Touch Changes Everything
Homily for the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
February 14, 2021
Today, we’re going to reflect on the importance of “touch” since in our Gospel reading Jesus heals a leper by touching him. To begin: do you remember the story of King Midas? According to the myth, Midas was a very wealthy king who ruled the country of Phrygia. He had everything a king could wish for. He lived in luxury in a grand castle. He shared his life of abundance with his beautiful daughter. Now, even though Midas was very rich, his greatest happiness came from possessing gold. One day, he happened to encounter the god Dionysus, who was grateful for the way Midas had treated a friend of his, and so Dionysus promised that he would grant one wish to the king. After reflecting for a few moments, Midas asked that everything he touched would turn to gold. And, of course, the whole thing backfired: if he tried to eat a grape, the grape turned to gold. And, without thinking, he embraced his daughter, and she turned to gold. In the end Dionysus felt sorry for Midas, reversed the wish, and returned everything to its natural state. King Midas’s touch was based on greed, which blinded him and nearly led to the destruction of everything he held dear.
In our gospel passage Jesus encounters a leper. Because leprosy was so contagious, the laws about how to deal with it were very strict, as we heard in our first reading. Lepers were to live apart from the community, and it was against the law for anyone to touch them. And so the leper approaches Jesus in a tentative way: “If you wish, you can make me clean.” Jesus chooses to put love above the letter of the law, and so he stretches out his hand, and touches the leper, who is cured immediately. We don’t know how long the man had leprosy, but he suffered its consequences: not only was he disfigured by the horrible disease, but he was forced to exist in isolation. Can you imagine living that way, as many did, for years, without any meaningful human contact, without being touched by another human being? And so, what Jesus did was a double healing of both the disease and the loneliness that went along with it.
Some scholars ask: Why did Jesus have to touch the leper, especially since it was against the law, and a simple command could have sufficed? I believe it is because Jesus knew how much the leper longed to be healed not just of his disease, but also from the loneliness of being cast off from the human community.
This weekend we are celebrating Valentine’s Day, and I wanted to show you a card I picked up. On the cover there is a bear, and he is holding a large heart. Above the image it says “Valentine Hug” and inside it simply says, “for you.” That card struck me as being ironic, and even cruel. Can you imagine, for instance, a grandparent longing to give a big bear hug to a grandchild, but unable to do so because of the pandemic we are undergoing? And this has been going on for just under a year. No one knows how long the leper in the gospel had to live apart from everyone he held dear, unable to experience a human touch. I sent one of the bear-hug Valentine’s cards to a young cousin. And in it I wrote that I didn’t find virtual bear hugs very satisfying, and I couldn’t wait for the day when we could be healed and hug each other for real.
I recently read about some research that was done by Tiffany Field, who is the head of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami. In the mid-seventies she was working in a neonatal intensive care unit, and the nursing staff was trying to figure out how to help preemies to grow and be discharged faster. The answer was touch! Once they started massaging the infants, they started to gain weight and make better progress.
She includes information about a very serious situation in an orphanage in Romania. The children there had very little touch, and almost no human contact, and so they suffered developmental delays. They were half their expected height and weight for their age. Many had autistic-like symptoms.
More recently, Ms. Field was involved in a study of touch at airports (this was prior to the pandemic). She discovered that there was almost no touch going on (people greeting each other, welcoming or saying farewell, comforting children, and the like). Everyone was on their smartphone, including couples traveling together, as well as parents and children. Ms. Field notes that the reduction of touch is especially problematic for children. Kids today are often touch-deprived, not only because of smartphones but also because of rules limiting touch in schools (and I might add at churches). She suggests that parents have to make a special effort to provide as much touch as they can to ensure the proper development of their children.
The same can be said of the elderly, who often live in isolation without much human contact. I recently read about a man who died at the age of seventy-six, even though he was alert, intelligent, healthy—and yet, desperately unhappy. The article pointed out that in this case the man had chosen isolation. After the death of his wife, his family and friends tried constantly to get him out and involved. He was invited on trips, to clubs, and to dinners. He would refuse, but with his very next breath he’d lament his isolation and loneliness.
In the gospels Jesus created a sense of community among those he invited to follow him. And he always seemed to be on the lookout for those who, like the leper in today’s gospel, were cut off from the community. He didn’t tend to limit his followers to a private spirituality in which there was only a one-to-one relationship with God. Individual prayer and meditation were obviously important, but not enough. Rather he challenged people not only to love God, but to love others, even as they loved themselves.
Finally, I wanted to share one of my favorite stories about prayer and all the difference it can make when we are feeling lonely or isolated (as many do because of the restrictions brought about by the pandemic). It’s a story of an elderly man who was bedridden. One of his oldest friends paid a visit one day. The ailing man confessed that whenever there was a sermon about prayer, it always seemed to go over his head, because it was so abstract and theological. The visitor said, “Let me tell you how I pray. I place an empty chair next to me, and I envision Jesus sitting in the chair. I then talk to him about whatever is on my mind and in my heart, and then I try to listen for a response.” A few weeks later the ailing man’s daughter spoke to the parish priest about how she found her father on the day he died. It seemed he had fallen out of bed, but his body was in a twisted position. His head was on the seat of the chair, as if it was resting on someone’s lap! So you see, in the inner room of prayer, that man was able to overcome any isolation or loneliness he might have felt. Rather, he realized that love, and God, were only a prayer away. Thankfully, his friend was able to steer him in the right direction. And it is the same for us. Even though we have to practice social distancing, we can still call those who may be alone and isolated, letting them know that we care and that we are praying for them. It may be, for now, only a virtual touch, but it can make all the difference in the world.