We all want to matter. There is no despair greater than having the sense that the world simply would not notice your absence.
Come to think of it, I suspect we would all rather say that the world would be better off without us than to say that our presence or absence would make no significant difference to the world.
At least we would have made a mark, even if it were an evil mark—a sort of moral graffiti—on the planet. We have the sense that to leave no mark at all is to be worthless.
That’s probably why so many of us want to do something that matters.
We prize some kinds of jobs over others because they seem to make a difference or leave a mark.
We want to leave some enduring legacy like artwork or writing or architecture that validates our days on the planet.
We seek to win awards or advance in our career or win rave reviews because that acknowledgment assures us that we matter.
In fact, God has created us to do something that matters. But we get all confused when we think that what we do is what makes us matter.
On the contrary, what Jesus does is what makes us matter. And that is one of the chief lessons that Jesus teaches us when he heals the leper that we meet in today’s Gospel. (Mark 1:40-45)
Before I explain how Jesus makes us matter, let’s consider the leper’s condition and the human response to it. Then we’ll see what Jesus does and how it makes us matter.
Any good Bible commentary will tell you that what the Bible calls leprosy is not limited to what we call leprosy today. In Jesus’ day, people referred to a wide range of skin diseases as leprosy.
The ancient world did not understand sickness using the germ theory. But they understood that sicknesses like leprosy could be contagious.
Sickness is contagious. We protect ourselves from infection by separating ourselves from the germs that sick people carry:
We wash our hands and use hand sanitizer.
We teach children to cover their mouths when they cough.
When you visit someone in the hospital, sometimes you have to put on a mask, a gown and gloves.
We even routinely use a form of voluntary quarantine. Schools instruct sick children to stay at home. Employers generally do the same for their workers. Sick days don’t just give the patient a chance to recover. They keep those germs at a distance from us so that we won’t be infected by them.
In the case of pandemics—SARS, swine flu, bird flu, and the like—government agencies might well impose mandatory quarantines on the sick and maybe even the whole family.
All of these measures follow the same basic principle. Keep your distance to prevent infection. Sickness is contagious.
The Law required lepers to keep their distance from individuals and from the community as a whole:
Lepers could not enter their own homes and had to live at the outskirts of town.
To warn healthy people, lepers wore torn clothes.
To touch at leper made you unclean. So healthy people had to keep their distance.
When a healthy person approached them, lepers were required to shout, “Unclean!”
And this last legal requirement introduces a dimension to dealing with contagion that we think that we lack today. Being unclean is a spiritual condition.
We attribute leprosy to germs and assign no moral or spiritual meaning to the disease.
The Hebrews regarded the physical condition of leprosy as the mark of an underlying spiritual disorder. And their concern was to prevent the spread not only of the physical disease but fight the spiritual contagion as well.
We are quick to say that the Hebrews were simply ignorant. Of course, in part that is true. They did not have microscopes and knew not the first thing about germs. But even a cursory reading of Job reveals that the Bible itself does not teach a simple cause-effect relationship between sin and misfortune.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus teaches his disciples that a man’s blindness had nothing to do with his sins or anybody else’s sins.
However, there are two lessons that the Hebrew learned better than we seem to know, and they are fundamental Biblical lessons:
The first lesson is this. Fixing somebody’s external problems is not sufficient. You can heal the body or teach someone to dress or give them an honored position and leave the soul terribly disordered.
For instance, the physical wounds suffered in a car crash can heal relatively quickly. And yet those involved in the wreck can suffer anxiety getting into a car for the rest of their lives.
Military personnel return from combat looking perfectly fit, and yet they can suffer the torturous effects of PTSD.
Fixing the body does not always fix the soul. The soul needs attention, too.
Here is the second lesson. Spiritual sickness can be just as contagious as physical sickness. Just think about how parents worry about their children’s peer group.
We want our kids hanging out with the right crowd.
And we often use external markers to tell us about spiritual condition: clothes, car, or family name.
We don’t want our kids infected with bad attitudes or bad behaviors, and our practices reveal that we think these spiritual matters are infectious.
Maybe some Israelites looked down on lepers as sinners who have gotten their just deserts, but the more biblically literate were more likely to see them with compassion, keep their distance with a broken heart for the sake of community health, and pray for their physical and their spiritual healing.
That’s what Jesus did, with one really big exception. Jesus touches the leper. That’s because Jesus can do something that we cannot do.
Jesus makes the unclean clean. His spiritual condition—his righteousness, his relationship with the Father—was perfect. Seamless. And Jesus came to infect us with his spiritual condition.
In the Incarnation, the Jesus came not only to dwell among us exactly as we are. He came to embrace us in all our spiritual sickness: our selfishness, our loneliness, our remorse, our greed, our lust, our rage, and our haughtiness.
He came to infect us with his obedience, his compassion, his desire to serve, his humility, his selfless love of neighbor, and his unflinching love of the Father.
Jesus came to bring a holy contagion, to make us righteous in the sight of God with his very own righteousness.
But it came at a terrible cost.
Remember, Jesus touches the leper. I imagine he embraced that leper, maybe even kissed him like St. Francis kissed the lepers wounded flesh.
Jesus did it even though he knew that infection works both ways. Jesus did not catch the leper’s physical condition. But he did draw into himself the leper’s spiritual condition. It’s as if Jesus were a great magnet placed into the world, drawing death and sin to himself like billions of iron filings.
And then on the cross we see the cost Jesus pays. As he hangs there dying he cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34)
The only Son of God—the one who has known the Father by his side and in his heart every moment of his life—can no longer feel the Father’s touch. Jesus has taken on our spiritual sickness so that we can be well.
And this is why we know that we matter. We know just how much we matter.
In economics we say that something is worth only what someone is willing to pay for it.
Do you see how much we are worth? God paid this price for us. It was his payment for us that set our value.
In God’s eyes, we are worth the life of his only Son. You. You personally. Me. Me personally. Not because of what we have done or could possibly do. Only because He has said so.
Never let anyone tell you any different. It does not matter how many times you failed as a student or an athlete, in your career or in your marriage, as a parent or as a child.
God has paid a price. It’s not just that we are forgiven. We are a treasure. God’s priceless treasure. And he will never regret the price he has paid for us.
This sermon was preached at St. Mark’s Cathedral, Shreveport, on February 12, 2012.