The Importance of Approachability
Mark records a story for us. He writes, “A man with leprosy came to [Jesus] and begged him on his knees, ‘If you are willing, you can make me clean’” (Mark 1:40). You probably already know how leprosy was viewed by people during Jesus’ time. In fact, most of us would still want to completely avoid someone with leprosy – even in our day of modern medicine. Back then, though, it was worse – way worse. Back then, leprosy wasn’t just a medical condition; there was a moral stigma attached to it as well.
People thought that if you had leprosy, you’d probably done something to deserve it. After all, God wouldn’t let a good person catch leprosy, would he? Lepers weren’t just required to announce that they were sick; they had to announce that they were “unclean”. Lepers weren’t ill; they were dirty.
Rabbis taught that if a leper got close enough to be hit with a stone, he should be pelted until he ran a safe distance away. Sin and suffering were contagious, after all. Get near enough to a person with leprosy – or a tax collector – or a prostitute – and their bad mojo might rub off on you. Better to keep away from all of them. Better to play it safe and maintain your own purity.
In other words, they practiced a strategy of isolation. The holier a person was (or wanted to be), the more unapproachable they became.
We’ve talked about this before. Lots of people in lots of churches and lots of Christian families still practice this strategy today. My local Christian radio station’s motto is “Safe for the whole family….” Free from all those pesky outsiders. Sequestered. Insulated. Quarantined. We like it that way.
And that makes what happens next in this story of Jesus and the leper so shocking. Mark continues, “Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. ‘I am willing,’ he said. ‘Be clean!’ Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cured.”
Think of it. Jesus was the holiest man who ever lived. Never did one thing wrong. Never had an evil motive. Never told a lie. Never entertained an impure thought. Sure, he struggled with temptation, but he never one time gave in. He was the holiest, most righteous man of all time.
But no one heard any holier-than-thou-ness from him. You will not find a trace of self-righteousness in Jesus’ conversations. Instead, you find him to be the most approachable man you could ever imagine.
Lepers, IRS agents, hookers, lawyers, teachers, divorcees, men, women, soldiers, children – people of all shapes and sizes and colors flocked to him. Terribly worldly people felt totally comfortable having him at their parties.
But most of these same kinds of people who ran to Jesus now run from his followers. Something’s gone terribly wrong. Sinners received compassion from Jesus; too often they receive a stern, judgmental lecture from us.
The leper in the story didn’t doubt Jesus’ ability to help. He knew that Jesus was capable. He wondered whether or not Jesus would be willing to do something for someone like him. How many lost and hurting people keep their distance from Jesus because of the deep and profound shame they feel? How many stay at arm’s length from the Compassionate One because they think they are unworthy to meet him face-to-face?
Jesus is willing. Jesus, the Approachable One, invites all who desire to come close. We need not be afraid. We don’t have to clean ourselves up first. We couldn’t if we tried. He invites us to come as we are. He even does something unthinkable. He reaches for us before we reach for him.