In Hinduism there’s a festival, Raksha Bandhan, which celebrates the bond between brothers and sisters, girls tying a rakhi – sacred thread – around a boy’s wrist to symbolise her love, respect and prayers for her brother.
I only know about this because a colleague recently told a story from the school she teaches at, about how an elderly rag picker showed an interest in the school’s Raksha Bandhan celebrations. Noticing this, the young girl, aged just 12 or 13 went up to the rag picker and tied a rakhi to his wrist.
The old man burst into tears, then knelt down and touched the girl’s feet – a mark of great respect but also a cultural taboo, as this is a gesture intended only for your elders, not for children.
“You don’t understand,” said the rag picker to those embarrassed at this outpouring of emotion, “This is the first time in my long life that anyone has shown me this sort of compassion and respect.”
Then there was the time Jesus met a leper. “If you’re willing, you can make me clean!” begged the man, and so Jesus reaches out, touches and heals him.
41 verses into Mark’s Gospel and Jesus is breaking a taboo. Leprosy – which was used as a catch-all for any nasty skin-related disease – wasn’t just a medical condition, it was also spiritual: Leviticus 13 and 14 goes into painstaking detail on the subject, and while the whole thing seems to be about infection control, you can’t escape the negative connotations that would attach themselves to sufferers.
Dirty. Unclean. Infectious.
That’s the taboo Jesus is breaking. Let’s face it, if he has divine power to heal the man, he’s surely got the power to heal him at a distance. He doesn’t – he reaches out, touches him, and momentarily joins him in his unclean state (ceremonially at least) before taking it away, leaving everyone whole.
This isn’t just platitudes, this is radical compassion. In some ways it’s even a foreshadowing of what Jesus would accomplish on the Cross.
And that’s something his disciples are called to reflect.
It’s something that I react against; I’m an introvert, I never know what to say, I’m tired and I don’t have any answers to why terrible things have happened. Lord, don’t send me to an Aids orphanage in Africa, it’s far easier to set up a direct debit and be done with. Being compassionate at at distance is a piece of cake, being compassionate in person wears me out.
Deep down we know that isn’t always enough, that it’s economics, that it can’t hug or weep. We know that sometimes a situation is so heart-breaking that any attempt to provide answers would just be sociopathic. Those situations require something more human; community, compassion, contact.
I’m not going to pretend I know what it’s like to be completely on the margins – I’m a white, western man with an iPhone and enough spare time to write two blogs; as someone once said, my demographic plays life on the easy setting. I have no grasp on what it’s like to be an Indian rag picker or a Galilean leper.
But I claim to follow Jesus, and that means not only trying to communicate his words when I’m safely sat behind a laptop, but also being his hands and feet in the world. That means showing love and compassion, recognising and celebrating the humanity of those around us. That’s not always easy, and sometimes it has to be downright sacrificial: Jesus touching the leper opened up a whole can of worms about acceptance and compassion and love triumphing over doctrine. Do I really want that hassle?
What does that say about me?
Well, it may say a lot, but there’s Jesus reaching out to a worn-out and selfish man, just as he reached out to a leper two thousand years ago. And if a rag picker and a twelve year old can model radical compassion and acceptance then it’s time for me to try and do the same.