How often have parents told their young children, “dirty, don’t touch.” Toddlers especially are known to be curious about anything they see whether it be a piece of chewed gum stuck to an object, a piece of trash on the ground, or a decaying bird in the grass. The toddler wants to pick it up and examine it, see what it is, and feel it between its fingers. Thus, the well-known parental prohibition, “dirty, don’t touch.” As a result, as the child ages, the lesson of clean and unclean becomes part of their psyche; helping them discern things in a germ-filled world.
In the days of Jesus, they might not have had much of an understanding of germs, but they did understand the difference between that which was clean and unclean. A person or thing could contract ritual “uncleanness” in many different ways: by skin diseases, discharges of bodily fluids, touching something dead, or eating unclean foods. Because of the strict purity laws of the day, an unclean person would have been avoided and even shunned until cleanliness could be restored which took much more than a hot shower. As a result, if something or someone was unclean, the word of advice of the day was “dirty, don’t touch.”
Yet, when Jesus stepped on the scene, he seemed to have little regard to the thought that dirty or unclean things could not be touched. It seemed that Jesus went out of his way to touch that which was rendered unclean. In Matthew 8: 1-4 we read of one such an encounter. “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.” In reaching out to touch the man with the dreaded disease of leprosy, Jesus demonstrated the reach of God’s love to a broken world. Even in his state of uncleanliness, God’s love would not be deterred from reaching out and touching the man. It would not be a touch that would lead to the uncleanliness of Jesus, but the healing and restoring and cleansing of the man with leprosy. For Jesus, whether it was a person with leprosy, a woman with a flow of blood, a woman with a sinful lifestyle, or the body of a dead person, Jesus did not fear touching the untouchable, but he feared individuals going through life and not experiencing the touch of God’s love. For Jesus, every individual was of value and worth.
As Jesus’ followers, we are called to a life and ministry of touch. Individuals today still find themselves shunned, ignored, and even hated at times by a world that labels them as unclean, unworthy, and untouchable. As Christians, we operate under the guidelines that Jesus left behind that wherever there is human suffering, pain, rejection, and fear, we must stretch ourselves and touch the world with the compassion and mercy of our Lord. We must reject the label system that classifies people as worthy and unworthy. We must move beyond the “dirty, don’t touch” mindset that seeks us to separate us and embrace one another as a community of grace. In doing so we tell the world that the touch of Jesus is not stuck between the pages of our Bibles, but it a real and living presence in the world today.