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A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’ Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’
Les Miserables is a French historical novel by Victor Hugo, first published in 1862, and is considered one of the greatest novels of the nineteenth century. While the author explores a number of themes, one that stands out is the juxtaposition of law and grace seen in how a police inspector and a bishop treat an ex-convict named Jean Valjean.
The story begins in 1815 in Digne,(Dinah) as the peasant Jean Valjean, just released from 19 years' imprisonment in the galleys—five for stealing bread for his starving sister and her family and fourteen more for numerous escape attempts—is turned away by innkeepers because his yellow passport marks him as a former convict. He sleeps on the street, angry and bitter.
Digne's benevolent Bishop Myriel gives him shelter. At night, Valjean runs off with Myriel's silverware. When the police capture Valjean, Myriel pretends that he has given the silverware to Valjean and presses him to take two silver candlesticks as well, as if he had forgotten to take them. The police accept his explanation and leave. Myriel tells Valjean that his life has been spared for God, and that he should use money from the silver candlesticks to make an honest man of himself. The story that unfolds reflects how this Bishop’s act of grace impacts Valjean’s life.
Nate Locke in his study on the gospel of Mark makes an insightful observation about this incident between Bishop Myriel and Jean Valjean that helps us understand the nature of God’s grace. The bishop, notes Locke, has three choices. He could choose justice. He has been robbed and the robber should pay for his crime. He could choose leniency. He could refuse to press charges, have his silverware returned and simply let Valjean go hoping never to see him again. But the Bishop chooses grace. He covers for the crime absorbing the loss and gives even more so that Valjean could walk a different road for his life. It is a wonderful parable that helps us see the extraordinary nature of God’s grace to us.
1. Consider again this story in Mark’s gospel of the healing of this man plagued with leprosy who seeks out Jesus begging for healing and wholeness. The isolation of a person with leprosy, perhaps because of the fear of the disease spreading through contact, is hard for us to comprehend is our era of antibiotics. Yes, it is true that disease and debilitation isolates today in that we cannot get out as we are used to. But a leper was under instruction of the Old Testament law to live isolated from the general population until pronounced clean. He was obligated to call out to others that he/she was leprous. (Leviticus 13:45-46)
Mark wants you to notice that Jesus physically touched this leprous man. Mark does this by saying the same thing twice—“he (Jesus) reached out his hand and touched him.” Jesus often touched a patient in the course of healing, but leprosy, unlike most other diseases, carried ritual uncleanness, and to touch a leper would be to become unclean oneself (quite apart from the fear of physical contagion). Notice that, for Jesus, human need takes precedence over convention even when it is firmly based in the Old Testament prescription. (This does not mean that Jesus had low regard for certain aspects of the law).
Here is a point I invite you to consider. Jesus’ touch of this leper would have rendered Jesus ritually unclean—for temple worship, for example—when his touch was itself the means of the cure. The touch which should have made Jesus unclean in fact worked in the opposite direction. The man offered Jesus uncleanness in this touch that rendered the leper clean.
I believe that the gospel reveals a parallel between this cleansing our Lord enacts of leprosy and the cleaning of our sin. According to the gospel disease in one of death errand boys and death enters the world through sin. (Romans 5:12) This is not to say that God punishes people by handing out disease; it is to say that the root of all that has gone wrong in the world is human rebellion against God—unseating the only true judge of right and wrong thinking ourselves capable judges. When Jesus heals this man the Greek word translated “moved with pity” also connotes anger. Jesus is angry that this man is diminished by the power of death—the power he comes to defeat. Note that Jesus in his willingness to cleanse somehow absorbs the disease and heals—“by his bruises we are healed,” prophesied Isaiah. (Isaiah 53:5)
In speaking about our Lord’s cross the Apostle Paul wrote that “For our sake he made him (Jesus) to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” His reaching out to touch us means his contamination by our sin that flows the other way for our cleansing. When Jesus was baptized by John at the river Jordon, John protested that it should be the other way around; Jesus should be baptizing him. John was correct. But Jesus said that they should proceed with our Lord’s baptism to “fulfil all righteousness.”
Here we see our Lord’s purposeful identification with us sinners. John’s baptism was a baptism for repentance and the one human being, and the only one, who needed no such repentance does so for our sake. Just as he reached out and touched the leper so he reached out in coming among us as one of us. These hands whose touch effected the lepers cleansing would be nailed to the cross effecting our cleansing from sin. “He made him to be sin who knew no sin.”
Come back with me to the story of Jean Valjean. The kindly bishop absorbs the pain of his guest’s thievery, the loss of value of the silverware, and gives more so Valjean could live in freedom that his gift afforded. It is not a perfect parable for God’s grace, but nothing really can approximate the incomprehensible grace of God when it comes to sinners. We readily admit that we cannot know what sin means to God nor the extent of our guilt and corruption. But at the cross God absorbs the pain of our rebellion against him having believed ourselves capable judges of right and wrong, suffers the loss of what we rightly lost, and then gives us life setting us free to live for him. This is want we mean by grace and while its wonder is beyond our describing it is for us freely to receive.
