Summary: This is the third sermon in the series of sermons about people Jesus touched and what it means to us today.
Joseph Damien was a missionary in the nineteenth century who served as minister to people with leprosy on the island of Molokai, Hawaii. Those suffering grew to love him and revered the sacrificial life he lived out before them.
One morning before Joseph was to lead them in their daily worship, he was pouring some hot water into a cup when the water swirled out and fell onto his bare foot. It took him a moment to realize that he had not felt any sensation. Gripped by the sudden fear of what this could mean, he poured more hot water on the same spot. No feeling whatsoever.
Damien immediately knew what had happened. As he walked tearfully to deliver his sermon, no one at first noticed the difference in his opening line. He normally began each sermon with, "My fellow believers." But this morning he began with, "My fellow lepers." (From Leadership, Spring ’97; from Ravi Zacharias in Deliver Us From Evil.)
Damien, like Jesus in our Scripture today, knew that ministering with compassion meant it would become necessary to touch others in their unclean condition.
Matthew tells how Christ had just preached the Sermon on the Mount, one of the most revolutionary and challenging discourses of all time, before he meets this leper who requests cleansing.
Matthew puts the words of Christ first and the works second. This was not by accident. Jesus didn’t have to perform miracles to get a crowd. "When he came down from the mountain, great multitudes followed him." (Matthew 8:1)
Miracles themselves are not enough evidence that someone is from God. Satan and his emissaries can perform miracles. (2 Thessalonians 2:9) The word must be from God. Jesus was the Living Word from God and people were able to readily see this.
It’s also important to note that the first people Matthew lists as being healed by Jesus were outcasts in Jewish society. Matthew of course was primarily writing to a Jewish audience. Right away he makes it clear that the gospel is not just for a select few. The first recipients of Christ’s healing power? Lepers, Gentiles, and women. First he cleanses this leper, then he heals a Roman centurion’s servant, then Peter’s mother-in-law. The gospel was not just for Jewish men or any other narrow group of people.
The gospel is not just for Americans. God loves the world and all the people groups in it. He has compassion on every single individual human being.
Before we deal specifically with the cleansing of the leper, it might also be helpful to take a closer look at leprosy. Listen to this excerpt from Fausset’s Bible Dictionary:
"Leprosy is a disease of the skin brought on by heat, drought, the absence of a nourishing diet and personal cleanliness. It begins with a little pain, goes on in its sluggish but sure course, until it mutilates the body, deforms the features, turns the voice into a croak, and makes the patient a hopeless wreck. An animal poison in the blood ferments there and affects the skin, depositing an albuminous substance, and destroying the sensation of the nerves."
Fausett lists two forms of leprosy:
"The tuberculated form is the common one, inflaming the skin, distorting th face and joints, causing the hair of the head or eyebrows to fall off or else turn white (Leviticus 13:3-6), and encrusting the person with ulcerous tubercles with livid patches of surface between."
"The anesthetic form begins in the forehead (2 Chronicles 26:19-21) with shining white patches which burst; bone by bone drops off; the skin is mummy like; the lips hang down exposing the teeth and gums."
"Tuberculated patients live on the average ten years, anesthetic twenty."
We’re not told which of the two forms of leprosy this man in Matthew 8 had, but it is certain that neither was pleasant to look at, LET ALONE TOUCH.
There’s more we should remind ourselves about concerning leprosy. This dreaded disease forced the victim to live apart from others and cry "Unclean, unclean", whenever approaching or being approached by others.
Furthermore, leprosy is an illustration of sin. (Isaiah 1:5,6) It has a cause that goes deeper than the skin. (Leviticus 13:3) It spreads. (Leviticus 13:8) And, as we have already seen, just like leprosy, sin defiles and isolates us. (Leviticus 13:45,46)
In spite of all this, somehow, this leper found his way into the crowd of people thronging Jesus. We can only imagine how the crowd must have scattered at the recognition of a leper in their midst. But Jesus did not avoid the man.
Matthew says the leper’s first action when in the vicinity of Jesus was to worship him. Luke says, "he fell on his face". (Luke 5:12)
This worship posture and his willingness to risk the affront of the crowd assuredly gives us insight as to this man’s opinion of Christ. In addition to his actions his words also indicate he believed Christ could heal him. But WOULD Christ heal him?