Summary: What can we learn from Jesus' cleansing of the leper?
Trust, Then Obey
Rev Mark A Barber
While he was going through one of the towns, a man came up, who had an advanced case of leprosy, and when he saw Jesus, he fell upon his face before him and petitioned him, saying: “Lord, if you are willing, you have the power to cleanse me”. And Jesus stretched forth his hand and touched him and said: “I am willing, be cleansed,” The man was instantly healed from the leprosy. And Jesus gave him strict orders to tell no one, but rather to go show himself to the priest, bringing the offering commanded by Moses as a testimony to them. But instead, the man spread the word about Jesus so that large crowds were thronging Jesus to listen to him and to be healed from their diseases. So he had to make a habit of going into the desert to find time to be alone in prayer.
Luke 5:-12-16 (Translation mine)
This text as well as the parallel texts in Mark and Matthew have traditionally been preached as a demonstration of the compassion of Jesus Christ. The account in Mark is especially vivid in its showing the emotion of Jesus. Here in Luke, the text just records Jesus as simply saying that he was willing to heal. So the text has been traditionally applied to say that all we need to do is to come to the compassionate Jesus who wants to heal you and meet all of your needs. But is there more to this passage than what first appears? I believe there is a very important message that is entirely overlooked. We all have ears to hear what we want to hear. But just for a minute, let us open our ears and listen.
The term “leprosy” in ancient times could refer to many different skin diseases, not just the one we think about which is called Hansen's Disease in which the body slowly goes numb, and body parts start falling off like toes and fingers. So we can't be sure what the man had, but Luke, the doctor, states that his body was covered with the disease. Anyone who saw this man would immediately know and keep their distance from him. A leper was not to touch anyone, nor was anyone to touch him. They would have to leave their begging bowls by the side of the road for their family or someone who wanted to show compassion to drop food and water into it. The leper could only get his food and drink when no one was around.
Lepers could only keep company with other lepers. As human beings are made to be touched, this isolation from society must indeed have been very hard. So the desire to be normal must have driven the man to the desperate act to come into public and fall on his face before Jesus. I can just see the crowd panicking and trying to get out of the leper's way. What the man did to this point was totally against the rules.
The man falls on his face before Jesus. This is the posture of worship. This seems to point out that this leper has already seen that Jesus is more than a mere man. The Jews were forbidden to worship anyone but God. In addition to this, he addresses a petition to Jesus. The word here is most often used here in the sense of making a petition to a god. Then he uses the words “If you are willing”. The Greek word for “willing” is most often used to describe the will of the gods, or in the Hebrew culture, God. He plainly states that Jesus has the power to cleanse him. So this action and words of the leper is extraordinary. This man knows more than his disciples do about Jesus. In fact, to this point, only the demons know him like this leper does. And when the demons tried to reveal Jesus' full identity, Jesus immediately silenced them. Jesus tells the leper the same thing. This is an important point.
Jesus' response to the leper's plea is just as extraordinary. He stretched out and touched the man. The crowd must have shuddered. Then for the only time in all the gospels, Jesus says “I am willing” and gives the command to be cleansed. The word Jesus uses here is the same word for “willing” the leper does. In the Gospel of Luke, the Holy Spirit is the means by which Jesus heals. But here, Jesus heals the man by His own authority as the Son of God.
The Word of God is meant to be obeyed. In the Old Testament, Israel's first king, Saul, was rejected because he disobeyed God's explicit command to him. Jesus here affirms the Law God gave to Moses. “Go show yourself to the priest and bring the offering Moses command you.” To this he also commands the man not to tell anyone about his identity. In the Gospel of Mark, this direct command is even more explicit.