Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Jesus and the Leper

In the movie Philadelphia, Andrew (played by Tom Hanks) who is stricken with AIDS says, "Look. I'm no different from everyone else who has this disease: I'm not guilty, I'm not innocent. I'm just trying to survive."

This same line could well have been delivered by the man whom Jesus meets in the next passage of Matthew's gospel. Having finished his sermon Jesus goes out into the towns and villages of Judea to continue spreading His message, "The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand."

When He had come down from the mountain, great multitudes followed Him. And behold, a leper came and worshiped Him, saying, “Lord, if You are willing, You can make me clean.” Then Jesus put out His hand and touched him, saying, “I am willing; be cleansed.” Immediately his leprosy was cleansed. And Jesus said to him, “See that you tell no one; but go your way, show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” Matthew 8:1-4 (NKJV)

As usual, there is more here than meets the 21st century eye. This man was a leper - unclean. The word holds a connotation that we can only imagine. In Jesus' day such people we not just openly shunned, they were feared. Mothers with babies took them up in their arms and ran, others covered their faces for fear of contamination, full-grown men ran in terror, while others would throw stones to drive the lepers from their midst.

The storyteller in me wonders how this man managed to get so close to Jesus. It is likely he took advantage of the pressing crowd, their attention focused on the remarkable teacher, each of them vying for his attention to the point where they were oblivious to the others around them. I picture him standing near some bushes at the back of the crowd listening to this man as he delivered his midrash, hearing words that held out some vague hope that this was no ordinary rabbi.

As he approaches he bends low touching his head to the ground in front of Jesus. We can infer this from the verb 'worship' used to describe the lepers approach. His words confirm the inference as he makes it clear he understands that all the authority lies with the teacher, "Lord, if you are willing..." His fate is not his to control, the disease took that from him. Other people told him he was a leper, other people told him he could no longer live with his family or even sleep in the towns and villages; ever since the disease came upon him, his fate, indeed his very survival has lain in the hands of other people. Leprosy has taught him humility in a way nothing else could.

And so he comes to Jesus, humble, broken by the hand that life has dealt him. And yet, there is a spark of hope. A spark fanned into life by the words he heard on the hillside. No doubt he's heard others make grandiose claims of prophet-hood before, no one would blame him for a small voice of doubt echoing in the back of his mind. Still he comes, not really knowing what to expect, and he gets the unexpected. Jesus touches him.

I tell you a truth; though the scriptures do not record it, at the moment that Jesus touched the leper the crowd gathered around him, large or small, would have gasped and recoiled as one man. Fear and shock would have grasped them by the throat and stolen their breath away. For two reasons: one - Jesus, this rabbi of unimagined authority and eloquence, has broken the law of Moses, two - and this is the more shocking - would now be considered unclean - as much an outcast as the leper himself.

Leviticus 5 makes it clear that in this act Jesus takes on the sin and guilt that made this man unclean to begin with. For all his words of the coming of the Gospel Kingdom he has now performed the one act that would prevent that kingdom from ever coming to fruition. No one would ever follow a leper in search of spiritual fulfillment, Yehweh would never chose a man carrying the guilt of sin to usher in His kingdom. In this one moment Jesus has seemingly undone everything his midrash hoped to accomplish. And in the next moment the unexpected happens again.

The laws of physics tell us that heat only travels in one direction, from its source to a place where it does not exist. Heat moves from the warm place to the cold place, cold does not move the other way. In Jesus' world the laws of spiritual physics work the same way. The curse only moves in one direction, from the unclean to afflict the clean. And yet, miraculously, when Jesus touches the leper the forces of nature themselves are turned on their heads and cleanliness moves in to displace that which is unclean. The lesions that covered the man's face, arms and hands fade from view, leaving only clean, healthy skin in their place. The revulsion of the crowd is halted in mid-gasp leaving them staring in a state of utter amazement.

Shocked, amazed, elated, the former leper himself stands there not knowing what to do next. So Jesus tells him, “See that you tell no one; but go your way, show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” The rabbi who moments ago broke the law of Moses, tearing the fabric of reality in the process, now tells this man to honour that same law. His words on the hillside come back to our consciousness, "Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill." (Matt. 5:17)

The priests, the pharisees, and the scribes, all desired the same thing as did Jesus; to see the kingdom of Yehweh manifested in reality on earth. But these three groups took a very different view of how that might come to pass than the Galilean preacher. While they focused on Leviticus 13, and how those who are unclean should be cast out of the Kingdom, Jesus sought to fulfill the promise of Leviticus 14, and see the unclean made whole and reconciled back into the kingdom. Where their approach brings condemnation, Jesus brings life!

All through the Midrash on the Hillside Jesus turned conventional thinking about the Law and God's kingdom on its head, seeking to fulfill its spirit and intent, rather than just focus on observing the letter of the law. This first encounter with Jesus among the people demonstrates that his physical ministry will be no different.

Until next time ... Shalom.

Exploring the Kingdom Gospel - episode 14
Photo credit: MSNBC

1 comment:

formationfreek said...

Thanks for yet another great posting!