The world has a sad history of treating certain individuals as “untouchable.” Whether these “outcasts” are ones bearing disease, or whether they are considered morally or spiritually inferior, they have borne the burden of exclusion.
At what cost are people excluded? Mother Theresa of Calcutta remarked “Being unwanted is the worst disease any human being can experience.” She set out to serve the “poorest of the poor,” those with disease, and hardship that others shunned, but who she saw as “Christ in disguise (a reference to the parable of the sheep and goats).”
She was not alone in this compassion shown to the unwanted. The Hindu caste system had long held that the lowest social grouping were “untouchables.” These people who carried out the most menial and dirty tasks in society were beneath contempt. Mahatma Gandhi called for an end of such a status, and said that rather than being seen as “untouchable,” that they should be instead be seen as “children of God (Harijans).”
While Theresa and Gandhi’s views are admirable, they fall short of the marvelous example of Jesus when dealing with outcasts. First Century Jewish culture was replete with those who were at the margins of society, whether as literal lepers (unclean owing to disease) or those who conduct or life circumstances made them “unclean.”
Let me first look at the attitude of many of the religious elite of Jesus’ day. In Luke 10: 25-37 Jesus presented a parable we call “The Good Samaritan.” Verses 30 to 32 are telling,
“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.”
Both the priest and the Levite avoid the injured man, and it is postulated that they were doing so in order not to come in contact with “the dead” and thus become ritually unclean.
Yet, we see a very different attitude from Jesus, Himself. Luke 7 gives us an insight again into Jesus’ heart in contrast to that of a Pharisee.
“When one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them. When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner (vs 36 -39).”
Jesus’ response to the situation, is not to be repulsed, or to reprimand her for her actions, but to praise her (presumably to the shock of His host).
“Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet,but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head,but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.” Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven (vs 44 – 48).”
This encounter with “a sinner” is interesting as He shows an acceptance of her, and does not seem concerned at “being tarred with the same brush.” But this event prefigures and encounter with another outcast, who again touches Him. On this occasion, however, the ceremonial uncleanliness is manifest. Yet, the response the same.
In Luke 8 we find the account of the woman with the issue of blood.
And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years, but no one could heal her. She came up behind him and touched the edge of his cloak, and immediately her bleeding stopped. “Who touched me?” Jesus asked. When they all denied it, Peter said, “Master, the people are crowding and pressing against you.” But Jesus said, “Someone touched me; I know that power has gone out from me.” Then the woman, seeing that she could not go unnoticed, came trembling and fell at his feet. In the presence of all the people, she told why she had touched him and how she had been instantly healed. Then he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace (vs 43 -48).”
Leviticus 15 makes it clear that women’s discharge of blood is “unclean,” and those encountering are made unclean as well.
“When Jesus came down from the mountainside, large crowds followed him. A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, “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!” Immediately he was cleansed of his leprosy. Then Jesus said to him, “See that you don’t tell anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift Moses commanded, as a testimony to them (vs 1 – 4).”
Leprosy is a terrible nerve and flesh disease. It is highly contagious, and in ancient times those with it were excluded from living within society. Scripturely Lepers were not only social, but religious outcasts as well. But, Jesus heals the man. But the order of events is absolutely powerful. The man asks for healing, and acknowledges Jesus’ ability to do it. But while the man was yet “unclean,” Jesus touches him, and says “I am willing.” Only then does He cure him. He touched “the untouchable.” He showed human compassion, beyond that of the priest, Levite, or Pharisee. He touched first, and healed later. Think about Mother Theresa’s words, that being wanted and loved, are as important as food or shelter.
This compassion, and disregard of “uncleanliness” was also shown at Nain.
“Soon afterwards he [Jesus] went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother (Luke 7: 11 – 15).”
Jesus touched the bier. He was not like the those who passed by on the other side, as had happened on the road to Jericho. He was in no doubt as to the man’s state (unlike the priest and Levite), but nonetheless, “touched.”
In God’s love their are none that are “untouchable.” None are so diseased, sinful, or unlovable that the hand of God is unavailable to them. Nor should our touch be withheld.