by Levi Jones
The woman’s hands lie motionless next to her body. The pain is a constant reminder of her aloneness, for it is her only companion. The skin is peeled, cracked, and bleeding. Sores lie open, some scabbed while others pucker with pus. The skin is scaly and ashen, resembling sandpaper under her touch. The stench of rotted flesh hangs over her like a specter. It is the smell of death though she still breaths in shallow gasps.
Eyes closed tight to seal out the light, to bar the disease out of sight, she can barely recall the last time somebody was willing to hold her hand, to embrace her with the loving warmth of a hug. After she was diagnosed, an invisible perimeter seemed to set itself around her separating her from friends and family. Nobody dared venture too close for fear of contracting her disease. The throb of loneliness nearly drowns out the pain of the sores. Her hands sit empty, aching for another’s touch.
Would you grab that hand, risk contact? Such a question might cause us to shudder in hesitation, fear, and caution. We see her agony and anguish and possibly can’t imagine putting ourselves in her place. Why would we put ourselves, our loved ones at risk by holding her hand? If the world has taught us anything, it’s to take care of ourselves, measure the risk, and act accordingly.
We’re good at that – risk management. We buy insurance for this purpose. In the event that something unforeseen might happen, we should have our bases covered. We buy house, car, medical, and life insurance to make sure that there is minimal, if any, risk that we might have to endure. We insulate ourselves from risking too much for fear of losing anything, possibly everything. The question remains: “Why would we risk reaching out and taking this woman’s hand?”
READ Mark 1:29-39
The Temple was a place of purity, of cleanliness. To be part of the community, to be granted entrance into the Temple, a person had to be clean. To be defiled or made unclean carried with it serious repercussions – even possible banishment from that community. Being part of the life of the community required that holy people avoid the possibility of being polluted or tainted.
As an extension of the Temple, synagogues were no less stringent in their call for purity. It was important to be set apart and to remain clean, but there was always the threat, the risk of becoming unclean. Dead bodies, diseases, improper relationships, violating dietary laws, wearing clothes made of the wrong kind of material. The list was endless. The world is full of things and people that desecrate the sacred and tarnish the holy. Holy people avoid those places and people that might contaminate.
There were a lot of things to consider, but rabbis and priests were cautious to avoid coming into contact with the unholy and impure. In fact, if they happened upon a man mugged on the road, they might even cross over to the other side to avoid any possibility of contact with a dead person or, at the very least, a bleeding person.
Jesus, a rabbi, walks from the synagogue, a holy place, to the home of Peter’s mother-in-law. The door swings wide to allow the group entrance – James, John, Peter, Andrew, and Jesus. Others are in the room, lines of worry crease their faces. One of them notices the rabbi that enters and immediately steps toward to him. “Rabbi, Peter’s mother-in-law is deathly ill. Her fever hasn’t broke and I’m afraid she may not have much longer. I wouldn’t come in, if I were you. You don’t want to become ceremonially unclean.” We don’t know if that was the conversation starter, but I can imagine the conversation going in that direction.
Perhaps other voices join in, granting Jesus permission to leave, begging him to leave before it’s too late. It is too risky to stay or to go in to see her. Jesus shouldn’t risk contact with that which is diseased and unclean. Maybe they thank him for coming as they try to usher him out the door.
There are always voices that caution us about getting too close to those who are considered contagious and diseased by our society. Sometimes the voices are from people around us and sometimes it’s our own voice. These voices tell us to proceed through life with caution, keep those that are diseased, defiled, and desecrated at a distance. Don’t get too close.
The woman with the diseased hands and skin reminds us that there are just some risks that are too big. We are compassionate people, but we have our limits. We are compassionate within reason, as long as there is no great cost to ourselves or to our loved ones. We don’t mind helping others as long as it isn’t too burdensome, tiresome, or demanding.
In the mid-1800’s, the Kingdom of Hawaii created “a government-sanctioned medical quarantine on the island of Molokaʻi.” It was a quarantine designed to isolate the people suffering from Hansen’s disease, sometimes known as leprosy, so that they wouldn’t infect others. The people suffering from Hansen’s disease were eventually left on their own with little care given from the outside. They were neglected and avoided. It could be deadly to be in contact with these individuals. The voices of society spoke loudly, “Don’t get too close; don’t risk contact.”
We’re not sure what happens in the conversation between Jesus and those gathered in the house, but we do know that Jesus goes to see Peter’s mother-in-law following this dialogue. If those gathered in the house caution him about the risk of seeing Peter’s mother-in-law in her current state, Jesus does not heed their warning. Instead, he draws close to her and raises her up. He grabs her hands, he risks become ceremonially unclean, and he raises her. It’s resurrection language – death to new life. She is healed, her fever is gone, life has come.
The woman, now healed by Jesus’ touch, begins to “serve him.” The word for serve is diakoneo, the word from which we derive “deacon.” The word creates a web of connection for us. The woman receives healing for her disease and her grateful response is to begin serving Jesus in return. The Kingdom that Jesus has been proclaiming on the beach, in the synagogue, and now enacting in this woman’s life, is in turn embodied in her loving service to Jesus.
The act of humble service the woman offers back to Jesus enacts and embodies the freedom which God’s Kingdom proclaims. The Kingdom manifests itself, reveals itself, in the self-giving action of this peasant woman. It is easy to presume, as we often have, that service to Jesus is without danger, without risk. We don’t see risk in this woman’s act. It appears simple and easy.
Fast forward to Jesus’ crucifixion outside the city walls, the place reserved for those accused of sedition and acts against Caesar’s kingdom. Mark’s Gospel tells us that a group of women were standing there at the time of Jesus’ death. It was dangerous to be associated with political criminals. You might end up hanging with them. But, wouldn’t it be a beautiful picture to think that Peter’s mother-in-law is among those women, watching, and weeping? Wouldn’t it make sense that service to Jesus inevitably leads her to the Cross with Jesus?
