This article was originally written for 1517.
One of the themes of the gospel which is hard to overplay or exaggerate is Christ’s embrace of those that are sick. Such is his self-proclaimed assignment: “It is not those who are well who need a doctor, but those who are sick. I didn’t come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mk 2:17; cf. Lk 5:31–32; 19:10) God’s Incarnate Word was not intent upon merely capturing mankind’s attention and acclaim. Rather, he was purposed to propagate the “good news of God” regarding his advancing kingdom. (Mk 1:14–15)
Jesus’s mandate wasn’t political, economic, or even humanitarian. It was all death and resurrection. His mission was to be baptized into our death that he might resurrect us by his forgiveness in his atonement for us. And there’s no better glimpse at this than in the early days of his Galilean ministry when he lays hands on a leper.
He went into all of Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons. Then a man with leprosy came to him and, on his knees, begged him, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” Moved with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched him. “I am willing,” he told him. “Be made clean.” Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. (Mk 1:39–42)
This leper was a social pariah. His infirmity has driven him from society and from family — necessarily so on account of his terminal medical condition. Everyday he lived with an incessant painful reminder of his mortality. For decades, perhaps, he hadn’t been touched. For so long he had been prevented from feeling the warmth of his wife’s hand or the kiss of his children or the embrace of his friends. And such is what makes this scene so momentous — precisely because Jesus touches him without hesitation. “Moved with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched him.”
Here, by a simple touch, the Savior demonstrates the fullness of his Father’s gospel. He disregards the Mosaic restrictions on touching unclean folk, showcasing deep, divine compassion for the worst of us. “It is the love of Christ Himself,” writes Rev. Alexander Maclaren, “spontaneous, instinctive, without the thought of anything but the suffering that it sees, which gushes out and leads Him to put forth His hand to the outcast beggars, the blind, the deaf, the lepers.”1 Indeed, before he’s even said a word to this leper, Jesus demonstrates the truth which undergirds the entire gospel, in which is announced to us a God who is unafraid of our filth. Notwithstanding our wretchedness, he has come to embrace us and bring us home. “Christ lays hold on us because He loves us,” Maclaren continues, “and will not be turned from His compassion by the most loathsome foulness of ours.”2
In that way, then, Jesus’s touch of this leper is the touchstone of the gospel itself. It’s a living parable of his entire ministry. Jesus came touching people who didn’t deserve his embrace. But such is the point: sinners are his very assignment. In the gospel, the Creator God and Savior King comes close to the unclean, the untouchable, and the unlovable. He comes near to the wrecks and wretches of this world and receives them in unbounded mercy.
So writes John Henry Jowett:
Jesus of Nazareth was a “receiver of wrecks.” He did not come into the world for the sake of “them that are whole.” He came for the sake of the boats that have been driven out by tempests, and smashed against the rocks and can hardly keep afloat. He came to be friend the derelicts, the mere hulls that have lost compass, and engine, and sails, and are just drifting about the envious deep. “This man receiveth wrecks” . . . He who sees my worst is ready to become incorporate with me in all the vital intimacy of His redeeming sacrifice. At Calvary He becomes one with the shame of my worst that I may be enfolded in the grace and glory of His best.3
Embodied in this touch is the wonder of wonders: the mystery of salvation through the passion and death of the Incarnated Son of God. Jesus was not interested in merely erasing the sordid effects of sin. His assignment was to annihilate sin itself by taking it on himself. His mission was to heal mankind’s deeper, darker brokenness. To refashion the wreckage of this world into the glory of his righteousness.
Alexander Maclaren, The Gospel According to St. Mark: Chapters I to VIII (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1906), 52.
John Henry Jowett, The Friend on the Road: And Other Studies in the Gospels (New York: George Doran Co., 1922), 116–17, 146.