I will never forget the first time my whole world changed. I was lifting an armful of firewood for my wife when my sleeve pulled back and I saw something on my arm which had not been there before. I nearly dropped the wood in my surprise, but I recovered myself quickly. I didn’t want to draw attention or alarm anybody until I’d taken a closer look. But I should have known that I could not hide anything from my wife! Her intelligent awareness of everyone and everything around her was one of the qualities I loved her for. She demanded to know, and so I showed her. What else could I do? But when she lifted my sleeve and looked carefully in the clear sunlight I wasn’t looking at my arm. In my heart I already knew the truth. So I was watching her face, and I can still recall, with absolute clarity, how her expression changed from tender concern to alarm and, yes, revulsion. “Leprosy,” she said, and I could feel her shudder against me.
That was the last time I touched my wife. We both knew what the Law required, went to the priest and I was declared a leper. Seven horrible years of loneliness and ostracism followed. Ragged and dirty, forced to depend on the charity of those who despised me for my very survival, I watched the slow spread of the disease in my body with a kind of numb horror. Once I had been a successful man with a beautiful wife, looking forward to the birth of our first child and anticipating a contented future together; now I was an outcast whom all men treated with fear and loathing, occasionally tinged with horrified pity. I did not even know if I was the father of a boy or a girl, and the only name I could call myself was “unclean”.
I will never forget the second time my whole world changed. There had been rumours of a man they called Jesus in the area – a preacher, a healer, some called him a prophet of God. I remembered how Elisha had once healed the Gentile Naaman from his leprosy, and a wild, crazy hope awoke in my heart. Could such things still happen? And what did I have to lose?
So I came, and I found him and, compelled by my desperation, I knelt at a distance and called out to him, “If you will, you can make me clean!” Immediately he turned, and looked me full in the face. I thought I had seen and known love and tenderness in that other life where I had been reckoned as a man, but it was minuscule compared to the Love that shone from him, a compassion that crossed the gulf between life and death, between purity and filth as if it were nothing. He touched me! For seven long years no hand had touched me; I was an object of revulsion and a source of contagion. But this man loved and was not afraid. I had no power to make him unclean. His touch healed my body as simply as running water rinses dirty hands, but it also healed my heart as his tenderness filled and overflowed the hollows dug by rejection.
I am a man with a wife and a son and a trade, but far more, I am a man who met God on a dusty Galilean road, and I pray that the truth of his tender compassion will flow forth from me all the days that he gives me on this earth.