The Presence of Absence

Sometimes we find the more powerful message in what is omitted, not what’s present.

by Scott Hagan

Jesus did not fear making public the unfinished task. The following narrative proves it. 

Leadership is about paying attention — not getting attention. It's about cultivating acuity and seeing what should be, not simply what is. Feelings of incompleteness are a lost leadership art mainly because of our intoxication with promotion and momentum. We are overly anxious to highlight the good while quietly not acknowledging anything that does not serve the cause or hints that the vision may not be working as we hoped.

But a good leader understands there is no such thing as a nonentity. Something is either present or it's missing. In other words, everything exists. And sometimes we find the more powerful message in what is omitted, not what's present. Jesus understood that leadership starts with crossing the road and mingling with the dead. But Jesus went further in His leadership and demonstrated a keen perception for what was yet to be accomplished. Jesus did not fear making public the unfinished task.

The following narrative proves it.

An Imperfect “10”

It began with a speck on the eyelid. A tiny blemish on the palm. A strand of hair going from premature gray to albino white. For the next week the farmer tried to believe it was a sun blister. The fisherman, the aftermath of a rope burn. The bearded sheepherder, well, age. But the small painless symptom does the unthinkable. It endures, then enlarges. Then suddenly the priest exiles a beloved neighbor or family member to a land where human benevolence dared not engage.

A leper township was the stamp of Satan's signet ring. A colony of the cursed. A forced resettlement of the happily forgotten. Rotting at will, the leprous body became a slow burning log cast upon a hot fire, transforming from solid wood to ash. For the leper, gravity was the final enemy as decomposed tissue fell like snowflakes, leaving appendages to hang by a thread like a loose button on a sport coat.

Get the picture.

Leprosy was like an inoperative social cancer — a malignancy that turned a normal successful human being into a cadaver on hold. Left to perish on his own, the leper was forced to watch firsthand his mummy-like oxidization. This kind of dreadfulness was only fit for the dark interior of the casket.

Easton's Bible Dictionary tells us that the word for leprosy comes from the Hebrew word tsara'ath, meaning “smiting” or “stroke.” The word also means “the swelling redness caused by the sting of a wasp.” People believed leprosy was a direct providential affliction; therefore, an emblem of judgment. In Christ's day, no leper could live in a walled town, though they might allow him in an open village as long as he kept several hundred feet between himself and the outside world. Wherever he went, society required the leper to tear his garment as a sign of grief and contrition while keeping his shaved head hidden beneath a mantle as if lamenting his own death.

Furthermore, society required him to warn passers-by to keep their distance by calling out, “Unclean, Unclean.” He was the funeral processional and corpse all in one. Society forbade him to speak directly to anyone or receive any kind of comforting salutation, since in the East this would involve an embrace. Leprosy was a severe contagion, a silent bacterial mildew that could attach to a piece of clothing or hide itself inside a house before latching on to unsuspecting flesh. Its mission was to cling … then condemn.

Ten such men found themselves under that condemnation. They were men of different backgrounds, race, and riches, but leprosy was their new nation. They had one agenda — get the attention of Jesus. Decorum was their last priority. As you read Luke's narrative, notice how carefully he notes the noise and character placements. They are key to the mercy. Of the 10 leprous men, Luke first says that they “stood at a distance … and called out in a loud voice” (Luke 17:12,13). But of Jesus, Luke writes, “And when He saw them, He said, ‘Go, show yourselves to the priests' ” (verse 14). Nowhere does it indicate that Jesus had to raise His voice in His response. At first, the 10 were loud because they were at a distance. But Jesus answered them the way you would answer someone standing in front of you. So what happened to the distance between them? In other words, the lepers yelled but the Savior talked. How? Because Jesus closed the gap. This is the first role of leadership — to close the gap — to make the outsider feel like an insider.

The law of leprosy was a distant second to the law of love. After closing the gap, Jesus instructed the 10 to go visit the priest. Somewhere along the way the lepers noticed a change in their complexions. Whether they ever made it to the priest we will never know.

For nine of the 10 lepers normalcy was their goal. They wanted their ordinary lives back. But Jesus' goal has never been to return people to the ordinary; His purpose was to bring back the dead. When nine lepers got their ordinary life back, they kept walking. Because the way you celebrate the return to ordinary life is through more ordinary living. But how do you celebrate a resurrection from the dead? You find the source and become His bond slave. As the nine returned to the ordinary, one went straightway to find Jesus. He forsook the ordinary. After receiving this man's love, Jesus then declared a key to effective leadership. Jesus then asked, “Where are the other nine?” (Luke 17:17). Jesus felt the absence of something, not just the presence of something.

For today's pastor and leader this aspect of leadership needs to return to the forefront. Certainly the one leper who reciprocated with love thrilled Jesus, but Jesus did not get carried away by this result nor did He try to hide the fact the majority, 90 percent, were still unresponsive to His kingdom. In the hopes of marketing positive results, or always looking good for the next set of potential investors, may we never slip into denial about the unfinished task.

It's good to stay in touch with what God has done, but it's better to stay in touch with what He still needs to do.