It was the sound of the crowd that made me aware of his arrival. Remaining at all times, as the law commands, outside of the town walls, I enjoy my days in silence with the sound of birds as my only company. The only break in my otherwise peaceful existence comes when I hear the shuffle of feet approaching. And, though I know what will follow, I call out, as the law dictates, “Unclean!” And I avert my eyes to avoid seeing the inevitable: the looks of terror or disgust. But I cannot block out the cries filled with equal parts fear and hatred, vitriol and curses for the day of my birth.
Over the years I have undertaken what few measures of defense remain available to me. Moving farther away from town was a defensive measure – yes, it meant removing myself from the relative safety provided by my proximity to others. But any wandering vagrants or even bandits under cover of darkness consistently fled as soon as they heard my warning cries. Yes, wild animals would not heed my warning… I had not yet stooped so low as to ask God for death, but the thought was never far from my mind that a swift death at the claws and teeth of a lion might be the best I could hope for. Especially if my tormentors were right, and my skins was a reflection of the judgment God was raining down on my life. Perhaps asking God for death was not so wise. Who knew what greater judgment might lie ahead of me yet.
It was in the heat of the day that I first heard the crowd’s approach. I was lying in the shade of my home, more a burrow than anything else. The first footsteps crunching in the gravel and sand made me cringe and shrink back against the tree roots. I lay still for a moment, gathering the strength to get up and warn whoever was coming. Not today, I thought. I don’t want to face anyone today.
But in addition to the footsteps, I heard the buzz of voices. More than just a few people coming my way. It was clearly a large group. What are they doing? I wondered. I almost never had “visitors”, passersby that I needed to chase away, and I never ever had large groups of people. I crawled out of my burrow as the first ones came into view. I heaved a sigh of relief as I saw that they weren’t actually headed close enough to me and I wouldn’t need to reveal my presence. I could stay hidden and unnoticed. I turned to crawl back under the branches that formed my door when I heard perhaps the only word that could bring me to a stop.
It rolled off the lips of some of the crowd nearest to me, carried to me on the breeze. The sound of the name buzzed around my head as if it were a bee and made me pause, one knee on the ground, one hand still holding up the branch. Jesus. Even I had heard his name before, heard of this man who preached and taught from the deck of a boat and the dais of a synagogue in equal measure. Who declared himself the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah. Who, it was said, had gone to the house of a fisherman and healed the man’s mother-in-law. Who had even cast demons out of people.
The second the idea flashed into my mind, I knew I would do it. Knew it was worth all the risk to ask this man for help. If he was who he said he was, then he was the only person who would be able to help me.
Before I could second guess my decision, before thinking too much stopped me in my tracks, I turned on my heel and marched down the gentle slope toward the crowd. I heard bits of conversations as I neared them. “…heard that he was baptized by John…” “… but he didn’t stay and talk to the Pharisees…” “… but then they caught so many fish that the boat almost sank…” Years of avoiding people was an ingrained habit, but I was not about to let this opportunity pass me by, and I marched directly into the crowd, weaving through people, aiming for the man at the front, talking with the people closest to him as he walked. I could catch the occasional glimpse of the teacher as the crowd shifted – his robe, his hair, his friendly laugh as the man nearest him said something apparently funny.
It was the sudden gasp of a woman as I passed by her that broke my focus on the man ahead. I turned and looked at her as her eyes flitted from my ragged clothing to my dirty hair, landing on the rough red skin of my hands and arms and face. Her eyes bulged out and her lips moved for a moment, but her mouth made no sound. “Un… un…” she gasped, finally taking in a deep breath and crying out in a piercing, shrill voice. “Unclean!” She lifted a trembling finger to point at me, even as she backed away, lifting her headscarf to cover her mouth.
The crowd around us gasped in equal measure and backed away. In a split second I had to decide whether to flee or continue marching forward, and the crowd helped me make my decision as they backed away and made space for me to keep moving forward through them. I lifted my chin, straightened my spine, and marched on.
The woman’s cries were picked up by others as I moved, each person in turn gasping and shrinking back. Hisses and jeers met my ears, but I marched on, resolute. I would let nothing get in the way of my goal. I was almost there, almost within reach of the teacher when the first stone hit me, square in the back. Instinctively I ducked, curling my arms around my head as if that would protect me. More stones pelted me, their sharp edges piercing and scraping. I fell to the ground and closed my eyes, hearing some skitter by and rolling around in the dust.
