When Jesus came down from the mountainside, large crowds followed him. 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 cleansed of his leprosy. Then Jesus said to him, “See that you don’t tell anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.”
-Matthew 8:1-4 (NIV)
He had no reason to hope for a miracle, really. It might have been nothing more than eczema, or ringworm, or any number of skin diseases that today we treat effectively, but what passed for medicine in his time and part of the world had no cure. In all probability, though, the consequences of whatever skin disease he had – tzara’t, they would have called it in Hebrew – were far worse than its actual symptoms. The last word on diagnosis would have belonged to a priest, not a doctor. He would examine the affected skin and render the verdict: tame’. Unclean.
The Law of Moses was explicit: those who were unclean with leprosy were banished. When Israel wandered in the desert, this meant they were to stay “outside the camp,” on the fringes of society. But urban living didn’t change matters, though perhaps it made them more complicated. Lepers lived outside the city gates, away from anyone except maybe others similarly afflicted. The Law prescribed that they were to adopt a ragged, disheveled appearance and warn off those who might approach them with shouts of “Unclean, unclean.” The Law stopped short of saying that leprosy was God’s judgment upon its victims, but there were enough Bible stories about God visiting the disease on the wicked that certain assumptions were no doubt made, at least much of the time. Besides, being banished meant not being able to participate with the community in the sacrifices and festivals that were the rhythm of Israelite religious life. If a person was not able to observe Passover, or Tabernacles, or the Day of Atonement, how could that person remain in good standing with God as a child of the Covenant?
How long he had been suffering, Matthew doesn’t tell us: Long enough, maybe, that he had learned to be realistic. People like Jesus didn’t help people like him. Who could blame them? To be near him would be to risk sharing in his uncleanness and in his isolation. To be near him was to risk the loss of social standing and family ties. It was to risk exclusion from the temple rituals and community life. It was to risk losing a wife and children and sentencing them to poverty and dependence. And without shelter, without the protection of the community? It was often enough a death sentence.
So maybe experience told him that he could expect at best sympathetic looks, and that most likely Jesus and his entourage would run at his approach. But maybe experience had also made him desperate enough to take a step of faith, and that step took him to Jesus’ feet. Instead of staying away from him, he ignores propriety, ignores the Law, and kneels right at Jesus’ feet. And instead of warning him off with shouts of “Unclean!” he cries out to Jesus, “If you are willing, you can make me clean!”
“If you are willing.” He seems to know, somehow, that with Jesus healing isn’t matter of ability, but desire. He knows somehow that Jesus can restore his relationships with God and with the people he loves. He knows that he can do much more than the priests, who could only examine the lesions and confirm his uncleanness. Jesus can make him clean.
If only he will.
And he will.
Matthew says it so quickly and economically that it’s easy to miss. It’s right there between Jesus saying “Be clean” and telling the man to go show himself to the priests. You have to be paying attention to see it, but it’s important so don’t miss it. The man isn’t made clean the instant Jesus says “Be clean.” There’s something else that Jesus does first, very small but very significant.
“He reached out his hand and touched the man,” Matthew says.
And with that touch, a millennium and a half of Jewish religious law is turned on its head. The Law says that to touch an unclean person is to share in his uncleanness. You can’t “catch” being clean, but you can catch being unclean. Jesus’ one action here grabs that belief, shakes it by its lapels, slaps it a couple of times in the face, and leaves it lying bewildered and embarrassed on the ground. “That may have been the way things used to be,” Jesus seems to be saying. “But there’s a new sheriff in town now.” When Jesus touches a person, however “unclean” he or she may be, that person is clean.
Jesus is able, and more than that, he’s willing.
No one who has ever come to Jesus – you and I included – has come as anything more than an unclean leper hoping for a miracle. We come on our knees, believing that he can make us clean if only he will, and discover to our surprise and delight that he is absolutely willing. Uncleanness doesn’t scare or shock him, whatever form it may take. It runs from him, retreats from his touch, and leaves us new. Whatever your particular form of uncleanness, whatever it is that stands between you and God and the people you would love if only you knew how, Jesus can make you clean. Even if you’ve spent your whole life running from him, or even if you’ve tested his patience time and again. He can make you clean.
And, maybe more amazingly, he’s willing. Whoever you are, whatever you’ve done, whatever you’ve gotten yourself into, he is willing to make you clean.
All he asks of us is what he asked of that leper: “Go, show yourself…as a witness to them.” Nothing speaks more eloquently of God’s power than the testimony of a life changed by Jesus. He asks us to display ourselves for the benefit of others who need to be made clean, too, but wonder whether Jesus might be willing. Your own experience might assure someone that he is.
There are all kinds of reasons why he might have told that leper not to tell others what had happened to him, but I think I’m safe in saying that those reasons probably don’t apply to us. As you show others your changed life, your new status as someone made clean by Jesus, it would be good if you mentioned his name. People need to know, see, that “church people” aren’t clean because we’re good or religious or whatever. They need to know that we’re only clean because of Jesus.
Because he loves us.Because he’s willing.