Touch and the healing of the leper

In today’s readings for the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time—our last one before Lent begins–we see Jesus heal a leper. The Old Testament passage reminds us that lepers were considered unclean because contagious. To protect the health of others, the leper had to dwell outside the rest of the community. Jesus, however, goes against this law in order to heal. Jesus not only heals the leper, but touches him in order to heal. We know from other passages, such as Jesus’ healing of the Roman centurion’s servant, that Jesus can heal without even being physically present. So it is significant that he chooses to touch the leper.

Touch is always two-way. The philosopher Merleau-Ponty built an entire theory of perception and consciousness around the primacy of touch: because when we touch the world as an actor in the world, we are also always “being touched” (eg, my hand feels the sensation of the object I am holding, which also affects me by how it feels to me). This is not the case with sight. When I see another person, I can hold myself at a distance from him or her and not myself be affected by the experience of being seen. For this reason, touch is an inherently intimate way of “knowing” another person. Think of a hug: when I hug a friend, she is also hugging me back. So I am being known as much as I am knowing that part of my world at that moment.

While these ideas may seem very abstract, they help me to understand Jesus’ touching of the leper. Jesus not only heals the leper by touching him. Jesus also allows himself to be touched in that act of healing. That is, he experiences a degree of vulnerability–to illness, to another’s suffering, and perhaps also to charges that he has broken the rules. His reason, though, is clear: he cares for the well being of this other person, and wants to heal all of the leper: both his physical ailment and his alienation. So Jesus touches him and heals him.

This coming Wednesday is Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. As we prepare for the start of Lenten practices, we can think about what parts of our own lives we would like Jesus to touch. Where are we personally in need of healing? Where is our world in need of healing? What does it mean to open up and allow ourselves to be touched by the healing presence of God, and to touch the world’s suffering in a way that changes and transforms our own?

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