Friday, September 21, 2012
Today I am taking the good news from Matthew 8:1-4.
“When Jesus came down from the mountain, great crowds followed him. And then a leper approached, did him homage, and said, “Lord, if you wish, you can make me clean.” He stretched out his hand, touched him, and said, “I will do it. Be made clean.” His leprosy was cleansed immediately. Then Jesus said to him, “See that you tell no one, but go show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses prescribed; that will be proof for them.”
The contrast between this gospel story and the one we read yesterday in Luke 7:36-50 is interesting to me. Yesterday, Simon the leper addressed his guest Jesus as rabbi but then doubted that Jesus was a prophet when he allowed a sinful woman to touch him. At the end of story Jesus told Simon, “the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” Simon could not see his own sinfulness, his own uncleanliness even though he himself was a leper. Jesus was a guest in his house and yet he didn’t ask Jesus to heal him, to take away his uncleanliness, to forgive him.
Today, the leper came forward to Jesus and addressed him as Lord. Often in the gospels Jesus is addressed as Lord and Master. The leper approached Jesus in humility, acknowledging that Jesus was more powerful, had more authority over him, was worthy of worship. He asked to be cleansed, to be forgiven for his sins essentially since disease and possession by spirits were traditionally believed to be evidence of sinfulness, of God’s displeasure. His confident faith or hope in Jesus overrode his observance of Jewish law, which held that a leper could not draw closer than six feet to another person. He believed that Jesus could do what no one else was empowered to do. Because the leper had full faith that Jesus could heal him, it was done just as the sinful woman yesterday was forgiven because her faith had saved her.
Thom Weik and I were talking a couple of weeks ago about why Jesus told so many of those he healed not to tell anyone. Did Jesus really expect those who were relieved of misery for so many years to keep it quiet? Did he expect that others wouldn’t notice and ask how these miraculous transformations had occurred? Many miracles were performed in private, but this one seems to have been in front of a crowd of people who were following Jesus. According to the New Jerome Biblical Commentary both early Christians and Jewish sources attest to the miracles that Jesus performed, so there’s little room to doubt that they were real, maybe exaggerated in the re-tellling over the years before they were written down by the gospel author, maybe embellished by the authors to firmly establish the divine power of Jesus. To this day the Church requires authentication of miracles in canonizing saints. Miracles seem to important as a way of drawing attention to and demonstrating God’s compassion and the power of His love to transform.
However, in this case, the man was told to show the priest. This was probably a reference to Leviticus chapters 13 and 14 in which God told Moses that if a person had a sore which appeared to be leprosy, he was to show it to Aaron the priest. He was to be quarantined for seven days. If the sore was dying out and not spreading, then the man would be declared clean. Once healed, the person was to be purified by a series of rituals including being sprinkled with the blood of a live bird and shaving all the hair on his head including his beard and eyebrows. It was the price of admission to enter back into community. Jesus probably told the leper to adhere to the law of Moses in order to convince the synagogue officials that healing had occurred miraculously and also that Jesus fulfilling the law of Moses.
But why did Jesus instruct him not to tell anyone else? In Mark’s telling of this story, “The man went away and began to publicize the whole matter. He spread the report abroad so that it was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly. He remained outside in deserted places, and people kept coming to him from everywhere.” In Mark’s story I get the sense that Jesus may have been alone with the leper, which makes more sense of his instruction to tell no one. Still, did he really expect the man to keep quiet? I can’t believe that. Maybe this marks a turning point in Jesus’ public ministry. Maybe it was no longer necessary for Jesus to go about performing miracles to attract crowds, to get the attention of people who were drawn to sensation just to satisfy curiosity in hopes that they would also listen to his teaching. Mark wrote that people had to seek out Jesus in deserted places. They had to make an effort. They had to want to hear his message, not just satisfy idle curiosity. They had to move toward Jesus, to take that first step on a journey of faith. By their faith then they were healed in mind and body and spirit.
Like the leper and those who sought Jesus out in deserted places I have to take the initiative to approach Jesus as Lord, confident in his love and compassion and healing touch, his healing forgiveness.