Suddenly the stones stopped, stopped hitting me, stopped pelting the ground around me. I stood, looking around wildly, now ready to run, run anywhere, just run away and be safe again. Instead, what I saw was the man Jesus. He must have heard the commotion and had turned and was walking back toward us. Toward me. I tried to swallow, but I had only the dust of the ground in my mouth, choking me. My hands were sweating. I wiped them on my tunic sides, and felt the grit of the ground on me. I must look crazy, I thought. He must think me demon possessed, covered in the dust of the road, unwashed, desperate. I could feel my heart pounding in my throat, sweat trickling down my temple, or perhaps blood from one of the stones that had met its mark. And still he kept walking, his eyes never wavering from mine. The sounds of the crowd fell away, as though they were backing away from us further, and maybe they were, or maybe it was just the way this man drew attention. I felt as though his eyes could see into my very soul, as though he were able to see each thought, each memory, each shortcoming.
He stopped in front of me. Close enough to touch me. Close enough to become unclean himself. But surely he could see on my face, my hands, my arms, the signs of my disease, of my judgment. The skin peeling away. The angry red welts. The signs to all that I was a man cursed by God.
He stayed completely still in front of me, and I stood frozen, forgetting all that I had set out to do. It was one of the men rushing up beside him that broke the spell. “Lord, surely you can see that this man–” But he held up his hand and silence fell again.
It was enough to stir me out of my inaction. I feel to my knees a second time, this time willingly. I placed my face on the ground where it had just lay moments ago, but this time in front of the sandals of the teacher.
“Lord,” I said in a weak voice. How will he hear me if I speak like this? I wondered. But the dust in my mouth and the pain in my heart conspired against me, and my throat tightened further. I heard clothing rustling and tilted my head enough to look up. He was squatting down above me, leaning down toward me.
The hope that had first fluttered in my heart when I heard the crowd speaking his name came welling back up inside. “Lord,” I said, louder this time, with more insistence. “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.”
Silence surrounded us. I did not even dare to breathe.
An unfamiliar weight settled on the back of my head and my eyes fluttered closed. It was warm, and a glow began spreading through my body, like little tendrils of fire radiating, tingling through my scalp, down my neck, racing along my skin down my arms and hands. I breathed in deeply.
“I am willing,” I heard from above me. “Be clean.”
Something unknowable burst open in my heart. Tears flooded my eyes.
I opened my eyes, blinking away the tears. They streaked down my face, dripping on the dust beneath me, immediately forming little pools of mud. He was reaching down, one arm curving out of my field of vision, the other held out, waiting.
A sudden realization dawned. It was his hand. His hand on my head. I had not felt the comforting touch of another since… I knew not how long.
And still he stood waiting, holding out his other hand. I stared at it uncomprehendingly for seconds, until another realization slowly dawned. He was holding out his hand to help me up.
I watched his eyes as I reached for his hand. Watched for any sign of fear, any flinch of disgust as I grasped it. There was none. His steady gaze spoke only that same love and compassion and sense of seeing deep within that I had felt before. Only now I met his eyes without shame. He helped me to my feet, and I rose, stumbling a little, keeping my eyes on him.
It was the men with him that again broke the spell, that distracted as I saw one elbow another and mutter something under his breath. I reflexively pulled my hand away from the teacher, again realizing the state I must look. I lifted my hands to brush away the remnants of the tears and dust from my face, wiping under my eyes and down my cheeks. My skin felt smooth under my fingertips, and it did not sting as it usually did. My hands dropped from my face, and I stared at them, turning them first palm up and then palm down, taking in the unfamiliar look of the smooth skin, the healthy skin, the redness gone, the peeling skin disappeared. I ran my hands up and down my arms, not believing what I was feeling, not believing what I was seeing. I held my arms in front of me as a laugh bubbled up from deep within. The man standing behind the teacher met my eyes and nodded his head, smiling, as if to say, “Yes! It happened exactly as you think!”
I lifted my hands to the heavens, spun around in a circle, and cried out. “Lord! Surely you are who you say you are!” The feeling of lightness inside me spread, and I looked at all the faces around me as I spun again, faces that had formerly been covered in fear and disgust, now wearing expressions of curiosity, shock, or happiness, as if my own deep joy welling up inside were too contagious for them not to be affected by it as they had been worried about being affected by my earlier disease.
I opened my mouth to begin to speak to the crowd when I heard the teacher speak again from behind me. “Tell no one. Go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices commanded by Moses.”
I spun around to look at him again. He said nothing more, just smiled, raised his arm, and rested his hand on my shoulder again. And then he stepped back, and he walked away, followed immediately by the men who had been with him at the front of the crowd. I stood still and watched. The crowd began to flow around me again as people began to follow after the teacher once more. This time, they did not step away. I heard no cries of disgust or horror. I was surrounded so closely by the crowd that I was jostled by elbows as they hurried by, no longer afraid to touch me. I stood until they had all passed by, until they followed the curve of the road between the hills and out of sight.
And then I turned and ran, heading for Jerusalem, heading to the temple, to find a priest.