In the ancient world, leprosy was incredibly unclean — if you had it, you were not simply unhealthy, you were cast out of society. For you to touch anyone was to risk contaminating them. You had to live on the outskirts of town, shouting “unclean! unclean!” wherever you went, so that normal people could get out of your way.
If you did touch someone, they would immediately become unclean as well. They would have to go to the temple and do a cleansing ritual to make sure they were free of the disease, and to be accepted back into society.
So in the Gospels, when lepers come to Jesus, he is not supposed to touch them. He is a holy man, and their uncleanness could contaminate his holiness.
Weirdly enough, that’s not how it works. People with leprosy keep coming to Jesus, and Jesus keeps touching them.
And instead of Jesus becoming unclean, the lepers become cleansed.
In fact, Jesus can touch uncleanness, evil, sin, impurity, anything — and it doesn’t make him dirty, it makes them clean. In the Gospels, it isn’t leprosy that is the most infectious disease — it is Jesus himself!
This is true for almost everything. Everything he touches becomes infected with health — everything he touches becomes clean.
So when Jesus goes to the cross — the ultimate expression of being under a curse, according to Galatians—the curse is broken, and even the cross itself is transformed. Instead of a symbol of violent power, it becomes a symbol of self-giving love. Instead of embodying the power of death, it comes to embody the power of life.
Maybe we Christians ought to take this more seriously. Jesus is an infectious agent. He is virulent and contagious. Instead of trying to keep him locked away in rooms where people approach him with appropriate questions and dignity, maybe we should let him loose in the world.
After all, when Jesus calls his first disciples, he doesn’t ask them to accept a metaphysical system, or buy into a set of propositions. He just asks them to follow along — because he knows what happens when people get near him.
They become infected. They become contagious.
Maybe we need to stop trying to keep our religion safe and clean and organized, and just let it out into the messy and insincere and ironic and imprecise and sinful and ugly world. Maybe we need to invite people to engage with Jesus in whatever way they can, no matter how problematic.
Because once Jesus is set loose, there’s no telling where he will end up.
And when Jesus gets his hands dirty, even the dirt becomes clean.