The God of proximity
The leper had been alone for so long. The disease had ravaged his body, but the forced separation from society had ravaged his heart. As he walked toward the Preacher, people scattered, afraid of the disease he carried. It was a painful reminder of his solitude.
It doesn’t require much imagination to empathize with the isolation of the leper. Since the emergence of COVID-19, we have lived through shutdowns and quarantines, and many have lost loved ones. Like the leper, we are keenly aware of our own mortality, our need for community, and our need for a cure.
When the leper reached Jesus, he fell at His feet and begged, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean” (Luke 5:12, ESV).¹ In an act of incredible tenderness, Jesus reached out His hand and touched the untouchable. The leper’s impurity and disease could not harm the Source of purity. Instead, Jesus’ touch and His words, “I will; be clean” (verse 13, ESV), transformed the man physically, socially, and spiritually.
THE MINISTRY OF JESUS
Jesus frequently associated with those deemed “untouchable” by society. Further in Luke 5, the biblical text describes how Jesus and His disciples ate with Levi and other guests. The Pharisees and scribes grumbled that Jesus was eating with “tax collectors and sinners” (verse 30). Jesus was unconcerned. Like the leper’s disease, the sin of those around Him posed no threat. In fact, sinners were the very people He wanted to be around.
Both the healing of the leper and Jesus’ friendship with sinners fit within the prophecy He claimed as His mission statement at the beginning of His ministry: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18, 19, ESV).
In Christ, God did not simply send another prophet—He sent His own Son to dwell with and minister to humanity, to be “God with us.” Jesus confronted sin and its effects in the most tangible ways possible: touching lepers, raising the dead, rebuking demons, living with the hunger-and-thirst human experience, and suffering and overcoming temptation. He did not shy away from what we consider the “dirtiest” aspects of humanity, but wallowed into the mire to rescue those who cried out for mercy, all while remaining the pure and holy Son of God.
THE DEATH OF JESUS
It is impossible to talk about the incarnation of Christ without also talking about the cross. Simeon prophesied about the glory and tragedy that awaited Jesus even as he held Him as a baby (Luke 2:28-35)— Jesus was “born to face His passion.” During His ministry He had touched lepers and eaten with sinners, but on the cross He became the outcast.² There was no separation between sinful humanity and Himself. To defeat the sin pandemic, He became the plague (2 Cor. 5:21).
The cross repairs the breach between humanity and God and breaks down “the dividing wall of hostility” within humanity (Eph. 2:14, ESV). In Christ there are no “strangers and aliens” (verse 19, ESV). The radical call of Christ to “take up [your] cross daily, and follow Me” (Luke 9:23) is a call to emulate Christ in His humility, to engage and act on behalf of others, even (and especially) when society deems them unworthy, impure, or untouchable.
Theologian James Cone writes, “The cross is the most empowering symbol of God’s loving solidarity with the ‘least of these,’ the unwanted in society who suffer daily from great injustices. Christians must face the cross as the terrible tragedy it was and discover in it, through faith and repentance, the liberating joy of eternal salvation.”³
THE RESURRECTION OF JESUS
In Christ’s resurrection what is accomplished on the cross becomes accessible. Those whom Jesus healed and raised from the dead eventually died—their healed bodies were still subject to the effects of sin. But the resurrection promises that sin and death do not have the last word. Jesus has conquered the grave!
The universal offering of eternal life proclaimed in John 3:16 leaves no doubt that Christ’s gift of life is given to everyone. The gospel message is to be proclaimed around the world, and those who accept it stand on equal ground before God. Regardless of wealth, status, ethnicity, or occupation, all are welcome at heaven’s banquet table (Matt. 22:1-10).
After Jesus performed the miracle on Peter’s boat, Peter fell at His knees and cried out, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8, ESV). Instead, Jesus invited him to join His work (verse 10). When, by every human rationale, Jesus could or should have distanced Himself from people, He drew them closer to Himself. In drawing them close to Him, He also drew them close to one another (John 17:22, 23). The Holy Spirit continues this work and we, who are “heirs . . . to the promise” (Gal. 3:29), live with the full benefits of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
The current pandemic has forced us to separate and isolate for medical safety, but it has also exposed and exacerbated existing rifts in our societies. We live in a deeply divided world. My great comfort during this time is that Christ has overcome all boundaries. While we are not immune to the contagion of sin and its effects (such as COVID), Jesus is. He is with us in lockdown and quarantine, through social division and unrest. His ministry sets the standard for loving and empathetic human interaction; the cross offers forgiveness for our sins against God and each other and proclaims solidarity with the oppressed; and the resurrection promises that injustice, sickness, and death have been defeated and will be abolished for eternity in the world made new.
Our God is a God of proximity and a God of solidarity. To those who place their trust in Him, He is always near, ready to be a comfort to the lonely and a healer to the afflicted. What good news for this current age!
¹ Scripture quotations marked ESV are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
² Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God (New York: SCM Press, 1974), p. 205.
³James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2011), p. 151.