In first century Israel, leprosy was the disease that was dreaded above all others. Physically, it involved pain and lack of feeling in certain parts of the body, in time leading to sores and swellings, and sometimes to body parts like fingers and toes dropping off. Socially, it meant isolation and dehumanisation. Lepers were not permitted to live in the town with other people but had to live in specific leper colonies on the outside of town. If they wanted to approach others they had to do so by ringing a bell and loudly saying ‘unclean, unclean’ as they approached. This stemmed from regulations in the Old Testament law (see Leviticus 13) in which the ‘uncleanness’ of leprosy is legislated, in part to prevent the spread of the disease and in part to visually illustrate the defilement of sin. For most people of the day, leprosy was horrifying and they wanted nothing to do with people who had the disease.
This is the background to the encounter we have in these verses. After Jesus had finished preaching the Sermon on the Mount, a crowd gathered around him. A leper approached and knelt before Jesus. No mention is made of whether he was following the instruction to shout ‘unclean’, but as the conversation immediately focusses on cleanness, this is likely. We can imagine the crowd are horrified and keep their distance, but Jesus shows no sign that he shares their revulsion.
The man’s statement to Jesus is telling; ‘Lord, if you will, you can make me clean’. He had no doubt that Jesus possessed the power to do it, and so he brought the request to him. According to the Old Testament law, this was not the way things worked. If something unclean came into contact with something clean or holy, then the clean/holy thing that was defiled rather than the unclean thing being sanctified. Corruption was contagious. Holiness was not. And yet this man knows that Christ has the power and ability to cleanse him.
In response, Jesus does two things. Firstly, he stretched out his hand and touched the man. Given the social stigma of his condition, it is unlikely the man had experienced physical touch for a long time. Jesus is showing that he does not intent to keep the man at a distance because of his condition, but he will embrace him as he is. Secondly, he says ‘I will; be clean’, and he heals the man. This is a story both of healing and inclusion. Both the physical and the social aspects of the man’s problem are cured. His life is changed.
We see that Jesus has both the power and the willingness to engage with any of us where we are at. Nobody is too lost, too unclean or too shamed for him. He is willing to reach out to us all, to cleanse us of all our sin, and to invite us into fellowship with himself.
Some Key Points:
- Jesus engages with a man who would be socially outcast because of his leprosy.
- Jesus is willing to touch those who others reject. Nobody is beyond the scope of his love and care.
- Jesus has the power to heal.
- Come as You Are – We see in this passage a person who society rejected but Jesus welcomes. Whatever your background and whatever you have been through, Jesus welcomes you in as you are.
- Love the Outcasts – Just as Jesus was willing to reach out and touch the leper, as his followers we too should be willing to reach out to and love those who society would reject and treat as unclean.
- Physical Healing – In this passage, we see that Jesus has both the power and the will to physically heal. You could offer prayer for those who are sick and desire healing.