HOUSMAIL No HM#106 - JESUS AND THE LEPERS                                                                        25 June 2003

The Old Testament laws about diagnosing Leprosy and dealing with it, are very detailed and strict.(You can read them in Leviticus 13 and 14; Leviticus 22:4-9; Numbers 5:1-4.)There is some disagreement amongst scholars about exactly what Old Testament Leprosy was. It seems to include a number of different things, which could affect not only people, but also garments and houses. However when referring to people, there appears to be little doubt that it did include REAL Leprosy as we know it today.

It is NOT really important for us to solve those "technical" questions about what it was. It is much more important that we appreciate the terrible effect on people! Infected garments had to be burned. Houses were demolished. Very expensive!

But it was the social consequences for individuals affected with the disease, which were really terrible. From the day they were diagnosed, they were to be regarded as ?unclean? and excluded permanently from society. They had to live alone outside the city walls, away from family and friends. Anyone who so much as touched them, even accidentally, was also regarded as temporarily ?unclean?, and had to follow a special bathing ritual. Then they had to wait till after sunset, before they could come back inside the city. Very inconvenient! The leper himself had to wear torn clothes. If anyone approached him, he had to warn them that he was a leper, by crying out ?unclean, unclean?. If he was ever healed, he had to show himself to the priest, and there was a very complicated ritual which had to be followed, before he was allowed back inside the city. Since this included a "guilt offering", we conclude that leprosy was somehow regarded as a "spiritual problem", resulting from sin . (The cases of Miriam in Num 12:9-10, and Joab in 2 Sam 3:29, and Uzziah in 2 Chron 26:19-20, tend to support this.)

By the time of Jesus, the Jews had added some other quarantine regulations, which specified the distance that lepers had to keep clear from other people. If the wind was blowing towards the leper, he could approach to about 4 cubits (about 2 metres) from other people. If the wind was blowing away from him towards them, then he had to stand at least 100 cubits away. (about 45 metres!) Some people were so afraid of being contaminated by contact with lepers, that they would actually throw stones at them, to keep them away! Others would take to their heels and run away, if a leper appeared in the distance. ("The Life and Times of Jesus", Alfred Edersheim, Book 1, P495)

Lepers were completely isolated by their disease. They faced a lingering lonely death, which would normally take many years to happen. They could not visit their families. They could not worship in the Temple. They could not work. Unless friends looked after them by leaving food at a ?safe? distance, they had to beg to survive, and were in danger of starving to death.

What a really wonderful gift from God it must have seemed to those who were healed, and set free from such a terrible situation! How shall we even begin to understand those nine lepers who never returned to give thanks!

The Law of Moses did include a "Cleansing Ritual" for healed lepers. This can only mean that it was expected that Leprosy might be healed under some circumstances! However, historical sources from outside the Bible, tell us that the Rabbis regarded healing from Leprosy as totally medically impossible. In the OT the only healings recorded came through a miracle from God. (e.g. Miriam and Naaman)

That would have been why Jesus told the disciples of John the Baptist to specially mention it, along with other remarkable miracles, in answer to John's question as to whether Jesus really was the Messiah. (Matt 11:2-6; Luke 7:18-23) It was one of the really spectacular "proofs" that He was the prophesied Messiah from God.

Matthew says that Jesus did the unthinkable. "He reached out and TOUCHED HIM!" (Matt 8:3-4) Those who were watching would have been truly shocked and horrified by this! In Israel, it would have been very rare for any "clean" person to do this willingly. No leper would normally dare to approach an "ordinary" member of the public, or even a priest, because of the usual reaction of total rejection -- accompanied possibly by violence! The background material above tells us some of the reasons why this would have been so.

But Jesus was different! His reaction was not rejection. Instead, the Gospels repeatedly tell us that for people like that, "He had compassion on them". That includes lepers . In the eyes of those who were watching, Jesus had just deliberately made Himself "ritually unclean". And although the Gospels don't mention this aspect, this would have cost Him a great deal of personal inconvenience. To conform perfectly with His Father's "Quarantine Law", Jesus would have had to undergo the time consuming cleansing ritual described in the OT. It would have cost Him a LOT to heal that leper! It says a lot about Jesus, that He was prepared to accept the personal inconvenience of the time consuming "cleansing ritual", in order to give those lepers a new chance in life, and a restored freedom to worship again in the House of God.
The Gospels would seem to indicate that most Jews had failed to understand the very great difference between "defilement" by personal sin, and "ritual uncleanness". Ritual uncleanness cannot defile the "inner man" of those whose hearts are pure. Only SIN can do that. (Mark 7:14-23) The Law of Moses does NOT say it is a sin to simply touch a leper. But if physical contact does take place, then the Law requires disinfection and quarantine procedures to be implemented. A man who loves his neighbour would unhesitatingly obey these requirements.

Did Jesus call the lepers to repentance? Well yes! THAT was inherent in His commandment to go to the priests and show themselves! The "cleansing ritual" included a "guilt offering", which of course implies the repentance that should accompany such an offering. Of course lepers who went to the priest should know what they were getting into. But you may be sure that if they didn't know, the priests would soon tell them. The Priests depended on such offerings for their own food! (Levit 14:13):

When Jesus healed lepers, it presented a very uncomfortable challenge to the Jewish leaders. Would they believe that He was God's Messiah? Or would they reject His claim, even when confronted with such remarkable evidence?

But it was NOT simply a demonstration of "power", to establish His identity. It arose much much more from the depth of His LOVE and COMPASSION and CONCERN for those who came to Him. The Jewish Leaders lacked that in themselves, and were blind to it in Jesus! And that blindness eventually led to the jealousy on their part, which resulted in His crucifixion.(Matt 27:18) When Jesus reached out to touch those lepers, He already knew and had counted that as the ultimate personal cost of his actions.

Yes Jesus did reveal the Glory of God, and the Power of God, and the Love of God. But looking beyond that, His ultimate goal was to save us from the consequences of our sins on the day of Judgment, and work with us now, to make us ready to inherit the Kingdom of God.

For Jesus, all of that is involved in His life and work -- and it was much more important than any consideration for His own personal comfort or safety.

And, if we are willing, THAT same quality of love is one of the things He wants to create in our lives. (Eph 3:14-21)