At that time: a leper came to Jesus beseeching him, and kneeling said to him, "If you will, you can make me clean." Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, "I will; be clean." And immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. And he sternly charged him, and sent him away at once, and said to him, "See that you say nothing to any one; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, for a proof to the people." But he went out and began to talk freely about it, and to spread the news, so that Jesus could no longer openly enter a town, but was out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.
-St. Mark 1:40-45
As we read the scriptures – both Old and New Testaments – we see there was no disease that struck more terror in men’s hearts and minds than the disease of leprosy, now known medically as Hansen’s disease. To contract leprosy meant a condemnation to a slow death, and it meant complete social ostracization, too.
We can see that Jesus treated it with the seriousness with which society viewed it. For instance, when He sent the twelve disciples out, he commanded them to “heal the sick, cleanse lepers.”
The fate of the leper was truly horrible. The body becomes covered with ulcers; the appearance is changed over the course of time, losing the human look; the voice becomes hoarse; fingers and toes are lost – it really is a kind of “living death.”
Because of all of this, the leper was pronounced to be “unclean” and he was banished from living within society. He had to live apart, either alone or with other lepers. If anyone came close to him, he had to shout out “Unclean, unclean...” So the leper had to bear not only the physical pain of his disease, but also the mental anguish of being completely banished from family, friends, and society in general.
What we read in this account from St. Mark’s gospel gives a simple and beautiful picture of Jesus and His care for those in need. This particular leper had broken the law, since he had approached Jesus, which was something strictly forbidden. However, Jesus simply met this desperate act with understanding and compassion. He actually reached out and touched him. It was the general belief that physical contact with a leper was contagious, but to Jesus the man wasn’t unclean. He was a human being in desperate need. Then, having miraculously cleansed him, Jesus sent him to fulfill Jewish law by going to one of the temple priests. The man would need a certificate to show that he was free of leprosy. In directing the man to do that we see that Jesus did not defy conventions, but He submitted to them.
So, in Christ, we see compassion, power and wisdom all joined to bring healing and wholeness to a man in need of God’s loving embrace.
[Pictured: "Jesus healing the leper" by Jean-Marie Melchior Doze (1827-1913)]