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Touching the Untouchables

While Jesus was in one of the towns, a man came along who was covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he fell with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” And immediately the leprosy left him. Then Jesus ordered him, “Don’t tell anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them.” Yet the news about him spread all the more, so that crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses. But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed. (Luke 5:12-16, NIV)

When 56-year-old Vinicio Riva got on a bus in the town of Vicenza, Italy, he knew the people would gasp and back away from him. He walked toward an empty seat but the gentleman near the seat screamed at him to go away. The greeting he received from the man was typical for him. He suffered from a genetic disease called neurofibromatosis type 1.  His entire body was covered with boils that dot him from head to toe. He said, “there were lots of people on the bus, and they heard (the man), but no one said a word.”

Vicincio’s disease ran in the family. Both his mother and sister had the same condition. His aunt mentioned that his T-shirt would be soaked in blood that oozed from his sores. He looked like the Elephant Man except people were not paying to see him. People tried their best to walk on the other side of the road to avoid him. Nobody wanted to touch Vinicio. 

He took a risk that Jesus might take a risk.

In the first century, lepers were considered untouchables. The Bible was clear about giving a wide berth to people. Leprosy was a highly contagious disease that discolored human skin.  The book of Leviticus used strong language for anyone with leprosy. “When anyone has a swelling or a rash or a bright spot on his or her skin that may become an infectious disease…he or she shall be pronounced ceremonially unclean…The person with such an infectious disease must wear torn clothes, let his hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of his face, and cry out, Unclean, unclean! As long as he has the infection, he remains unclean. He must live alone; he must live outside the camp” (Leviticus 13:1-2; 45-46). 

In the village where people went about their lives, shopping for food at the market or talking business at the city gate, everyone ignored the leprous man. They knew the rules and so did he. It was easy to believe that the disease of leprosy might have been his fault. Everyone believed that righteous living and following the Law of Moses went hand in hand. Maybe the leper doesn’t come out of the shadows because he had been screamed at enough or felt the sting of the stones thrown at him. He was not looking for more abuse, but perhaps someone who might see him as a person behind the disease. He didn’t want to be invisible anymore. He took a risk that Jesus might take a risk.

The people waited with bated breath for the next move from him and Jesus.

There were crowds and laughter as Jesus approached the village. Children pulled at his robe and women chatted about his works. Men peppered him with questions about the law and the prophets. Everyone was touching Jesus. Somehow the name of Jesus reached the leper’s ears. He knew the meaning of the name. It was the only name that had anything to do with getting saved. Saved? Saved from leprosy was possible, even for him? The once invisible, untouchable man made a decision to come from the outskirts of society and take a chance on getting saved from his prison of skin that kept him locked up in communal solitary confinement. 

I imagine the man moved toward Jesus and everyone else moved away from him. The voices of anger and fear traveled through the crowd like wildfire. Jesus never moved one inch away nor shouted for the man to stop in his tracks. The man fell to his knees with his face to the ground in humility and reverence. From the dirt, the leper uttered his prayer to the visiting rabbi. “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” This was the prayer of a desperate man. The leper might have said this prayer to other rabbis but none of them were willing to grant this kind of request. The people waited with bated breath for the next move from him and Jesus. Will the rabbi uphold thousand years of Mosaic Law or will he outright violate it for some permanent loser like a leper? 

The leper was accustomed to rejection. He experienced it for a good chunk of his life. With his face to the ground, not looking up at Jesus, the leper felt the touch of becoming human again. No one had ever touched him. No one had ever felt his humanity, they only saw his leprosy. His face still bowed to the dirty path, Jesus’ miracle, to the leper was that God said yes to him. “I am willing” and “be clean” set into motion two important lessons. First, God was willing to touch our untouchable lives and restore us to full communion with him. The leper witnessed the God who moved towards him and touched him when others labeled him as damaged goods or dysfunctional. In a sense, Jesus was willing to touch our disease and heal us regardless of gossip and conventional wisdom. Second, Jesus performed the miracle of healing his leprosy as a sign of God’s active kingdom at work. Author Eugene Peterson, wrote, “then and there, his skin was smooth” (Conversations, p. 1589). As a sign of God’s kingdom entering the world, the boils were flatted out to the tight and healthy skin. Jesus touched him. 

He always moves towards us regardless of the naysayers and opinion pushers.

The man knew his life would never be the same. He could walk into the market without yelling the unclean mantra to people. He could talk to people without fear. He could shake hands, hold babies, and worship in the temple. But Jesus wasn’t done with him. Jesus wanted him to be a witness to those who used to push him into the dark corners of the community. His body was healed but his life needed further help. By presenting himself to the priest was the biblical way of following the Law as stated in Leviticus. The first to tell his story was to the priest, not the crowd or the gossip columnists. Luke doesn’t tell if the man ever made that appointment to the priest but we know a lot of other people found out.

Vicinio went to St. Peter’s Square in Rome to see newly elected Pope Francis. He was sitting in a wheelchair with his aunt. By God’s providence, the Swiss Guards gave them permission to come forward, closer to possibly see him. When Pope Francis saw him and made a beeline to him. He put his hands around his face and kissed him. He hugged him as if he was human. No one expected the pope to do such a thing. A small miracle for an untouchable man. Instead of shock and divisiveness, Vicinio, for the first time, felt a great warmth from the embrace of the church’s Holy Father. Vicinio knew who touched him and what joy filled his heart. He was never the same again.              

Jesus willingly touches anybody that seems untouchable to us and the world. He doesn’t follow church procedures for theological accuracy. Instead, he fulfilled them for his holy purposes. What are these purposes? He always moves towards us regardless of the naysayers and opinion pushers. Lepers will know the kingdom has come to them. They know they need his touch.  Jesus is always willing to bring his lost children out of the shadows of society and lift them up to their promised humanity. Do you need a touch from the Master? Let him touch you. His amazing love touches the very thing that keeps us hidden in plain sight.


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