2. In the church calendar today is “Reign of Christ” or “Christ the King” Sunday. A new church year begins next Sunday, the first Sunday in Advent. It is fitting that the church year ends with the affirmation that our Lord is ruler of all things. The Sunday scripture readings of the Lectionary are set out to follow the itinerary of God’s saving action coming among us in Jesus of Nazareth. We close out the year with our confession that Jesus was raised from the dead now ruling over everything. “All authority on heaven and earth has been given to me,” said the risen Jesus to his disciples.” (Matthew 28:18)
In keeping with that theme we read the Apostle Paul’s wonderful affirmation of our Lord’s authority in his Colossian letter. (Colossians 1:15-20) As we revisit the highlights of that wonderful text reflect with me the wonder and glory of the person we meet in Jesus. “He is the image of the invisible God;” Jesus is the manifest face of God. “All things have been created through him and for him.” We were created for him which tells you why he is so insistently and relentlessly for us. “In him all things hold together;” he is the reason the sun runs its course day by day, year by year and the reason sin and wrong do not consume us. “He is the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.” Death is defeated in him and the glorious future will prevail in him. “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.”
And the reason for this action of God coming among us in Jesus? “Through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” Though humanity was solely responsible for the terrible breach between us and God, God is the one who cannot leave it that way. Consider that humanity is so far gone in its rejection of God that we think the universe is self-generating. We talk as if God has something to prove to us; as if we are in the vaunted place of judge able to approve or disapprove of God’s actions.
Yet God will not leave us there. The One through whom and for whom everything was made (including us) so loves us that he will not leave in our intransigence. Parents will know those moments when children will act as if the home their parents provide for them they somehow got for themselves. Many a parent in moments of exasperation would like to suddenly withdraw home privileges just to wake up their children to actuality. Think about God and our taking for granted the world and life we live within it—as if we got it for ourselves.
In the Genesis account of creation we are told “there was evening and there was morning, the first day.” Note the sequence of “evening/morning” not “morning/evening” as we mark days. The Hebrew evening/morning sequence conditions us to the rhythms of grace. We go to sleep and God begins his work. We wake into a world we didn’t male, into a salvation we didn’t earn. All is given us as a gracious gift of God. So how does God react to our petulant insistence that we are quite fine without him? (Even though the air we breathe that enables us to shout against God is his gift.)
If you want to know God’s reaction we only need to look at Jesus. Think about the stories he told illustrating the love of the one he called the Father. The lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. The kingdom of God was like finding a great treasure that you are willing to give up everything to have—so overwhelming is its glory. Consider how he pours himself out on the cross without remainder for our sakes. Recall how he welcomed sinners and his commitment to drive away no one who comes to him.
Here in this story of the healing of the leper we see an instance of God’s move towards us. “If you choose, you can make me clean,” cried the leper. “I do choose. Be made clean,” replied our Lord. “I do choose.” God chose eternally to be for us. Such love compels us.
Some of you will have read books by the popular novelist Andrew Klavan. Klavan was raised in a non-practicing Jewish home. For about the first 45 years of his life, he lived as a "philosophical agnostic and a practical atheist." Klavan explains some of the steps along his journey that eventually led him to faith in Christ:
Jesus never appeared to me while I lay drunk in the gutter. And yet, looking back on my life, I see that Christ was beckoning to me at every turn. When I was a child, he was there in the kindness of a Christian babysitter and the magic of a Christmas Eve spent at her house. When I was a troubled young man contemplating suicide, he was in the voice of a Christian baseball player who gave a radio interview that inspired me to go on. And always, he was in the day-to-day miracle of my marriage, a lifelong romance that taught me the reality of love and slowly led me to contemplate the greater love that was its source and inspiration.
But perhaps most important for a novelist who insisted that ideas should make sense, Christ came to me in stories. Slowly, I came to understand that his life, words, sacrifice, and resurrection formed the hidden logic behind every novel, movie, or play that touched my deepest mind.
I was reading a story when that logic finally kicked in. I was in my forties, lying in bed with one of Patrick O'Brian's great seafaring adventure novels. One of the characters, whom I admired, said a prayer before going to sleep, and I thought to myself, Well, if he can pray, so can I. I laid the book aside and whispered a three-word prayer in gratitude for the contentment I'd found, and for the work and people I loved: "Thank you, God."
It was a small and even prideful prayer: a self-impressed intellectual's hesitant experiment with faith. God's response was an act of extravagant grace. I woke the next morning and everything had changed. There was a sudden clarity and brightness to familiar faces and objects; they were alive with meaning and with my own delight in them. I called this experience "the joy of my joy," and it came to me again whenever I prayed. Naturally I began to pray every day.
This would lead to a full acceptance of Christ as Lord. Later, Klavan was baptized and wrote a book about his spiritual journey titled The Great Good Thing: A Secular Jew Comes to Faith in Christ. [Andrew Klavan, "How a Man of the Coasts and Cities Found Christ," Christianity Today (8-22-16)]
We serve a wonderful Saviour. Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’