and had been accused of warmongering, before being sent off to some out of the way place to consult a prophet. And when he arrived, the prophet didn’t even come out to speak to him. Naaman hadn’t expected physical contact – that would be too dangerous – but he hoped at the very least for a personal appearance and some gestures and magic words. Instead he was told by a lowly servant to go off and wash in a nearby stream. It was a severe blow to his pride – and no doubt it made him feel very unimportant and humiliated.
Contrast this with what Jesus did. He came close to his patient, spoke to him, showed emotion at his plight and actually touched him. His involvement didn’t end with the cure. He gave the man instructions about the best way to complete the process, to ensure that he was quickly re-integrated into the society of normal healthy people. We make a lot of fuss nowadays about ‘holistic medicine’ as if it is something which the modern age has discovered. Jesus knew about it and practised it in the first century!
Treating the whole person involves being with people where they are. It was not only Jesus who did this. In the verses before the ones which we heard from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, Paul explains how he tries to make his missionary activity effective, by getting alongside the people he is evangelising. When he is with the Jewish community, he lives as a faithful Jew; when among Gentiles, he lives outside the Jewish law, though under Christ’s law; when among the weak, he admits his own weakness. In the well known phrase, he becomes all things to all men, in order to win them for Christ.
This has implications for the church’s mission. We won’t succeed by standing at a distance and pontificating. We will only be effective if we get close to people and listen to their concerns, if we adapt our presentation to different circumstances and groups, and are prepared to get deeply and personally involved. Paul talks about subjecting his body to discipline, even to blows, in order to be fit to preach the gospel. We need sometimes to open our own selves, and our institutions to criticism and danger if we are truly to serve Christ in the world.
We are the Body of Christ. He was willing to get ‘up close and personal’ to heal and save. So must we!