Read: Matthew 8:1-4
The first miracle described in the gospel of Matthew is an amazing demonstration, not just of Jesus’ power, but of his compassionate love.
One of the most appealing of all Jesus’ many attractive qualities was his sympathy for suffering people. Most of us feel bad when we hear about someone who is experiencing great pain or trouble. Some of us might even try to do something to help. But very few of us are willing to get directly involved in a messy situation of need. We don’t like to get our hands dirty, either figuratively or literally. I found myself thinking about this once as I visited Mother Teresa’s hospice for the dying in Calcutta. Staff and volunteers there were constantly moving down the long rows of the cots, tending to the most basic physical needs of the dying people who had been brought in to spend their final days in some measure of peace, dignity and comfort. How do these Christian care-givers do it? Where do they find the strength to serve in such a place, in such a way?, I thought to myself.
The answer is simple. They were just following the example of their Lord. The Bible tells how Jesus, though he was by very nature divine, did not consider his exalted position as God as something he should cling to, but voluntarily gave it up and humbled himself to enter the world as a man. And then he stooped even lower, becoming a servant who spent his entire life attending to the needs of others. Jesus never shrank from human suffering. He was not afraid to get his hands dirty ministering to the sickness and squalor of his world. He used those hands to reach out and touch suffering people with healing and hope.
Coming down from the Mountain
Consider this story which opens the eighth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew 8.
When he came down from the mountain, great crowds followed him. And behold, a leper came to him and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I will; be clean.” And immediately his leprosy was cleansed. (Matthew 8:1-3)
“When he came down from the mountain . . .” Matthew says. What mountain is that? It’s the mountain where Jesus had just finished his famous Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). He had been teaching the crowds what it means to live a life that is pleasing to God. It was a sublime moment. Jesus had never been more eloquent; the crowd had never heard more profound and beautiful teaching. Now Jesus comes back down to earth, so to speak. As he does, he’s immediately confronted with an instance of profound human need. A leper came to him, knelt before Jesus, and asked for healing.
This man seems to have had no doubt about Jesus’ ability or power to heal. The only question in the leper’s mind had to do with Jesus’ willingness. In that time and culture lepers were the most revolting of all people. Their disease was incurable, and produced hideous symptoms. It was a sort of living death. Even worse, lepers were considered impure, unclean, contaminating. They were literally untouchable. So there was a real point to this leper’s hesitant statement, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.”
Jesus’ response was immediate and dramatic. He “stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, ‘I will; be clean.’” That touch of Jesus was almost more eloquent than his words. In its own way it said as much as the great Sermon that went before it. We pass over this detail without letting it make much of an impression on us. But we ought to ponder it at length. Jesus Christ actually stretched out his hand to touch a leper, and in so doing healed him.
A Ministry of Touch
This wasn’t just a sympathetic human act. It was really a touch of God. I wonder what it must have been like to be touched by God when God had hands and fingers! What would it be like to feel the skin of God on your skin?
Actually, the Gospels are full of examples of Jesus’ physically touching and being touched by people. For example, Jesus touched people as he healed them as he did here.
There was also Peter’s mother-in-law who lay sick with a fever: “And he came and took her by the hand and lifted her up and the fever left her” (Mark 1:31).
On another occasion he helped a man who was deaf and mute: “Taking him aside . . . he put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue; and looking up to heaven he sighed and said to him, ‘Be opened’” (Mark 7:33-34).
There was the case of a blind man. “And some people brought to him a blind man and begged him to touch him. And he took the blind man by the hand … and when he had spit on his eyes and laid his hands upon him, he asked him ‘Do you see anything?’” (Mark 8:23).
Or the boy tormented by demonic, epileptic seizures, who convulsed and lay as dead: “But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose” (Mark 9:27).
And don’t forget the young girl who actually was lying dead. Jesus, “taking her by the hand, said Talitha cumi, ‘Little girl, get up.’” And she did! (Mark 5:41).
Jesus not only touched suffering people who needed healing as described in all those examples I just read from the Gospels; he also touched struggling people who needed help. Think of Peter sinking in the sea as he tried to walk to Jesus across the water. Jesus reached out his hand and caught him.
Or picture Jesus as he gathered the little children in his arms and blessed them. He also allowed himself to be touched, even by those whose contact would ceremonially defile him in the eyes of the law. There was a sick woman who once reached out to him in a passing crowd because she thought, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed” (Mark 5:28). She was right. Another time a woman with a shady past came up to Jesus at a banquet and expressed her gratitude for his forgiveness by washing his feet with her tears and drying them with her hair. And especially there was Thomas, the disciple who doubted Jesus’ resurrection. More dramatically than anyone, Jesus allowed Thomas to touch him, and all his doubts vanished in an instant.
But why did Jesus touch all these people, in particular this leper who appealed to him for help. I don’t think that Jesus’ touch was either diagnostic or therapeutic. In other words, Jesus wasn’t like our medical practitioners. Doctors, nurses, therapists—they all have to use their hands to treat diseases or fix injuries. But Jesus was different. He never needed to be told what was wrong with someone; he always knew. Nor did he have to touch people to make them well. Jesus could and did heal with a simple word. He didn’t even have to be present to do that.
So why did he touch this particular man, the man with leprosy—leprosy, with all its horrible features and associations; standing for the disease of sin itself? A leper, whose very contact would make Jesus unclean? Actually, nothing could make him unclean. As one New Testament scholar noted, Jesus was “the Pure to whom all things were pure; who was at once incontaminate and incontaminable … Another would have defiled himself by touching the leper; but he himself remaining undefiled, cleansed him whom he touched; for in him health overcame sickness, and purity, defilement, and life, death” (R. C. Trench).
I think the reason Jesus touched this man is obvious. The leper had wondered whether Jesus was willing to help him, to have contact with him, to get involved in his messy life and its gross problems. Would Jesus be interested; would he care? Or would he too be repelled like everyone else? Remember what the man had said? “Lord, if you will …” That’s really an implied question: “Lord, are you willing? Would you really want to help someone like me, someone so hurting, so unclean?” Jesus didn’t offer the man only a verbal answer to his question. His touch was the answer. Jesus touched the man because he loved him, and to say that he loved him. You know, love can never be satisfied with mere words. It wants an embrace, the touch of a hand, the feel of living skin on living skin.
Touched by God
Do you ever find yourself wondering about God? Not whether he can help you— you know that if there is a God he can do anything. But wondering whether he wants to help you, whether God even notices you. Or are you thinking that the things inside your head or in your past—the stuff you keep hidden even from those closest to you—are so sure to gross God out that he’s only going to reject you? Well, guess what: God knows all about it. He knows things about you that you don’t even know. And he is still willing to touch you, to love you, to heal you.
You do realize that Jesus Christ has done far more for us than simply put his hand upon us. Christ allowed those hands to be stretched out on a cross for us, with nails driven through them, and still they reach toward us. Here is how one great Christian thinker put it: “In assuming our flesh, [Christ] has granted us more than the touch of his hand; he has brought himself into one and the same body with us, that we should be the flesh of his flesh. He does not only stretch out his arm to us, but he comes down from heaven even to the very depths … cleans all our dirt away, and pours upon us his own holiness” (John Calvin).
Maybe it would be a good idea to say thank you to him. And maybe you could show that by reaching out and touching someone else in need.