The man was a leper.
Leprosy was a category of several kinds of skin diseases which were difficult to treat in the ancient world and threatened to spread quickly. For this reason, the Old Testament gave the Israelites specific and drastic instructions for dealing with leprosy:
“The person who has a case of serious skin disease is to have his clothes torn and his hair hanging loose, and he must cover his mouth and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean!’ He will remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean. He must live alone in a place outside the camp” (Lev. 13:45-46).
Lepers lost their jobs, families, and community. And since it was often assumed that leprosy was the result of a curse from God, they lost the respect of their peers and the opportunity to worship. Lepers lived under rules of forced loneliness, without ever receiving a hug, a caring touch, or even the close presence of a healthy person. One Old Testament reference (Numbers 12:12) prompted rabbis to speak of lepers as “the living dead.”
So it was with this man. He was a leper, and everyone knew it. They knew it by his appearance. His clothing. His cries. They knew it. So did Jesus. And that makes this encounter all the more remarkable:
While he was in one of the towns, a man was there who had leprosy all over him. He saw Jesus, fell facedown, and begged him: “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.”
Reaching out his hand, Jesus touched him, saying, “I am willing; be made clean,” and immediately the leprosy left him (Luke 5:12-13).
There are many remarkable things here. The healing, of course, is extraordinary. The fact that Jesus broke the social norm is beautiful. The simple act of touching this man who had not felt physical contact in who knows how long is astounding. So as you consider those various aspects of the encounter, consider also this:
Jesus did not have to touch the man in order to meet the need of the man.
We know this because of all the ways Jesus healed people. Sometimes He touched them. Sometimes people were healed when they touched Jesus’ clothing. Other times He was not even present at all and healed people from a distance. And also consider the fact that Jesus is many things, but He is not arbitrary. He moved, He worked, and He healed with purpose.
Put all that together, and what do you get? I think you come to the conclusion that Jesus not only chose to heal this man; He chose to heal Him in this specific way. By touching Him, even when He didn’t have to do so. And here, then, is one potential lesson for us as His followers in this passage:
Don’t just meet someone’s needs.
Don’t get me wrong; meeting someone’s needs it important. It’s important, but it’s easily outsourced. We can just write a check. We can just meet our quota of serving once per year. We can pop in and pop out of given situations. It is entirely possible for us to meet people’s needs and yet never personally invest in people.
It’s possible for people to receive some degree of healing without ever being touched.
This is the lesson for us who want to do good but don’t want to get our hands dirty. For those of us who want to see people helped but don’t want to emotionally invest in the people being helped. For those of us who enjoy programs we can serve in but avoid organic ministry that costs us time and energy. It’s a lesson for people like me. And maybe you.
The gospel compels us differently than this. It compels us not only to meet people’s needs, but to give ourselves in doing so. The gospel compels us to follow the way of Jesus who not only met people’s needs but got uncomfortably close to them as it was happening.