When Jesus came down from the mountainside, large crowds followed him. A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, “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!” Immediately he was cleansed of his leprosy. (Matthew 8:1–3 NIV)
Read the above this morning. To be a leper in Jesus’ time was to be doubly cursed. Not only were you physically ill, you were also seen to be spiritually unclean. Nobody came near you. I am always intrigued that Jesus touched the leper when He healed him. He could have easily healed him from afar with a word. But he deliberately chose to touch him.
I have always referred to this incident as one that indicated that Jesus was not afraid of being contaminated by the leper. Indeed, as the one who was ushering in the Kingdom of God, Jesus was “contaminating” him with wholeness. But as I read the passage this morning a new thought came to mind. The leper needed to be healed. But he also needed to be touched.
This shouldn’t surprise us. We have known for some time the importance of haptics, communicating though touch.
Communication through touch is an essential part of human social development. Haptic is either intentional or unintentional [and] leads towards either positive or negative consequences. The sense of touch is the effective, direct and intimate way of communication [that] starts from a fetus and helps [us] to sense the world in and around. It carries distinct emotions and the intensity of its emotions may vary as good and bad touch. Non-verbal haptic communication sends messages through sensory nerves and receives messages through brain sensors as it impacts the psychological stimulus. Involuntarily and persistently both humans and animals communicate with their environment through touch, since it’s a basic and vital survival instinct for them. Touch communicates emotions and feelings in a physical form, creates physical intimacy, bonds, rapport, comfort….
Have been doing a lot of haptic communication lately. I haven’t been back to the Klang Valley for three years or more. In the last few months I have been back twice. I met up with many old friends I had not seen in person for a long time. And there were new friends I had met and drawn close to over social media. It was a joy to meet all these folks so a lot of hugs and enthusiastic handshakes!
God has made us as material beings, and we shouldn’t be surprised that material contact is a key part of human connecting. The New Testament calls brothers and sisters to greet each other with holy kisses. Robert Banks tells us why this form of greeting was important.
To interpret this action (holy kiss) as merely a formal or secondary procedure would be to underestimate its importance. Not as significant as baptism and the Lord’s Supper, it does, like the laying on of hands, play an important role in early Christian communal life. By means of the action the bond between each member of the church was given real, not merely symbolic expression. (Robert Banks, Paul’s Idea of Community, Revised Edition, [Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994], 85.)
The Asian society where I come from is not one given to expressing affection physically, especially when it doesn’t involve family members. It doesn’t help that every day we get another report of inappropriate physical touch. One recent high-profile example was when the coach of the Spanish Women’s Football team kissed a player on the lips. Therefore we should be careful and on our guard against the abuse of touch. Any physical contact must be with the consent of all parties. And if we are not sure, ask, or watch for body signals.
However, we would have lost something important if we do not express our affection physically at all, since “Touch communicates emotions and feelings in a physical form, creates physical intimacy, bonds, rapport, comfort…”. So, go hug a friend today.