Kissing Lepers*


Social distancing. I get it. I’m on board.

But boy, it’s difficult.

I’m a “touchy-feely-kind-of-guy.” I like contact. A little skin on skin. It feels awkward and downright disrespectful when meeting with family, friends, and strangers to not even so much as extend a handshake (air fist pumps?!).

Desperate times call for drastic measures. Likewise, sick people need scandalous love.

There’s a famous story about St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) and a leper he meets on a road. He grew up with a mortal fear and aversion to lepers. As a young man, he would run from them at the sound of the tinkling of their bells they were required to wear to warn people of their approach.

Shortly after his conversion, Francis saw a leper coming and instinctively turned to flee. But something inside him made him pause. He turned and rushed towards the leper, embraced him, and then kissed him. From that day forward, Francis began to care for lepers—washing, feeding, and kissing their wounds. Others followed his example. The early Franciscans became known, among other things, for their ministry in leper colonies.

We have hard decisions to make these days. How close is too close? Is it safe to go into stores? What can I touch? Who can I touch?

I’m certainly not an authority when it comes to infectious diseases. Therefore, I am in no position to advise or make recommendations on social-sanitary practices. Obviously, we need to be smart. I’m certainly washing my hands more than ever these days along with taking several other precautions with regards to my interactions with the public.

But.

I am a follower of Christ. I try to take seriously his words and example.

He was always including and befriending others—breaking barriers and crossing religious, cultural amd physical boundaries—from the social outcasts and marginalized to the demoniacs and diseased. He would talk with them, touch them, dine with them, bring them into his circle, and make them heroes in his stories.

I find it interesting that one of the first miracles featured by the Synoptic Gospel authors was the cleansing of a leper (see Mt. 8, Mk. 1, and Lk. 5). Leprosy was highly feared in that day and age and, as such, lepers were placed under strict rules of social containment. Yet each writer underscores how Jesus healed the man by touching him.

No, leprosy is not the same thing as COVID-19. And no, times now are not the same as they were then. Still, if you continue in the gospels, you’ll see that there’s a lot of touching going on between Jesus and others.

When someone inquired of Jesus about how to inherit eternal life, he affirmed that, “Lov(ing) the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” along with “Lov(ing) your neighbor as yourself” was the necessary requirement (see Lk. 10:25-37).

The person then asked, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied by telling the cherished story we know as the “Parable of the Good Samaritan.” In case you forgot or never heard it: One man is down, two men pass by him (a priest and a Levite), and a third, a Samaritan, lends a helping hand. “He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him.”

Touch, touch, touch.

Jesus follows up with a question, “Which of these three was a neighbor?” Answer: “The one who had mercy.” And then Jesus charged, “Go and do likewise.”

Following Jesus is about being a neighbor. Seeing another person who is in need, taking pity, and reaching out, . . . perhaps at great risk to ourselves.

That’s what Jesus did. He took on flesh, made his dwelling among us, and went to a cross, bearing in his body the marks we deserved. Dying so that we might live.

These are troubling days. We face difficult decisions. May God give us each wisdom and faith to be his “touch-points”—his hands extended—his kiss to a world in need of his touch.

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“Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you.” 
(Rom. 15:7)

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*I have been greatly inspired (including the title of this article) by Richard Beck’s new book, Stranger God.

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3 Comments

  1. Amen, Jeff. God bless the Life Challenge ministry. Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.

  2. Thanks Jeff for your encouraging words. I have been accused of not taking these social distancing rules as seriously as I should. I have taken more precautions than usual but frown on some of the new social rules.

    Ever since this virus thing started, I have been drawn to Psalm 91. What a great passage to meditate and dwell on in these unusual times. God is faithful

  3. I agree, the verse that keeps coming to me is Joshua 1:9 Be strong and very courageous for I the Lord your God Am with you wherever you go. I also am taking many extra precautions but am reminded that Jesus is really my only hope. Like St Francis we need to be open to the Spirit and not frozen by fear.

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