Leprosy and love


Luke 5:12-13 NIV
While Jesus was in one of the towns, a man came along who was covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he fell with his face to the ground and begged him, “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!” And immediately the leprosy left him.

I am a doctor and sickness is my business. When I see a person afflicted by a disease in the Bible I am naturally interested. Questions come automatically to mind. What was this man’s problem? Did he have the infection we now know as leprosy, which damages nerves and results in tissue damage and deformity? Or was it some other skin affliction? Luke says that he was “covered with leprosy.” Leprosy certainly has dramatic skin manifestations but it is more than a “covering disease.” The diagnosis is always important because it dictates the treatment. So what disease did this man really have?

But neither the man nor Jesus was interested in the diagnosis as such. Nor its treatment. Luke was a doctor and had no doubt seen many cases of leprosy over the years. Diagnosis and treatment was his business too. But beyond the qualifying statement that the man was “covered” in leprosy (which is not specified in the other gospel accounts of this meeting) he makes no medical comment.

I suspect this was because Luke had come to a place in his life where he was more interested in people than disease, and more interested in Jesus than medicine. He wanted to record the man’s words, because they said something about the person, and Jesus’ response, because it showed something about Jesus. The disease was the least important part of this story, even if for doctors it can easily become the most important.

Perhaps we Christian health workers can learn something from this. We meet people every day, and while diagnosis and treatment is what we do, we should never forget that the person before us is the most important thing, and, dare I say it, in every encounter we should be as interested in what Jesus can do for the people we meet as we are in what our own expertise and treatments can do for them.

So what do we learn about this person with leprosy, and what does this encounter teach us about Jesus?

Interestingly, this man seemed not to see himself as sick, but as unclean. So when he came to Jesus his request was not for healing but for cleansing. Jesus responded to the man’s felt need. He did not say, “be healed,” but “be clean.” And the leprosy left him. He was, in other words, healed. He was no longer ashamed. He was no longer outcast. Instead, he was clean and acceptable, and life could take a whole new direction.

We doctors can learn much from this. We may understand the disease, we may have wonderful treatments at our disposal. But unless we can discern the person’s perceived need and address that, even if we can eradicate the illness, they will not be thankful, nor will they be healed. People are fascinating. A disease can be cured and the person can feel just as sick. A sickness can be uncured and the person can feel restored, cared for, loved, clean, healed. Health is more than the absence of disease, and, as important as the eradication of disease is, treating the person is even more important.

Feeling unclean is a common human experience. In the past this was often expressed as a burden of sin, but sin is no longer a popular concept. Juest the same, though modern secular people reject the idea of being sinful, the feeling of being unclean is no less a part of the human condition. Today it is expressed more often as a feeling of inadequacy, of being not good enough. We are not smart enough, not attractive enough, not successful enough. We feel like failures. We don’t make the grade.

We do all kinds of things to deal with such perceptions of ourselves, in order to make ourselves better, good enough. You could say that we do all sorts of things to make ourselves “clean.” But just like the leper in this story, we feel trapped in our selves, unable to escape. We are desperately worried what other people think, what they see when they look at us. We feel like this man “covered in leprosy,” “unclean.”

In our desperation, we come to Jesus. We come as messed up failures. We come as people who feel rejected and inadequate. We hear him speak, we see what he has done for others, and we find ourselves hoping beyond hope that maybe he will do the same for us. “If you are willing, you can make me clean.”

The willingness of Jesus
Jesus is willing. I love that. He wants to meet our need. He wants to make us clean. Jesus has our deepest anxieties, our greatest needs, in his heart. He cares. He loves. For every one of us, every individual person on the planet. He sees our struggles and our suffering and he is moved to tears by compassion. He reaches out and touches us, and says, “I am willing.”

It is this seeing, this caring, this compassion, that changes people. We doctors can learn from Jesus. We need to be like him. We need to express our willingness, like Jesus. Our focus needs to be on our patients, not just their diseases. We need to engage primarily with them, not their symptoms and signs, which are important but secondary. We need to listen to them to learn what their problems are, rather than try to redefine their problems to be something that we feel more comfortable or secure with. We need to respond to their felt needs.

Touching people
“Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man…”

Why did Jesus touch this man with leprosy? Surely he could just “speak healing to him.” Why did he touch him? There is much that could be said about that, but perhaps the thing that occurs to me when I read it is that touch is the thing that this man had lacked for years, and was perhaps his greatest need, his greatest longing. He had not been touched for years. People were afraid to touch him, because they might be infected, contaminated, unclean. This man had become “untouchable.”

But is it not touch that we all long for? How does it affect a man when he is never touched? Certainly he begins to feel unclean. He feels rejected. He feels unloved. He feels that life is empty and meaningless, not worth living. Jesus know all this. He reached out and touched the man. He said, “be clean.”

There is healing in physical touch. There is power in this kind of connection between two human beings. That is one of the drawbacks of remote medicine, where doctors and patients connect via telephone, or email, or Skype. Touch is missing. We know the value of touch in diagnosis (listen, look, feel). But I believe that touch is also part of the treatment, and it is a tragedy when that is removed from the doctor-patient relationship.

Seeing the person beyond the disease
How tuned into people are we really? How well do we see them, hear them, understand them? How good are we at seeing beyond the disease to the person? How willing are we to touch people, to show them that we care, to be moved to tears with compassion, to engage with people at an emotional level? How good are we at communicating to them the words and power of Jesus? How convinced are we that Jesus has anything to offer those who are aware of their own “uncleanness”? How much do we love them?

This word love is so misused nowadays. It is not a word that is often used in a medical context because it is mistakenly understood as an emotion, and emotions are unprofessional.

But love is so much more than an emotion, though emotion is an important part of love. And who decided that emotion and professionalism do not go together?

We need to rediscover the true meaning of love, and for that we need to look at Jesus. Then we will see what love is really like. We see it here in the story of the leper. We see it in so many of the encounters that are recorded between Jesus and the people he met. We see it in the final “work” of Jesus – his self sacrifice on the cross.

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