Jesus Heals a Man
(Matthew 8.1-4; Mark 1.40-45)
12Jesus came to a town where there was a man who had leprosy. When the man saw Jesus, he knelt down to the ground in front of Jesus and begged, “Lord, you have the power to make me well, if only you wanted to.”
13Jesus put his hand on him and said, “I want to! Now you are well.” At once the man's leprosy disappeared. 14 Jesus told him, “Don't tell anyone about this, but go and show yourself to the priest. Offer a gift to the priest, just as Moses commanded, and everyone will know that you have been healed.”
15News about Jesus kept spreading. Large crowds came to listen to him teach and to be healed of their diseases. 16But Jesus would often go to some place where he could be alone and pray.
This passage raises a question, raised elsewhere in the gospels, about the so-called messianic secret: that Jesus spent the first stretch of his earthly ministry on a kind of stealth mission, in a kind of game of cloak-and-dagger. He was a holy subversive, doing heaven’s work incognito and on the sly. He didn’t want anyone to know who he was. He didn’t want word out about what he was doing. He warned people to keep his work and his identity secret.
There’s much scholarly discussion around why this was so, almost all of it interesting. But I’m going to ignore the matter completely.
Because there’s something else going on in this story that interests me more. It is shocking, though most of us miss it. It is a head-turning scandal, Jesus’ real act of subversion. He commits nothing short of insurrection. He tosses a Molotov cocktail through the window of religion, then and now.
Ready for it? Jesus put his hand on him.
The book of Leviticus is rarely read in the church. It’s a shame. Because it’s a major source of revelation about the nature and discipline of holiness in the Old Testament. Then, as now, God is deeply committed to holiness. But Leviticus lays out, in detail, what that looked like before Jesus came and fulfilled the Law, cancelled it, and sent the Holy Spirit to produce holiness from the inside out.
Before that, holiness was always kept by the skin of your teeth. It was a constant, painstaking slog. Almost anything – a bleeding woman touching you, the wrong food brushing your plate, a leper getting too close could spoil your carefully guarded piety.
Indeed, the great concern of Leviticus is one thing: avoiding any unclean thing. And there are so many unclean things – food, clothing, people, animals, furniture. The world’s a cauldron of uncleanness, one drop of which can taint whatever hard-won holiness you’ve labored to attain. In Leviticus, whenever clean and unclean touch, all becomes unclean.
Lepers were unclean. You must go to extraordinary lengths to avoid them – and they must aid you in that avoidance by crying out “Unclean! Unclean!” should ever you wander near. And you must go to extraordinary lengths if ever you breach that. It’s rule on rule to avoid the damage or repair the damage.
But the leper in this story, by some deep instinct, ignores the rules. And here’s the scandal, the act of subversion: so does Jesus. Jesus put his hand on him. He pronounces him well. And then he sends him to jump through all the religious hoops to establish his healing beyond a shadow of doubt.
Do you see what this means? Jesus Christ overturns the book of Leviticus. In him, whenever clean and unclean touch, all becomes clean. Makes you wonder why we don’t put our hands on more lepers.
May I be so filled with your power and presence, Lord Jesus , that whoever I touch, no matter how unclean, is cleansed by your holiness through and through, and made well.
I ask it in Christ’s name. Amen