Last week we looked at Jesus’ calling of Matthew, originally named Levi. Today we will look at the first of three interactive encounters with Jesus drawn from Matthew’s gospel account.
In the eighth chapter of Matthew’s gospel, we find three scenes, each right on the heels of the previous, and each depictis Jesus interacting with members of society – people whom any self-respecting, male Jew would refuse even to acknowledge. In a mere seventeen verses, we will see Jesus respond to a leper, a Gentile, and a woman.
The leper is despised, and put outside the community. The Gentile is despised, and lives outside the covenant. The woman is considered something of a curse, and as such, every forenoon during morning blessings, the male Jew will pray (among other things):
- Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has not made me a Gentile.
- Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has not made me a slave.
- Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has not made me a woman.1
Vignette 1 – The Leper
When Jesus came down from the mountain, large crowds followed Him. And a leper came to Him and bowed down before Him, and said, “Lord, if You are willing, You can make me clean.” Jesus stretched out His hand and touched him, saying, “I am willing; be cleansed.” And immediately his leprosy was cleansed. – Matthew 8:1-3, NASB
Of the sixty-one defilements listed in the Talmud,2 leprosy is second, immediately following defilement one – death.3 To the Jew, the most defiled state one can be in while still alive is to be a leper.
Leprosy was known among the Jews as “the finger of God,” because they saw it as a disease God inflicted upon humans, and also one that God alone could remove.4 We do have recorded incidents of God using leprosy as a means of judgment upon specific individuals,5 as well as removal of leprosy as a show of his favor.6 Imagine the thoughts that must plague the mind of this leperous man as he struggles to determine what it is he has done to have been afflicted in this way.
A Spiritual Affliction
The spiritual nature of leprosy, as opposed to it being a medical condition, is demonstrated in the fact that in the Law, it was not the physicians who examined those afflicted with the disease, but rather the priests. Once diagnosed, the only thing left was to watch and wait to see what God would do regarding the leprosy, if he did anything at all.
Consider the exasperated response of the king of Israel when Naaman came to him to be healed of his leprosy, “Am I God, to kill and to make alive, that this man is sending word to me to cure a man of his leprosy?”7 The king knows that no mere man can cure this death sentence of a disease.
Jesus proved himself to be God in human form by curing many of leprosy, and empowering his disciples to do the same.8
Diagnosing the Affliction
Leviticus thirteen and fourteen are dedicated specifically to diagnosing leprosy. It is extremely important to be certain of such a determination because a diagnosis of leprosy carries with it dire consequences. Given the treatment of the disease prescribed in the Law of Moses, it is certain that this man has been to the priest for an examination and had been pronounced leprous.
He most likely had seen Annas or Caiaphas, because they were serving at this time.9 The priest examined the man’s infection for an immediate determination of leprosy following the detailed instructions in the Levitical Law. If the priest was unable to make a determination, he washed the man and put him in isolation for seven days before inspecting him again.
Upon reexamination, if the man’s sores appeared to be healing, or if the swelling was reduced, he was put away for another seven days. Following that, if the man was healed, he was pronounced clean, but if not, the process was repeated for another seven days, and beyond that point, if the sores had not healed, the man was pronounced unclean and banished from the community.
Consequences of the Affliction
Once diagnosed with leprosy, the man is forbidden to interact with clean men and women. He cannot enter a walled city. He cannot be around his wife, children, or family if he has them. His only option is to live within a colony of other lepers, and even there he is not allowed to sleep higher than ground level.
Everywhere this man goes, he must cover his face and announce, “Unclean! Unclean!” as he walks and as people scramble in fear to get out of his path. He can neither touch nor be touched. He stank and had revolting sores that oozed putrid-smelling fluids from his diseased body. It is likely that pieces of the man’s body had rotted to the point that they had fallen away.
Luke’s gospel tells us that this man’s body was “full of leprosy,”10 indicating that it was in the advanced stages. This man is the ultimate outcast, and the religious world had nothing to offer him but rejection. This is death while still being alive.
The Meeting with Jesus
It is amazing that the man was able to get to Jesus at all, much less speak to him once he got there. We have no record of him crying “Unclean! Unclean!” as he approached Jesus. Instead, he bowed before Jesus and addressed him as royalty. In this moment, we have the first recorded incident in the New Testament wherein Jesus is addressed as “Lord,” and it falls from the diseased lips of a leper.11 Similar to the woman with the twelve year bleed,12 by approaching Jesus so boldly, this man has risked defiling the very one from whom he sought to be healed.
