Touching the leper

Matthew 8:1-3 records the story of a leper who came to Jesus to be healed.

When he came down from the mountain, large crowds followed him. Right away a man with leprosy came up and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” Reaching out his hand, Jesus touched him, saying, “I am willing; be made clean.” Immediately his leprosy was cleansed.

Matthew 8:1–3 (CSB)

There are several things that are noteworthy about this story, but the most shocking thing of all is that Jesus touched the leper.

Why is this shocking?

It is shocking because no-one touched lepers. It was not done. First, there was the fear of catching the disease. Second, leprosy was a sign of judgment, so no-one would want to associate with someone whom God had cursed (or so they thought). Thirdly, in most cases, the disease would have ravaged the victim to the point where he would have been physically repulsive.

Still Jesus touched him.

There are some implications to this that I would like to explore.

First, by touching the leper, Jesus met a need that had gone unmet for a long time. One of the other gospels adds the detail that the leper was “full” of leprosy. In this case, the leper had been suffering the effects of the disease for a long time. He likely had not be touched or hugged or had any physical contact with anyone other than another leper since he had been diagnosed with the disease.

Secondly, by touching the leper while working the cleansing, Jesus gave a visible indication that the leper was restored to society. The leper was no longer an outcast, he rightfully belonged in the company of his people.

Thirdly, by touching the leper, Jesus demonstrated his power over disease and brokenness. The combination of words and action on the part of Jesus affected the cure of the leper.

But how does this apply today? It is easy to assent that this is a very cool story that happened long ago, while remaining unaffected by it.

One way to apply this is to see leprosy as a metaphor for our sinful condition and need of a savior. The healing of the leper provides a beautiful picture of our spiritual condition before and after an encounter with Jesus. Jesus steps into the ugliness of our lives and provides healing and restoration of all the mess that we bring to him.

I should note that while the physical healing of the leper was instantaneous, our spiritual healing is a process. When I forget this, I get discouraged by the fact that I am not completely cured of resentment, anger, prejudice, pride and other sins. While I can see progress over the years, my growth has not been linear; there have been ups and downs in the trend line.

Another application of this passage is that the church (those of us who claim to be believers in Jesus) should emulate Jesus in associating with and helping those whose need is greatest. Too often the people who have made a mess of life find condemnation in the church where they should find acceptance and love.

We need to emulate both Jesus and the leper in this story. We emulate the leper by coming to Jesus as the only means of curing our spiritual disease. We emulate Jesus by being the conduit for Jesus to show his love to others who are in desperate need of it.