Jesus and the Leper
“A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, ‘Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.’ Jesus reached out His hand and touched the man. ‘I am willing,’ he said. ‘Be clean!’ Immediately he was cured of his leprosy.” Matthew 8:2 – 3
Leprosy is definitely one of those diseases that I never have encountered much, nor did I ever expect to. Cancer, of course. HIV, yes. Pneumonia, sure. TB, check. But, leprosy? I thought that was something left to the Father Damiens or Brennan Mannings of the world who later in their lives moved into leper colonies to care for those suffering. Yet, now we are moving into an area that has become widely known because of its history with leprosy.
Korah (or Kore’ is how the locals pronounce it) was a village founded 70 plus years ago when an American missionary doctor started a leprosy hospital outside of the city limits of Addis Ababa at the request of Emperor Hailie Selassie. The area around the hospital became a place of refuge for the thousands of people suffering from leprosy who flocked to the hospital from the countryside in hopes of getting well. They also were escaping the extreme persecution they were facing. To have leprosy was a sign of being cursed and once infected you became a social outcast. There are numerous stories of families trying to kill family members who were infected with leprosy in order to lift the curse off of their families. To have leprosy meant religious, physical and social suffering.
So, Kore’ became the refuge for lepers. Many thousands were treated at the Alert hospital and began to recover. Yet, the area of Kore’ maintained its stigma. It became known as the cursed place where the outcasts lived. Today, this is still true as a simple walk through Kore’ will reveal many folks who have been handicapped by the effects of leprosy, those who have been disfigured, those suffering with HIV/AIDS, the elderly with nowhere to go, the homeless orphans and some of the poorest of the poor. Now, over 120,000 people call Kore’ home. Many have flocked here, yet few have ever left. Living in the place known as cursed and broken has its lasting effects on a person both in terms of an internalization of what it means to seem worthless as well as the social stigma and the spiritual oppression that goes with living in a dark place. Even today, as the city has engulfed this once village and simply absorbed it to what now feels more like the slums, it is a place known as forgotten, dirty, cursed and broken.
When I read of the leper who had an encounter with Jesus, I think of the similarities of situation. I am first struck by Jesus’ availability to do His Father’s will. Jesus had just finished marathon teaching days delivering what we call today the Sermon on the Mount and is coming down the mountain with large crowds following Him. Have you ever been to the place where you didn’t want to be bothered by an interruption, because you’ve poured out so much and you just don’t have anything left to give? I am so glad that Jesus responds differently to the leper than what I might have after spending that much time teaching and hanging out with the crowds. I fear that I might have done like I do a lot – avoid the interruption and keep on moving. But, Jesus responds to this man’s request. He not only responds, but His actions toward this man are nothing short of scandalous.
The leper was an outcast. He was forced to reinforce his status as an outcast by calling out “Unclean, Unclean” as he walked down the road. This was to ensure that no one would come too close to him and possibly risk infection as well as become religiously unclean. So, the leper was socially outcast, having lost his family, his friends and any interaction with others in society who were non-lepers. He had lost his ability to join in worship with others and faced the physical effects of his skin disease. He is without hope. He is desperate. And, in his desperation he calls out to Jesus.
It is at this point that I am always struck by how close desperation and faith seem for the leper. Some will remark at the leper’s faith that he knew that Jesus could heal him. At the same time I am struck by the desperation that comes from the dead end that he is facing. There was no cure for leprosy. Either Jesus healed him, or nothing did. Perhaps faith and desperation are more closely linked than we sometimes give credit for. Faith for the leper (in my opinion) is not the “Little Engine That Could” kind of faith or a name it and claim it kind of faith. Rather, I think it was a simple faith that had heard about what Jesus could do and cried out in desperation.
I also find it interesting that the man asks not to be made “well”, but rather to be made “clean.” He asks Jesus for something that not only restores him physically, but that also makes him able to enter society again. No longer an outcast. No longer alone. No longer considered cursed and forgotten. Imagine the joy of being able to walk down the road and yell “Clean” with great joy, and to no longer have to self-incriminate himself as he made sure passersby knew to keep their distance. If Jesus did this for him, it would revolutionize his life. He would not just be well, but for the first time he could be whole.
As I read this passage, I think of the struggles of those who live in Kore’. They are the forgotten and the afflicted and the broken. Yet, from what I have seen they are still willing to hope that one could walk down the road and reach out to them. They are not “too far gone” by any stretch of the imagination, but rather many there maintain a perseverance despite suffering that would put most of us to shame. They, like the leper in Matthew are searching for the One who could bring restoration to them.
The most shocking part of Jesus’ interaction with the leper is His touch, however. Jesus gets close to him, gives him his undivided attention and then reaches out and touches him. In this touch Jesus risks becoming physically infected while at the same time fully making Himself religiously unclean. Jesus touch would have been considered gut-wrenchingly offensive to the religious people. He not only broke the rules, but he also put Himself at risk. What was He thinking to take a risk like that? He put Himself in harms’ way to do something that wasn’t even necessary for the leper’s physical healing. We see just a few verses later how Jesus heals the Centurion’s servant without even being present to him. So, why touch the leper?
I imagine myself as the leper in this passage. I have been deprived of physical touch ever since I was diagnosed and now The Master walks down the road and he reaches out and touches me. He touched me! He reached out to me in my forgotten state and not only acknowledged my presence, but actually got close enough to touch me. Jesus brings a deeper level of healing to this man than just his physical. Jesus lifts him out of the ranks of the untouchable outcast to the place of valued and remembered. In engaging my imagination in reading this text, I imagine that to the leper Jesus becomes known not only as Lord and Master in that moment, but also as friend. Jesus’ reach toward the leper is the ultimate expression of self-sacrificial compassion and mercy. He then follows it up by the very practical direction to the leper (former leper) to go to the priest and show that he is clean. The priest’s inspection would be this man’s ticket back into relationship, society and religious practice. Jesus demonstrates His desire for wholeness for this man not just spiritually or physically, but also emotionally and relationally. Jesus is fully present to the leper and expresses a fullness of compassion and mercy towards this man and his situation.
In hearing the story of Sammy, one of the leaders in Kore’, it is incredible to hear how the interaction of Jesus with the leper spoke into the place of desperation where many found themselves in Kore’. To imagine that Jesus would want to touch them and reach out to them even in the midst of their poverty and hopelessness was something that caught them off guard. It was surprising and refreshing. And, it was this touch that drew their attention to Jesus. As they heard of Jesus’ welcoming of the leper and themselves, Jesus brought them a transformation that brought hope and spoke meaning and value to them. The lie that the enemy had been telling them all along that they were valueless, cursed and forgotten was exposed and broken as they came to know the One who was full of compassion and mercy for them.
I think of the many in Kore’ who have not yet experienced this Jesus who welcomes them into an embrace and who changes their names from broken and outcast to favored and friends of God. I also think of the King of All who loves to touch the untouchable and make His Kingdom of healing, mercy, freedom, forgiveness, intimacy and favor break in at the most unexpected of times. At any point in time, the curtain could be pulled back and His Kingdom could be known – bringing healing into the most desperate of situations.
Jesus, help us to keep our focus on you and to reach out to those who have been overlooked and outcast. Help us to not walk past those who are in need. May we touch the untouchable in your Name and impart value to those who are cursed. May we incarnationally be you to those who are disfigured and diseased. And, may we always be open to your leading in cooperating with you in bringing total restoration to those who are desperately without any hope…except for You. Afterall, while the circumstances looked totally different, that was me too – desperately without any true hope…except for You.