Serving, giving up our very selves for the sake of others, is risky business. It’s difficult and dangerous because it leads us to those places of intersecting the lives of others, sometimes even those that are deemed unclean, impure. It’s quite possible that Peter’s mother-in-law stood at the foot of the Cross because that is exactly where her humble service to Jesus led her. In living out this grateful response to Jesus, she unfolds before our eyes what it means to be a member of the Church – humble servants.
Mark’s Gospel tells us that word slips out about Jesus. Peter’s mother-in-law has been healed by this rabbi. When the sun sets, people begin bringing those who need healing to Jesus. In fact, it says that the whole city comes to the door to find healing, to find Jesus. All through the depth of the inky blackness of night, Jesus heals and sets people free from their afflictions – from disease, death, and the demonic forces that dominate their lives.
All night… perhaps it felt like the dawn would never break. Perhaps in giving and giving and giving, it felt like the night would never draw to an end but endure forever. When we confront the brokenness of the world, it always feels overwhelming and over-large! God, will the night ever end?! Serving others can feel like the night that never ends as we are bombarded by wave after wave of those who are hurting and helpless.
Perhaps that is what the Kingdom of Hawaii experienced in the mid-1800’s with the leper colony. The problem was so overwhelming, heartbreaking, and difficult that it was just easier to ignore it, to hide the problem away, and to maintain silence about the pain. Rather than serving those that were afflicted, it was more convenient to avert their eyes from the suffering. When the night will not end, sometimes we feel the only option is to run from the problems or to ignore that they even exist.
Mark’s Gospel says that while it was still dark, Jesus left the house. He left the people. He went to a secluded place. Is Jesus running from the darkness, turning his eyes from the hurting people? Perhaps he has had enough, and who can blame him? Except for a little phrase that alerts us to something else – Jesus praying. Is prayer an escape? Is it a way to ignore the world’s deep pain? Does it resemble our quick remark to another’s pain, “Yeah, I’ll pray for you,” that allows us to save face while avoiding entering into their pain and sorrow with them?
We might think this is what Jesus does – prays like we sometimes pray to avoid being bothered by the problems of our world. But, the story continues. Jesus’ time of prayer does not cause him to remain secluded, removed from the world’s hurt and pain. Instead, prayer draws him back toward it to proclaim the Kingdom’s healing for those who draw near.
When the disciples find Jesus praying, they alert him that “everyone is still looking for him.” His response is not to run from the needs that press but says, “Let us go somewhere else to the towns nearby, so that I may preach there also; for that is what I came for.” If prayer draws Jesus away from the world’s pain, it is a temporary respite so that he might be re-energized to go back into the darkness as light piercing the shadow. He continues his preaching of the Kingdom throughout Galilee, willingly risking his life to be brought into close proximity to those deemed unclean. The unclean, in Jesus’ presence, are made clean, whole, and empowered to serve.
Recall the story about the leper colony. John Ortberg writes about a surprising end to the tale: “Father Damien was a priest who became famous for his willingness to serve lepers. He moved to Kalawao – a village on the island of Molokai, in Hawaii, that had been quarantined to serve as a leper colony.
For 16 years, he lived in their midst. He learned to speak their language. He bandaged their wounds, embraced the bodies no one else would touch, preached to hearts that would otherwise have been left alone. He organized schools, bands, and choirs. He built homes so that the lepers could have shelter. He built 2,000 coffins by hand so that, when they died, they could be buried with dignity.
Slowly, it was said, Kalawao became a place to live rather than a place to die, for Father Damien offered hope.
Father Damien was not careful about keeping his distance. He did nothing to separate himself from his people. He dipped his fingers in the poi bowl along with the patients. He shared his pipe. He did not always wash his hands after bandaging open sores. He got close. For this, the people loved him.
Then one day he stood up and began his sermon with two words: “We lepers….” Now he wasn’t just helping them. Now he was one of them. From this day forward, he wasn’t just on their island; he was in their skin. First he had chosen to live as they lived; now he would die as they died. Now they were in it together.
One day God came to Earth and began his message: “We lepers….”
Now he wasn’t just helping us. Now he was one of us. Now he was in our skin. Now we were in it together (John Ortberg, God Is Closer Than You Think).
Intersecting the lives of others is dangerous and messy, it is difficult and risky. Service inevitably leads us to the Cross, to self-sacrifice for the sake of others. To touch the hands of the lepers of our world means that we might suffer as they suffer. Yet, by entering into their suffering, we both might find the healing of Jesus that raises us up and gives us life.
Jesus is willing to get himself dirty for the sake of others; he enters into life with us and for us. He is willing to share the pain, the hurt, and the sorrow because that is the beginning of healing. In response to such extravagant love, Jesus heals us and empowers us to be His servants for the sake of the world. That entails suffering alongside the world, entering into its darkest places, and offering a word of hope through our presence and loving touch in their lives.
The question, I think, for us is: Who are today’s lepers? Who are those most desperately needing the healing Jesus offers? Who are those most neglected in our world, isolated, hurting, and sick? Is it the widow without a family living in a nursing home waiting for visitors? Is it the “illegal” aliens that cross the border seeking hope for a better life? Is it the destitute couple whose medical bills are piling up, but have no way to pay their debt? Who crosses our path that is like the leper and what would Jesus’ healing touch look like for those people? Now, as Jesus’ hands and feet, go and serve them in this way…
Levi Jones serves as co-lead pastor at Cornerstone Community Church of the Nazarene (Wagoner, Oklahoma) and an Associate Editor of Preacher’s Magazine.