I love a good handshake. My dad taught me how to shake hands. I’ve watched him do it all my life. It’s a simple act: big smile, eye contact, firm grip, friendly greeting. This was reinforced in the military where I learned the importance of the greeting of the day which consists of eye contact followed by good morning, good afternoon, or good evening.
This is how I greet people with love and respect. A handshake and the greeting of the day. My more intimate friends and family prefer hugs. I love a good hug! But I also appreciate a good handshake. It communicates value, dignity, power, strength, partnership. In some cultures or contexts, a handshake is more honorable than a signed contract. To me, it’s how I communicate love to friends, acquaintances, and even strangers. Physical touch ranks high on my list of love languages so the extension of touch is the equivalent of love.
Did Jesus, the God of Love, shake hands? I don’t know. The Bible doesn’t record a specific handshake, that I can find. But there are several references to the power of His touch. The story of Jesus cleansing a leper has always deeply moved me. Simply paraphrased:
A leper reverently approached Jesus seeking healing. Jesus stretched out His hand and touched the leper while declaring His willingness — perhaps eagerness— to oblige. Matthew 8:2-3
There is so much to unpack in these two verses! For now, my focus is on the outstretched hand, much like a handshake.
How could Jesus so easily touch a leper? I don’t do well with other people’s bodily fluids or injuries. My poor nephews! What they must think when I gently turn them away to their mother or father to fix their runny noses! If this is how I react to my beautiful and darling toddler nephews, how would I react to a leper? (I actually know how I would react. I encountered lepers several years ago, but that’s a different story.)
I have the great privilege of leading international programs for prisoners. The purpose of our programs is positive identity transformation which leads to behavioral change both inside prisons and outside upon release. We believe this is the solution to community restoration and reduce recidivism. This great privilege allows me to travel all over world and interact with prisoners of all cultures. Prisons are not pretty places especially in the developing world. They can be dark and dank and plagued with disease. Prisoners are often malnourished and lack basic hygiene items, like soap and clean water. The prison cells may be poorly ventilated and are often overcrowded. It’s a feeding ground for HIV, TB, and numerous other viruses, and bacterial infections. While a runny nose normally grosses me out, I find no higher honor than entering prisons to interact with these men and women.
I often ask, “What do I have to offer these men and women behind bars?” Many are neglected, without hope, unloved, starving, physically and emotionally unhealthy, bitter, angry and aggressive. I am not the answer to their circumstances. I cannot provide legal counsel or advocacy. I don’t have the power to pardon or grant amnesty. I can’t restore their relationships or bring them closure. I have no vaccines or medicines. No food or physical sustenance. Though I come to share about Jesus, I’m not a profound speaker who can inspire faith and hope. My presence and purpose isn’t to disciple or teach. So what can I give?
I have meditated on Jesus cleansing the leper for years. Lepers were outcast from society. They were not looked upon pleasantly. Despised and forsaken to their physical misery and emotional prisons. I imagine young children pointing or running in horror at the sight of a leper. Adults fleeing in fear at the thought of contracting such a contagious disease. No physical touch or companionship. The stigma of leprosy is for life.
Like the leper, the prisoner has a similar fate. Outcast. Stigmatized. Unloved. Untouched. Left to rot outside of society’s view.
But Jesus changed everything for the leper with one touch. It may have been the first touch the leper had felt in years. I can only imagine the overwhelming sensation and joy of finally being touched by another human being after years of grotesque ostracization.
With one touch, before a word was spoken, Jesus communicated value, dignity, and love. The disease and the stigma departed. Jesus didn’t pause before touching the leper. Jesus didn’t stop to wonder if He would contract the disease. He didn’t see the rotting body parts nor was he disgusted by bodily fluids. Instead, He was compelled by Love to love. I believe He loved the leper in the way he needed it most. Physical touch in the form of an outstretched hand.
Why God allows me to visit prisons around the world is beyond my mortal mind. He knows my quirks and my limits. But I count it a privilege to give what I have, to give what my earthly and my heavenly father modeled for me to give. A smile, eye contact, a firm handshake, and the greeting of the day. It may not seem like much in the grand scheme of a man’s life, but it’s the love I have to give. I consider it my blessing to make this connection and express to these men and women how pleased I am to meet them and thankful to be in their presence. May it communicate value, dignity, and the love of Christ. For I am compelled by this love to see beyond the diseases, the injuries, the traumas, the poor hygiene, the sweaty faces and palms. Instead I see what every living man and woman so desperately seeks. Love, acceptance, and forgiveness. I don’t know what they’ve done. But I know what I’ve done. And still, I am loved, accepted, and forgiven through Christ.
This is why I value the handshake and gladly extend my hand to all.