He used to be part of the community. How long ago was that? He doesn’t remember. Too long. Too long had he traveled on the outskirts of civilization. Too long had he felt the burden of his disease. Too long had people avoided him with fear and loathing. He missed his family. He missed gathering in the synagogue to hear the Word of Yahweh. He missed Passover, Feasts of Booths, and Feast of Weeks. He missed the simple touch of humanity; a hand shake; a pat on the back; a finger shushing his mouth. He would even take a blow to his cheek. The stinging slap would be a pleasure compared to the numbness. Unclean! Unfit! Simply Un! Then he heard of a man; a man who commanded demons and diseases; a man who walked among the rabble. And hope sparked deep inside.
Luke 5:12-16 is the account of the healing of the leper. In Deuteronomy 13 the priests are instructed in how to recognize leprosy, which seemed to be various different skin infections. The main markers were an infection that is deeper than the surface of the skin and an open soar that spreads. It probably included what we call leprosy (Hansen’s Disease) today. Deuteronomy 14 is all about what is to be done if someone is healed of leprosy. Interestingly, we have only two accounts in the Old Testament of this ever happening: Mariam and Naaman. The lepers we encounter in the New Testament most likely suffered from Hansen’s Disease, which caused a pain masking numbness that often led to further infections and the loss of body parts.
In our story, the leper comes to Jesus in a city. He is not supposed to be there. Luke tells us that he is full of leprosy, which probably implies a severe case. When he saw Jesus he fell on his face and begged. Peter’s reaction was similar (v. 8). He calls him “Lord” which was most likely more than a respectful “sir.” This was the one whom demons listened to; this was the one who commanded diseases to leave and they did. He had heard enough about Jesus to believe him able to heal him. We know that his posture is one of begging, but his words are more of a statement: “If you want or choose, you have the ability to make me clean.” He doesn’t say, “you have the ability to heal me,” which seems appropriate. This man had probably lived with the stigma of being unclean for a long time. What he desperately desires is to be clean again. Healing would be a part of that, but not the most important part. Who cares if he is healthy but still barred from community? He wants to walk into a synagogue with his family. He longs to stop feeling dirty. I get that.
Then Jesus does an amazing thing. Jesus reached out his hand and touched him. Jesus didn’t have to touch to heal. He healed Peter’s mother-in-law by rebuking the fever. No touching required. How long had it been since someone dared touch him. There is a debate over whether or not a person could touch a leper without becoming unclean. Some have suggested that the laws concerning touching something unclean are restricted to priests (Deuteronomy 21). Maybe. But knowing the society that Jesus walked in, my guess is that most would avoid an unclean leper and even fewer would actually touch him. Jesus told the leper, “I am willing, be clean.” Immediately the leprosy packed its bags and left.
Jesus commanded the now clean man to tell no one and go show himself to the priests and make his offering to the priests. His orders of silence, in this text, may be restricted to before he is pronounced clean by the priests. He will not be considered truly clean – part of the community – until the priests are satisfied. Jesus did not come to trounce all over the law. He came to fulfill it. The process to be pronounced clean took eight days. After the sacrifice, the person would have shaved off all of their hair, eyebrows and everything. Now that will be noticed. Again, in the Old Testament, we have a record of only two people being cleansed from leprosy. So, my guess is that it was not a common thing. The news spread out and the crowds gathered in. And Jesus? Jesus regularly went out into the wilderness to pray. That may be something we ought to follow.
Have you ever felt unclean? I’m not talking about a satisfyingly dirty day of work unclean. Nope! Have you ever felt as if you are unfit; un-loveable; unkempt; just plain un – cast out of community? Jesus not only has the ability to rebuke fevers – he is also able to clean you up. While others may rail and judge and avoid, Jesus compassionately reaches out his hand and touches you. Welcome back to community!