When Jesus had come down from the mountain, great crowds followed him; and there was a leper who came to him and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.” He stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Immediately his leprosy was cleansed. Then 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, as a testimony to them.”
Matthew 8:1-4 (NRSV)
The next thing to follow the Sermon on the Mount is a healing miracle – the purification of a severe disease that manifested itself in the skin.
The backdrop for this story are the laws laid out in Leviticus 13-14. A leper is declared unclean, must announce to passerby that he is unclean, and is not permitted to live among the rest of Israel.
The leper, then, represents in his own body the very people out of whom Jesus would renew Israel – the poor, the sinners, the outcast – those whom Israel’s leadership would declare outside the covenant community and cursed by God.
But what we find in Matthew is that these are also the very groups of people that have faith in Jesus as opposed to those who are rich, fastidious observers of the Law, and the accepted and well-off. It is this faith that brings these people into Jesus’ orbit, and when that happens, they are restored. Sinners are forgiven. Hungry are fed. Possessed are liberated. Even the dead will rise.
And that is what we see here – this man who has been exiled from the community normally defined as “clean” and “faithful” comes to Jesus in faith, and Jesus cleanses him. He is clean. He is an Israelite in full communion with God’s people.
Leviticus 14 spells out offerings that are to be made by and to the priests when a leper is healed, and Jesus instructs the man to go to the priest and do these things “as a testimony to them.” This isn’t just Jesus making sure a legal obligation is fulfilled; he wants this man to show up in front of the priest as a healed leper – which probably did not happen very often – as a testimony to the priest. The priest would know that Jesus is the catalyst for lepers being healed.
There are certainly passages in the Old Testament that connect the repentance and restoration of Israel with healing. Perhaps most pertinent is Hosea 6, where the prophet observes that the foreign powers Israel tries to find comfort in will actually tear her apart. Upon realizing this:
“Come, let us return to the Lord;
for it is he who has torn, and he will heal us;
he has struck down, and he will bind us up.
After two days he will revive us;
on the third day he will raise us up,
that we may live before him.
Let us know, let us press on to know the Lord;
his appearing is as sure as the dawn;
he will come to us like the showers,
like the spring rains that water the earth.”
Hosea 6:1-3 (NRSV)
This is what Jesus is doing. He is coming to repentant Israel, hurt and disillusioned by her fate at the hands of Rome, and is raising her up. The leper is a sign of this. He is the good news in flesh and bone to the lost of Israel. The longed for kingdom is at hand, following Jesus around in a slowly expanding sphere, and you find the signs of it everywhere he goes, just as the prophets expected.
And the priest the leper goes to – perhaps he is a faithful priest like Zechariah (the father of John the Baptist) longing for the restoration of Israel. Perhaps he got his job as an appointment from the Roman Empire or being friends with all the “right” people. In either case, the healed leper showing up on their doorstep will announce this event loud and clear, and how they respond will depend largely on where they have placed their trust. Perhaps the priest will rejoice to see this day. Perhaps the priest will decide Jesus and his movement need to be put down before it gets out of hand. We certainly see both in the gospels.
What would such healings mean today? We are on the far side of faithful Israel being restored and being made a new people along with faithful Gentiles. If God chooses to heal someone in a significant fashion, what might that communicate?
Context is certainly key. The reason the healed leper would be meaningful to a priest (and Matthew’s readers) is because of the context in which the healing occurs. There is no published Guide to Signs and Wonders to let everyone know that, when you see a healed leper, it means that the Old Testament hopes for Israel are being realized in Jesus Christ. That is an interpretation witnesses would make because of both the prior story of the Scriptures as well as the present circumstances that surrounded them.
Perhaps, like our spiritual forefathers in first century Israel, a faith community in another country going through a similar political circumstance of oppression would see miraculous healings as a sign that God was with them and was moving to change their situation in the near future. Maybe that’s why we tend to hear about such miracles much more commonly in remote mission fields than in the American suburbs. It is a sign of the coming victory of God and restoration of the faithful in the face of oppression and deprivation.
Perhaps, in another community, a miraculous healing might occur to show that God has not left them – that they are still part of His people and He is present and at work even if He appears to be silent or distant.
But I think a message that is communicated through healing far more commonly occurs in the care, concern, and mission of those who are about the work of comfort and healing against the ravages of disease and injury. Whether we are talking about the person who encourages a hospice patient in France or a trained physician doing eye exams and surgery in the mountains of Mexico. This is also a testimony to a watching world: a testimony that there is a world where injury and disease do not plague humanity – a new creation that will be worldwide and now exists as pockets of resistance and renewal. It is a testimony that we will heal the world because that is the world God wants and will have, and He has brought us into this project through faith in His Son.
- What are the grounds on which we decide someone is unclean or outside the community of faith, regardless of the condition of their heart. Are those good grounds? Why?
- Have you witnessed a healing that is difficult to explain through the normal processes of healing that we’re used to? What did that experience impress upon you?