Do you remember the game of cooties when you were young? Cooties were an invisible contaminant, and according to the rules of the playground or classroom, cooties were transferred by human-to-human contact. All it takes is a simple touch. Who was patient zero for the cootie crisis? No one knew for sure, but everyone knew that you did not, under any circumstances, want to come into contact with someone who had cooties.
This fear of contamination was enormous in the time of Jesus. Levitical law warns that there are all sorts of things that left a person unclean. And in the world of the first century, there was not a sharp delineation between a person being physically, spiritually, or socially unclean. Becoming unclean in one area made you unclean in all areas, and every faithful Jew knew that to be unclean meant to be separated from God and the faith community.
Then Jesus shows up on the scene and he starts breaking all kinds of social and spiritual taboos. Before he “makes clean” (heals) a man with leprosy, he touches him (Mark 1). In Mark 5, Jesus heals a man with an “unclean spirit,” heals a woman through a simple touch who has had a twelve year long untreatable bleeding issue (making her “unclean”), and touches a 12 year old dead girl, bringing her back to life. Memorably, he dines with social reprobates (tax collectors, prostitutes, and “sinners”), breaking purity laws as he does.
Each time Jesus rewrites the rules to bring healing and wholeness. Each time, Jesus shows us that the cleansing of God is more powerful than that which contaminates and isolates. If we are to be a people who practice radical hospitality and welcome, we have to get past our fear of contamination and instead be overcome with compassion. Perhaps the place to starts is by remembering the all-powerful mercy God extends to us.