The Bible famously reminds us that there is “a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance…a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing” (Ecclesiastes 3:5). There has been a lot of talk in the news about unwelcomed embraces or touches and the respect of personal space. It is widely agreed today that the “bad touch” is one that is unwelcomed and uncomfortable for the one being touched, regardless of what the touch feels like to the toucher. I will never forget when as a young seminary graduate I was asked to meet privately with a pastor who was overseeing my ordination process. The pastor began asking me some very personal questions about my family and then, without any warning, walked over and stood behind me as I sat in the chair, giving me a shoulder massage. I felt very uncomfortable, ended the meeting, and quietly walked outside. The odd thing is that I didn't tell anyone about this for about four years. I was embarrassed by the entire event. I learned later that this "deer in the headlights" experience is typical of those whose personal boundaries have been violated. About ten years later this same pastor was defrocked on more serious sexual misconduct charges.
It's interesting to observe Jesus’ behavior in light of this debate about appropriate and inappropriate touching. Some argue that Jesus’ counsel to “turn the other cheek,” teaches us to meekly accept abusive and violent touches. True, Jesus wanted his followers to break the cycle of violence and revenge; but Jesus never said, “If someone slaps your neighbor’s cheek, offer their other cheek as well!” On the contrary he tells us to bind up the wounded, and to confront evil in a deliberate manner (Matt. 18.15; Luke 10:25-37).
Like any of us, Jesus was aware when he was being touched in a good way or in a hurtful way. In general, Jesus allowed and even welcomed the touch of others; and we read that crowds of people “begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak [in order to be] healed” (Mark 6: 56). When one bold woman grasped the hem of his garment in a pressing crowd he immediately stopped and asked, “Who touched me?” When that poor woman spoke up he said she was healed of her disease (Mark 5: 25-34). Then there was that “sinful woman” who fell at Jesus’ feet and began wiping his feet with her tears. Jesus did not scold her nor did he mock or trivialize her actions (Luke 7: 36-50). To the contrary, he sensed that her touch was an act of reverent devotion, even when a certain Pharisee was appalled.
An unwanted and unwelcomed word or touch often accompanies feelings of distress, shame, or violation. Jesus’ word and touch brought peace, wholeness, and healing. He reached out and touched the leper, one who was considered “un-touchable” and touched him anyway (Mark 1:41). Breaking the established purity code, Jesus’ touch was unthinkable, yet it was also full of grace, peace, and unconditional acceptance.
Another example of Jesus’ touch can be seen in how he spoke about and responded to children. Jesus condemns those who would cause harm to “even one of these little ones,” saying it would be “better for them to put a millstone around their necks and be drowned in the sea” (Mark 9:42). Yet when parents brought their children to Jesus “in order that he might touch them,” we read that he “took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them” (Mark 10: 15-16) – but not without the invitation of their mothers and fathers.
While Jesus models for us the good touch, it is his ability to overcome so many bad touches that is truly stunning. When Judas betrays Jesus with a kiss, Mark uses the word kataphilein, implying the extended embrace of a dear friend. What could be more painful than a phony hug from one who actually intends to do us harm? In this traitor’s kiss Jesus shows that he understands every false kiss and every sickening and unwelcomed touch. Yet beyond this, Jesus endured the pain of being spat upon, struck in the face, beaten (Mark 14:65), scourged nearly to death (Mark 15:15), and then impaled with metal spikes on a Roman cross (Mark 15:25). Yes, Jesus endured all these bad touches, but he did that he might reveal the power of his sin-conquering, death-conquering life. For the Risen Son said, “Touch me and see” that I am alive (Luke 24: 39). If Jesus rose again after all those bad touches, we can have hope that in Him we shall too -- both here and now and in the eternal life to come – regardless of the bad touches or terrible hurts we have known.
“There is a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing.” May we have wisdom to know the difference and the power to represent the goodness and grace of Christ himself.