In the book we call Matthew’s Gospel, we see this story about Jesus:
When Jesus came down from the mountainside, large crowds followed him. A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately he was cleansed of his leprosy. Then Jesus said to him, “See that you don’t tell anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.”
Leprosy is bad – really bad. Sufferers were affected on three levels – physically, religiously, and socially. Physically, leprosy would begin with the loss of sensation in some part of the body. Muscles would waste away, tendons would contract, and there would be sever ulceration. Then, fingers and toes would begin to drop off, and later hands and feet. The process could last up to 20 or 30 years – a horrendous way to die.
Religiously, many people believed that those with leprosy were afflicted, by God, as a punishment for things they had done wrong. They were seen as dirty ‘sinners’, unfit for society and rejected by God. Some of the religious leaders prided themselves on avoiding places that had been visited by lepers on the same day.
Socially, the life of a leper was incredibly difficult. They had to live in special colonies outside the towns and cities – unable to have physical contact with others. A leper might spend years of his life unable to hold his children, be intimate with his wife, or even shake hands with his friends.
According to Jewish law, one had to stay six feet away from lepers at all times – and a full 150 feet if downwind from one. Of course, this made a lot of sense in terms of preventing the infection of others, but led to extreme isolation and stigma. In summary; regardless of circumstances, lepers were looked down on by the rest of society, much like someone who is HIV positive might be today.
Enter Jesus. As ever, large crowds followed him. Although the text does not indicate so, it is reasonable to assume that the crowds backed off to a good distance when the leper approached Jesus. They would not have wanted to be contaminated.
The leper seems to be a desperate man – he comes to Jesus, perhaps on the back of his reputation, and begs. Before Jesus has done or said a single thing, this man is respectful, even worshipful, and believes that Jesus can help him.
Jesus’ response is staggering. He touches the man. This man may not have been touched by another human in years. The watching crowds would have audibly gasped. Some years ago, Princess Diana was lauded for her close contact with AIDs sufferers, and in doing so helpfully cleared up some common misunderstandings about the disease. But she was never actually at risk.
Touching a leper was a huge social taboo, but Jesus does not seem at all concerned. Without ceremony or pomposity, the man is healed – and such a healing, from leprosy of all things, would have been easy to see and difficult to falsify.
Immediately, Jesus tells the now former leper to go through all of the Old Testament regulations regarding someone who has recovered from sickness. This meant going to the local priest and verifying his new-found cleanliness. Jesus is concerned not only to heal the man physically, but also to help him re-enter society, and avoid social or religious stigma.
So, Jesus does what religion never could. In a religious society this man had no hope, either for healing or for acceptance. He was finished, unclean and unwanted. Religion tends to say that if you contact something ‘unclean’, you become unclean. This still shows up in society today, when religious people sometimes avoid and belittle certain other groups, fearful of association or ‘contamination’.
But with Jesus things are the other way round. When he gets involved with someone, he doesn’t become unclean, they become clean. Where religion creates barriers and social hierarchies, Jesus removes them.
The leper, we must also note, is told not to tell anyone about this. In the early days of his ministry, Jesus does this a lot. Much as his ability to heal people would undoubtedly get him through most rounds of Britain’s Got Talent, Jesus is not trying to be a celebrity. He is not interested in being followed cheaply. Anyone else who could do what Jesus does here would surely pursue attention and adulation. Not Jesus.
Have you known someone who was extremely sick or even died from sickness? How do you think God might feel about this?
Do you think Jesus really did miracles such as this one?
What do you make of Jesus after reading this?