There’s something about this story that I really like, but I can’t quite pinpoint what it is. It exists in Matthew and Mark as well, and every time I read it, I find comfort in it. I think it has something to do with Jesus saying to the man, “I do choose.” This is, to me, a perfect example of the compassionate Jesus which we so commonly imagine. From my readings of the Gospels, this compassionate Jesus is actually quite rare. To be sure he never loses compassion, but he is so often challenging the religious elite of the day and running into conflict that the calm, gentle, compassionate Jesus isn’t always there for me. But it’s hard to lose in this story. This man suffering from leprosy (keep in mind that leprosy meant all kinds of various diseases, not necessarily the leprosy we know today), shows up and very humbly says, “if you choose, you can make me clean”. He is what I would call humbly bold here. He’s bold in that he’s clear with the Jesus that he knows Jesus has the power to help him, but I also hear a certain humility in him. He also seems to recognize that Jesus might not choose. And Jesus seems to just stop. I imagine him looking this man right in the eyes, touching him, and saying, “I do choose”. Jesus has a big vision, and he has a big dream, and he has the biggest of calls, but he doesn’t lose a sense of the actual people around him. He has this incredible balance of never losing sight of the big picture, but also always seeing and being present to the people around him.
This is also the hard call of church leadership today. It’s hard to do both. Most churches seem to fall to one side or the other. Some are very present to people, never losing sight of their needs, aches, and longings. This is right and good, but it can also hinder a church from reaching new people. Though Jesus is present, at the end of this story we read “But he would withdraw to deserted places and pray.” He was present, but also did what he needed to do to keep moving the mission forward. On the other hand other churches I’ve seen do a great job of constantly moving their mission forward. They are so focused that nothing will get in the way of their mission. These churches often see exponential growth, but they also often miss the needs, aches, and longings of people in their midst. They are slow to slow down, look the untouchable (who will never be a lead giver or manage a ministry) in the eye, grab his hand and say, “I do choose”. “I do choose”, which is to say, “I see you, I hear you, and I’m with you.”
The balance which Jesus finds in this way, for me, can only be described as tension. It’s not a bad tension. It’s just one in which we church leaders must live, and when we tire of it, we risk losing an important piece of what it means to be the church. Am I, as a church leader, called to focus on the big picture or the small picture? I’m afraid the answer is “yes”.