Whether the man announced his leprous presence or not, we do know that Jesus did not shrink away from him, but rather did something to the man that he had not experienced since his diagnosis of leprosy was initially delivered. Jesus touched the man!13
Jesus did not have to do that. We know Jesus can heal from a distance. He will demonstrate that in the very next scene with the Centurion’s servant.13 The large crowd that was following Jesus must have cringed and gasped as they saw Jesus reaching out to do what was unthinkable and repulsive.
Jesus reached toward the man who, in his boldness and desperation, was violating the Law by even being among “clean” people. Similarly, Jesus willingly defiled himself by touching a leper.14 Where all of society looks upon the leper as unclean, and shuns him, Jesus knows that it is not my skin, hair, or bones that make me unclean, but rather it is what proceeds from my heart that defiles me and makes me unclean.15
Various translations and gospel accounts deal with the healing of lepers in differing ways, some saying they were healed, others saying they were cleansed. Though more interpretive than translational, the rendering I find most appealing is “made whole.”
I do not believe that Jesus sent this leprosy into remission. I believe it was gone and the man’s entire body was restored to its original state in much the same way as Naaman, captain of the army of Aram, was restored to health by the prophet Elisha. In that instance we are told that his flesh became like that of a child.16
It is my conviction that when Jesus heals a leper, fingers return. Noses that have fallen off are restored. Toes pop out from the front of what used to be a foot. Oozing, repulsive smelling sores vanish. Wrinkled, sagging, blistered skin becomes like that of a baby. It is an astonishing scene!
Having touched the leper and cleansed him, Jesus said, “See that you tell no one; but go, show yourself to the priest and present the offering that Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.”17
Jesus is sending the man to the priests as a communiqué regarding himself. The man is not just the messenger. He is the message!
The Dilemma of the Priests
At this juncture, it is critical that we recognize something about this healing and what the priests are about to see. Outside the cleansing of Miriam, whom God healed directly after afflicting her for seven days,18 we have no record of any Israelite ever being healed of their leprosy.19
Leviticus chapter fourteen explains in great detail how to deal with a leper who has been cleansed. More than 1,500 years had passed since those instructions were written, yet the ceremony had never been performed. The priests are about to offer a sacrifice that no priest in the history of the nation had ever offered. It is doubtful the priests even knew what they were supposed to do. As one commentator put it:
One can imagine the dramatic impact when this man suddenly appeared at the temple and announced to the priests he had been cured of his leprosy! This event should have led to an examination of the circumstances surrounding the healing. Jesus in effect was presenting His “calling card” to the priests, for they would have to investigate His claims.20
When Moses wrote Leviticus fourteen into the Law more than 1,500 years prior, God knew that one day his Son would be walking the Earth, and this leper would come to him for a healing. News of this event had to spread throughout the community in very short order.
Next week, we will continue our look at these three vignettes by studying Jesus’ interaction with the Gentile. In the meantime, consider your own willingness to “touch” the leprous of your own community, the unclean, the outcast. And then ask the question, “Where is the leper in me?”
Until next week . . .
1. Chinuch, M. L., (2002). Siddur Tehillat Hashem, with English Translation, Annotated Edition. ( p. 7). Brooklyn, NY: Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch.
2. Talmud means “instruction” and typically refers to a collection of writings from Rabbinic Judaism, consisting of the Mishnah (oral instructions) and the Gemara (a commentary on the Mishnah).
3. Slotki, I.W., Bornstein, H., Segal, M. H., Fishman, I., & Lehrman, S. M. (2012). The Soncino Babylonian Talmud, Mishnah Seder Tohorot, Translated into English with Notes. (p. 14). Teaneck, NJ: Talmudic Books Inc.
4. Burkitt, W. (1844). Expository Notes with Practical Observations on the New Testament of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. (p. 170). Philadelphia, PA: Sorin & Ball.
5. Numbers 12:10, 2nd Kings 5:26, 15:5, 2nd Chronicles 26:20-23
6. 2nd Kings 5:14
7. 2nd Kings 5:7
8. Matthew 10:8
9. Luke 3:2
10. Luke 5:12
11. Matthew 8:2
12. Luke 8:43
13. Matthew 8:5-13
14. Leviticus 5:2, 15:11
15. Mark 7:14-23
16. 2 Kings 5:14
17. Matthew 8:4, NASB
18. Numbers 12:10-15
19. Barbieri, L. A., Jr. (1985). Matthew. In J. F. Walvoord & R. B. Zuck (Eds.), The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Vol. 2, p. 37). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.