Our world of medicine is remarkable. Many of the treatments that are available today were unimaginable a generation ago. From MRI machines to medicines to surgical techniques, modern medicine would have been nearly indistinguishable from magic just 200 years ago. This means for most of human history injury and disease were largely untreatable. Bones could usually be re-set when broken and many cuts could be bound, but infection was common and without antibiotics, a simple injury could be deadly. And dental care!? Yikes.
Now imagine contracting a disease that forced you to live apart from friends and family. Imagine when your grandson is born never being able to hold him, or never being able to kiss your wife or your husband. Imagine not being there for weddings and holidays and the very ordinary quiet evenings we all enjoy routinely. You cannot enjoy them because you have leprosy. The law requires that you live apart from everyone who does not also have leprosy.
In ancient Israel lepers had to wear torn clothes as a sign to others to keep their distance. A leper had to cover his mouth with cloth and when out and about—hunting or foraging for food, perhaps—he had to cry out, “Unclean! Unclean!” Because leprosy could be highly contagious, no one would ever approach a leper, let alone touch one. Contracting this disease ensured a life of cruelty and loneliness.
Apart from knowing it could spread from contact, they didn’t know how one contracted leprosy. They didn’t understand it was caused by a bacteria. Part of the cruelty of leprosy was the leper did nothing to cause himself or herself to get it. Most were not engaging in “risky behavior”. One day you notice a spot on your skin so you go to the priest as the law of Moses required. The priest diagnosed the spot according to the rules in Leviticus and if turns out to be leprosy, your life as you knew it was over.
It was possible to heal. The law allowed for a priest to declare a person “clean” again. A diagnosis of leprosy, though, meant this:
The leprous person who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, “Unclean, unclean.” He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. He is unclean. He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp.Leviticus 13:45–46 ESV
Leprosy wasn’t quite a death sentence, but it was a sentence. To be suddenly ripped from your home, your family, your friends, all those you love dearly, and forced to live alone was certainly a sentence. It was for their protection, of course. It did spread by contact. The situation itself was cruel but it’s not hard to imagine the disgust and the disdain people would feel toward lepers. When traveling one might see a person off in the distance headed toward him. Soon you begin to hear the person cry out, “Unclean! Unclean! Keep your distance!” While the leper may not have done anything to cause the leprosy, he or she certainly felt the contempt of others, which only added to the suffering.
Imagine living with this, perhaps for years, when you hear of a preacher who performs miracles. You hear—from a distance, of course—that he’s nearby preaching a rather long sermon on a mountain. You travel to where he is and you see the crowds everywhere. You know you cannot get close to him—or anyone else, for that matter, but if you could get within shouting range… Matthew records such an interaction.
When he came down from the mountain, great crowds followed him. And behold, a leper came to him and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I will; be clean.” And immediately his leprosy was cleansed. And Jesus said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a proof to them.”Matthew 8:1–4 ESV
“Great crowds” meant even more people to avoid. Still, this particular leper approached Jesus after waiting for his sermon to finish. He knelt on the ground before him and simply declares, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” Notice the leper does not say, “If you can“. He doesn’t say, “If you have the ability to make me clean, you can make me clean.” That would be redundant: “If you can, you can.” He says, “If you will.” If you want to make me clean, you are able to make me clean.
Understand this man has no claim on Jesus. He has no social capital whatsoever. He has nothing to offer Jesus in exchange for such a miracle. The man approaches the only person in the entire universe who can do something about his leprosy and declares if he is willing, he can take it all away.
The word “will” here carries the idea of desire. If it is something he wants to do, the man says he knows Jesus has the ability to do it. He’s never seen such a thing before. The only real community lepers have is each other as they are not a danger to other lepers. He’s never seen a leper healed before, however. How does he know Jesus can do this? He doesn’t. Not really. He suspects Jesus is able to heal lepers. He believes it is possible. The only real question in the leper’s mind is whether Jesus is willing to cleanse him of his leprosy.
