The Untouchables – The Lepers

The Untouchables – The Lepers

The Untouchables – The Lepers.

“And it happened when Jesus was in a certain city, that behold, a man who was covered in leprosy saw Jesus, and he fell on his face and begged Him, saying, ‘Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean!’ Then Jesus put out his hand and touched him, saying, ‘I am willing; be clean!’ Immediately the leprosy left him. And Jesus charged him to tell no one, ‘But go and show yourself to the priest, and make an offering for your cleansing, as a testimony to them, just as Moses commanded.’ However, the report went around concerning Him all the more; and great multitudes came together to hear, and to be healed by Jesus of their infirmities. So He Himself often withdrew into the wilderness and prayed.” (Luke 5:12-16; also refer to Matthew 8:1-4 and Mark 1:40-45 for the same story).

Of all the untouchables, except for the corpses, lepers were the most unfortunate. Leprosy was the general catchall term used for any skin disease. There were many kinds of leprosy, some contagious, some not, some major sicknesses that were life threatening, and others that were not. But for any skin disease at that time, there were no known cures. The worst cases of leprosy would include the deadening of nerve endings in the extremities of the body, especially the fingers, toes, ears and nose. The leper in this case would not have the ability to feel pain in those extremities, and so would be unaware of any injury, cut, or infection. This form of leprosy would result in severe disfigurement and the inability to walk or handle things properly. This more severe case would result in the leper’s flesh gradually decaying. It’s no wonder the people would call a seriously infected leper a “walking dead man.”

The leper, no matter the version of skin disease, would be officially banned from any human contact, declared unclean by the priest, banished from his home and village. The leper would be completely shunned and not allowed to participate in any religious or social activity. In order to warn other people of the leprosy, the leper was required to yell “Unclean! Unclean!” whenever people came near. They had to remain at least six feet from others at all times. People would often throw rocks at lepers if they thought they were coming too close to a leper. Lepers had to live in leper colonies with others declared unclean like them, and were considered the lowest in society. Lepers were on the outermost fringe of the outcasts. Many thought of lepers as cursed by God, being punished for some great sin they committed. Anyone who touched a leper was considered defiled and had to endure a rigorous process of purification.

People would be beyond shocked, even appalled, to see a leading rabbi like Jesus actually reach out and touch a leper. It just didn’t happen. In the Mark 1:40 account of this story, Mark reported that, when Jesus saw this unfortunate leprous man, He was not revolted in any way, but instead “moved with compassion” for him. The Greek word for this refers to the “intestines,” the gut, the deepest part of one’s innards. So to say that Jesus was deeply moved, that His heart went out to this man, is not the half of it. Some translations render this Greek word to mean “moved with anger.” Jesus was deeply moved by this unfortunate man, and was filled with compassion for the man and with anger that this suffering even exists in this fallen world. This wasn’t the last time that Jesus felt moved to this profound degree, and all the Gospels record it.

In Luke’s account of this healing, he slips into his doctor’s trained observation and adds a detail, that the man was “covered with leprosy.” In other words, this leper was in the advanced stages of leprosy. He would have ulcers around his eyes and ears. His decaying skin would be falling off in shreds. His skin would have a colorless cast and be full of scaly sores. With his major disfigurements, he would have only been shunned even more severely. But Jesus saw him in his distress, and He touched him, overpowering the defilement, healing every part of this leper’s body with the words, “Be clean!” The man’s body was healed, but so undoubtedly was the profound shame this man has carried with him all his years.

Jesus directed the healed leper to show himself to the priest so he can be officially declared clean. He will be restored to the community so he can live and worship and interact freely with others. Jesus also asked the healed leper to bring a thanks offering to the priest, to show his gratitude to God for being healed. When the man is officially declared clean, the priest’s declaration would also be a way of verifying that Jesus had indeed performed a miracle in this man’s life.

The healing of leprosy in particular was one of the established signs of the true Messiah. By the first century, Judaism had developed a list of what the Messiah would be able to accomplish, a list of actions that would prove the identity of the Messiah. The healing of leprosy is on this list. When John the Baptist asked from his prison cell if indeed Jesus was the Messiah, Jesus answered his question by providing some of those messianic proofs: “Go and tell John the things which you hear and see… The blind are seeing again, the lame are walking, people with leprosy are being cleansed, the deaf are hearing, the dead are being raised, and the Good News is being told to the poor.” (Matthew 11:2-6).

And then comes the rather mysterious word, what is known as “the messianic secret,” in which Jesus tells them not to tell anyone else about this miracle. There has been much speculation about this secret of Jesus. Perhaps He didn’t want to attract too much attention at this point in His ministry, and the crowds would hamper His growing ministry. Maybe He didn’t want to be known merely as a miracle worker but also as a preacher and teacher and bringer of salvation. He no doubt didn’t want people to follow Him just to watch Him do exciting magic tricks. Maybe He didn’t want to be known by the religious authorities quite yet and the undue publicity might hasten a confrontation between them that would lead to His Passion earlier than He wanted. Certainly He wanted to be known for more than His supernatural power, but also his desire to seek and save the lost, and even to suffer and sacrifice Himself to death. Whatever the reason for His messianic secret, we can trust that Jesus knows what He is doing, and that the timeline for Jesus is all clearly understood between Him and the Father.