Jesus was compassionate. That is not exactly news to most people. But to the fact that Jesus was compassionate, we must add another piece of information: Jesus’ compassion teaches about the nature of God. In Jesus’ acts of compassion, we see that God reaches outside the boundaries to enable outsiders to come in. Consider briefly with me Jesus healing a leper.
impure made pure
In Mark 1:40-45, we read about Jesus cleansing a man with a skin disease. According to the laws in Leviticus 13, Jesus probably shouldn’t have been hanging around with a leper. But he did. In fact, he did even more than just hang around with him:
40 Now a leper came to him and fell to his knees, asking for help. “If you are willing, you can make me clean,” he said. 41 Moved with indignation, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I am willing. Be clean!” 42 The leprosy left him at once, and he was clean. (NET)
Jesus touched him. According to all of the social conventions and the Torah on which they were based—some more rightly than others—Jesus shouldn’t do that. To be a ‘leper’ meant the man had a skin disease which rendered him ritually impure.
Note: the word leprosy in the Bible is not referring to the skin disease which we today call leprosy, or, more technically, Hansen’s disease. It refers to a variety of skin conditions of uncertain nature that resulted in rashes, spots, etc.
Ritual impurity worked a lot like COVID lockdown guidelines—touch someone who was sick and you had to go into quarantine, too, until you could prove you weren’t sick. Avoiding ritual impurity was an important consideration in Jesus’ day and place. Jesus sets this all aside and touches the man.
Why does Jesus do this?
following the model of God
Jesus follows the model of how God deals with a rebellious people who are ritually (and morally) cut off from him. We see this model many places in the Old Testament, but an especially poignant instance occurs at Mt. Sinai.
While Moses is up on the mountain receiving the Law, the people decide to through their own impromptu religious orgy. In this act, they violate the provisions of the covenant God is making with them. Thus, if God were driven by legal technicalities, he would walk away from them and never come back. Instead, the sin becomes the backdrop for God’s self-revealing action.
In Exodus 34:27 we read:
27 The Lord said to Moses, “Write down these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.” (NET)
This verse sounds interesting, but once we remember it is after the golden calf rebellion, it takes a profound meaning. Despite God’s people breaking their nascent covenant with God, he reconnects with them. In his compassion, he reaches beyond the terms of the covenant they broke and takes hold of them again.
We learn about God by what he does, and what he does is reach out with compassion beyond the boundaries.
the cleaning touch
The model of God’s action in Exodus is not lost on Jesus. God made the people fit for relationship even though they had made themselves unfit. He crossed through a boundary and brought them back.
In a small, symbolic way, Jesus does this same thing. He steps across the boundary of clean/unclean and brings the leprous man back. His command, “Be clean!” effects the opposite of what is expected. In the purity system, when a clean person touched an unclean person, it was always the uncleanness that was contagious. Jesus acts with the finger of God to bring restorative cleanness to the man with a touch.
We learn about God by what he does. One compassionate touch from Jesus has so much to teach us about a God who crosses boarders and boundaries to bring people home.