In what would have been a shocking display, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the leper. The leper would have stopped some distance from Jesus, for no leper would walk right up to a person. The crowds would have seen his torn clothing and the strip of cloth covering his mouth, and they would have instinctively moved away from him, for he was, in fact, unclean. They then saw Jesus take those last few steps to the man and touch him.
The thing about ritual uncleanness is it “traveled” one way. An unclean thing made clean things unclean. Clean things did not transfer cleanness to unclean things. When an unclean thing came into contact with a clean thing, the clean thing was made unclean. Jesus is the very meaning of ritual cleanliness, yet he reached out his hand and laid it on the unclean leper and the most remarkable thing happened. For the first time ever, when a clean thing touched an unclean thing, its cleanness spread to the unclean thing. Matthew said the man was immediately cleansed. His leprosy was gone.
Jesus, being the very meaning of ritual purity, tells the man to report to the priests, for only they could declare him clean according to the law of Moses, removing the restrictions from him and allowing him to return to his loved ones. Jesus, however, had made him clean.
When we hear the word “clean” the truth is we don’t have a real grasp of it. The opposite of clean isn’t “dirty”. The leper wasn’t unclean because he hadn’t bathed. It refers to a ritual uncleanness. Because of his status as unclean he could not be around other people. In his case the danger of the disease spreading was real, but there were all sorts of things that made people ritually unclean that had nothing to do with disease. Because he was ritually unclean, he couldn’t go to the temple to offer sacrifice and worship God. Uncleanness was less a condition and more a status.
In his case, his status—unclean—was directly tied to his condition—diseased. Through the law of Moses God was revealing himself to the world. He is holy and pure and that which is unholy and impure cannot be in his presence. This means the truth of this story is we are each lepers. We were all born with the status of unclean.
While we don’t have the cultural concept of clean and unclean as they did in the first century, we all feel it. We can all sense the feeling of being unclean, of needing a shower that can never quite wash it away. For some, we get this sense of uncleanness directly from things we have said or done. We all have those skeletons in our closet and our greatest fear is being found out. In Christ, we know we are forgiven, yet that feeling lingers.
For some that feeling of uncleanness comes not from what we have done but what has been done to us, usually through various forms of abuse. We know—at least intellectually—that we did not cause those things to happen any more than the leper chose leprosy, yet we feel the status of unclean. We feel something is still off, something that we cannot correct ourselves.
Whether we did something or someone else did something, we feel the uncleanness in our bones. We feel it in our relationships. For many it keeps us from opening up as much as we may like or, like lepers, it keeps us away from others, if not physically then certainly emotionally. Everywhere we go we feel as though we are dressed in the required ripped clothing and the cloth covering our mouths and even if we do not utter the words, we can feel as though we’re shouting, “Unclean! Unclean!” so that others keep their distance.
So often when we think of salvation we tend to limit it to forgiveness of sins. We reduce it to a change in our legal status. Everything Jesus said and did in his ministry on earth is the gospel. This is why each of the four Gospels is called “the Gospel According to…” This means the good news of Jesus is more than his death, burial, and resurrection, for each of the Gospels includes a whole lot more than these things. It is because of his death, burial, and resurrection that creation itself will be saved. He calmed the storm to show that the day is coming when natural disasters will be gone forever. He fed the multitudes to show that the day is coming when there will be no lack on planet earth. He raised the dead to show that one day death itself will die. He cast out demons to show that one day the forces of evil will be forever destroyed. He healed the leper to show that he came to rescue us from our shame, whether we experience shame for what we have done or for what has been done to us.
Each one of us is a spiritual leper, whether for sins we have committed or for sins others have committed against us. Like the man in Matthew 8, we must come to Jesus. We must fall on our knees before him, and we must say, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” What we will find is that when we come to Jesus in faith, he will always reach out his hand and touch us and say, “I will; be clean.”
To be ritually clean is to be welcomed into the presence of a holy God. This is the work of God in Christ through his Spirit. This is our right as his sons and daughters. He is willing; be clean.