The Cleansing of a Leper (Luke 5:12-16)

The Cleansing of a Leper.

12 Now there was a man full of leprosy in one of the towns where he was; and when he saw Jesus, he fell prostrate, pleaded with him, and said, “Lord, if you wish, you can make me clean.”

13 Jesus stretched out his hand, touched him, and said, “I do will it. Be made clean.” And the leprosy left him immediately.

14 Then he ordered him not to tell anyone, but “Go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed;* that will be proof for them.”

15 The report about him spread all the more, and great crowds assembled to listen to him and to be cured of their ailments,

16 but he would withdraw to deserted places to pray.

In a previous reflection we’ve already looked at how Jesus habitually tries to suppress the public perception that He is the Messiah (see the comments on Luke 4:40, 41 – Who is the Messiah?).  Similarly, we’ve reflected on how His prayer life perfectly models the living relationship of the children of God with their Father (see the comments on Luke 4:42-44 – Jesus withdraws to pray).  Since we’ve already explored these topics elsewhere, I won’t go into them again here.

Spiritual – Cleansing our “leprosy”.

To you and me curing leprosy might appear to be just another miraculous healing.  It might not seem any different than for instance, curing a fever, or healing a disability like blindness, or restoring vitality to paralyzed limbs.  However, to a first century Jew, leprosy stands apart.  It is among the greatest of afflictions and not necessarily because of the toll it takes on the body.

For its victim, leprosy kills the life they formerly knew.  Having leprosy simultaneously separated them from their family, from their friends, from society, and from temple worship.  This last point shouldn’t be glossed over or taken lightly.  Being a leper meant that they could not participate in the religious observances within the community.  If having leprosy wasn’t already bad enough, it was made worse because the leper felt separated even from God.  To the first century Jew, if you wanted your prayer to be heard, you had to offer sacrifice through a priest in the temple.  But lepers are prohibited from temple or even synagogue worship.  Where else could they turn?  Nowhere.  Surely they must have felt that they had no way, no hope, of putting their petitions before their heavenly Father.  The leper was both physically afflicted and spiritually destitute.

When Jesus heals the leper he gives him more than a restored quality of life.  Jesus gives him his whole life back!  Does this sound familiar?  It should, because that’s what Christ does for us too. Without Jesus, we are dead (in a mysterious way) because of sin.  Make no mistake about it; sin does to the soul what leprosy does to the body.

Like the leper in this story we can approach Christ and say to Him “if You wish, You can make me clean.”  Like the leper in this story, out of mercy and love, Jesus will make us well.  However, unlike the leper in this story we should tell everyone how Jesus has given us our lives back.  In response to this scripture we should pray for an awareness of our sins and for an understanding of their impact on our lives.  Then we can approach Jesus and, like the leper, plead with him to heal us.

Historical – What was leprosy?

Today, we know leprosy as Hansen’s disease and, in cultures like ours where modern medical treatment is readily available, leprosy is easily treated and cured.  However, to ancient cultures Hansen’s disease was a contagious, incurable affliction that mutilated the skin and mucous membranes, and its destruction of nerves ultimately debilitated the arms and legs; it was horrible.

But in the ancient world, leprosy wasn’t restricted to cases of Hansen’s disease.  The label could be applied to almost any skin ailment.  For example, ringworm, impetigo, and staff infections would all have been regarded as leprosy.  Similarly, someone even with a case of eczema would almost certainly have been labeled as a leper.  We should note, however, that if you had “leprosy” then you probably went off and lived with other lepers.  If you didn’t have Hansen’s disease to begin with, you would probably contract it sooner or later.

Given this background we might be tempted to suppose that perhaps this man didn’t really have leprosy.  We might think to ourselves “maybe this guy just had a mild skin rash.”  It is, however, much more accurate for us to assume that he truly suffered from a severe case of leprosy.  In fact, the description in verse 12 “full of leprosy” tells us that he was sorely afflicted.  The Greek term that describes “full” means complete and total.  The exact same term is used to describe Jesus as being “filled with the Holy Spirit” in Luke 4:1.  In short, this poor man is just as filled with leprosy as Jesus was filled with the Holy Spirit.

Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised edition© 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.

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