Matthew 8:1-4

THE LIVING DEATH

Matt. 8:1-4

When Jesus had come down from the mountain, great crowds followed him; and, look you, a leper came to him, and remained kneeling before him. “Lord,” he said, “you can cleanse me, if you are willing to do so.” Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him. “I am willing,” he said, “be cleansed.” And immediately his leprosy was cleansed. And Jesus said to him: “See that you tell no one; but go, show yourself to the priest, and bring the gift which Moses ordered, so that they will be convinced that you are cured.”

In the ancient world leprosy was the most terrible of all diseases. E. W. G. Masterman writes: “No other disease reduces a human being for so many years to so hideous a wreck.”

It might bean with little nodules which go on to ulcerate. The ulcers develop a foul discharge; the eyebrows fall out; the eyes become staring; the vocal chords become ulcerated, and the voice becomes hoarse, and the breath wheezes. The hands and feet always ulcerate. Slowly the sufferer becomes a mass of ulcerated growths. The average course of that kind of leprosy is nine years, and it ends in mental decay, coma and ultimately death.

Leprosy might begin with the loss of all sensation in some part of the body; the nerve trunks are affected; the muscles waste away; the tendons contract until the hands are like claws. There follows ulceration of the hands and feet. Then comes the progressive loss of fingers and toes. until in the end a whole hand or a whole foot may drop off. The duration of that kind of leprosy is anything from twenty to thirty years. It is a kind of terrible progressive death in which a man dies by inches.

The physical condition of the leper was terrible; but there was something which made it worse. Josephus tells us that lepers were treated “as if they were, in effect, dead men.” Immediately leprosy was diagnosed, the leper was absolutely and completely banished from human society. “He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean; he shall dwell alone in a habitation outside the camp” (Lev.13:46). The leper had to go with rent clothes, dishevelled hair, with a covering upon his upper lip, and, as he went, he had to cry: “Unclean, unclean” (Lev.13:45). In the middle ages, if a man became a leper, the priest donned his stole and took his crucifix, and brought the man into the church, and read the burial service over him. For all human purposes the man was dead.

In Palestine in the time of Jesus the leper was barred from Jerusalem and from all walled towns. In the synagogue there was provided for him a little isolated chamber, ten feet high and six feet wide, called the Mechitsah. The Law enumerated sixty-one different contacts which could defile, and the defilement involved in contact with a leper was second only to the defilement involved in contact with a dead body. If a leper so much as put his head into a house, that house became unclean even to the roof beams. Even in an open place it was illegal to greet a leper. No one might come nearer to a leper than four cubits–a cubit is eighteen inches. If the wind was blowing towards a person from a leper, the leper must stand at least one hundred cubits away. One Rabbi would not even eat an egg bought in a street where a leper had passed by. Another Rabbi actually boasted that he flung stones at lepers to keep them away. Other Rabbis hid themselves, or took to their heels, at the sight of a leper even in the distance.

There never has been any disease which so separated a man from his fellow-men as leprosy did. And this was the man whom Jesus touched. To a Jew there would be no more amazing sentence in the New Testament than the simple statement: “And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched the leper.”

COMPASSION BEYOND THE LAW

Matt. 8:1-4 (continued)

In this story we must note two things–the leper’s approach and Jesus’ response. In the leper’s approach there were three elements.

(i) The leper came with confidence. He had no doubt that, if Jesus willed, Jesus could make him clean.

No leper would ever have come near an orthodox scribe or Rabbi; he knew too well that he would be stoned away; but this man came to Jesus. He had perfect confidence in Jesus’ willingness to welcome the man anyone else would have driven away. No man need ever feel himself too unclean to come to Jesus Christ.

He had perfect confidence in Jesus’ power. Leprosy was the one disease for which there was no prescribed rabbinic remedy. But this man was sure that Jesus could do what no one else could do. No man need ever feel himself incurable in body or unforgivable in soul while Jesus Christ exists.

(ii) The leper came with humility. He did not demand healing; he only said, “If you will, you can cleanse me.” It was as if he said, “I know I don’t matter; I know that other men will flee from me and will have nothing to do with me; I know that I have no claim on you; but perhaps in your divine condescension you will give your power even to such as I am:” It is the humble heart which is conscious of nothing but its need that finds its way to Christ.

(iii) The leper came with reverence. The King James Version says that he worshipped Jesus. The Greek verb is proskunein (GSN4352), and that word is never used of anything but worship of the gods; it always describes a man’s feeling and action in presence of the divine. That leper could never have told anyone what he thought Jesus was; but he knew that in the presence of Jesus he was in the presence of God. We do not need to put this into theological or philosophical terms; it is enough to be convinced that when we are confronted with Jesus Christ, we are confronted with the love and the power of Almighty God.

So to this approach of the leper there came the reaction of Jesus. First and foremost, that reaction was compassion. The Law said Jesus must avoid contact with that man and threatened him with terrible uncleanness if he allowed the leper to come within six feet of him; but Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him. The medical knowledge of the day would have said that Jesus was running a desperate risk of a ghastly infection; but Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him.

For Jesus there was only one obligation in life–and that was to help. There was only one law–and that law was love. The obligation of love took precedence over all other rules and laws and regulations; it made him defy all physical risks. To a good doctor a man sick of a loathsome disease is not a disgusting spectacle; he is a human being who needs his skill. To a doctor a child sick of an infectious disease is not a menace; he is a child who needs to be helped. Jesus was like that; God is like that; we must be like that. The true Christian will break any convention and will take any risk to help a fellow-man in need.

TRUE PRUDENCE

Matt. 8:1-4 (continued)

But there remain two things in this incident which show that, while Jesus would defy the Law and risk any infection to help, he was not senselessly reckless, nor did he forget the demands of true prudence.

(i) He ordered the man to keep silence, and not to publish abroad what he had done for him. This injunction to silence is common on Jesus’ lips (Matt. 9:30; Matt. 12:16; Matt. 17:9; Mk.1:34; Mk.5:43; Mk.7:36; Mk.8:26). Why should Jesus command this silence?

Palestine was an occupied country, and the Jews were a proud race. They never forgot that they were God’s chosen people. They dreamed of the day when their divine deliverer would come. But for the most part they dreamed of that day in terms of military conquest and political power. For that reason Palestine was the most inflammable country in the world. It lived amidst revolutions. Leader after leader arose, had his moment of glory and was then eliminated by the might of Rome. Now, if this leper had gone out and published abroad what Jesus had done for him, there would nave been a rush to install a man with powers such as Jesus possessed as a political leader and a military commander.

Jesus had to educate men’s minds, he had to change their ideas; he had somehow to enable them to see that his power was love and not force of arms. He had to work almost in secrecy until men knew him for what he was, the lover and not the destroyer of the lives of men. Jesus enjoined silence upon those he helped lest men should use him to make their own dreams come true instead of waiting on the dream of God. They had to be silent until they had learned the right things to say about him.

(ii) Jesus sent the leper to the priests to make the correct offering and to receive a certificate that he was clean. The Jews were so terrified of the infection of leprosy that there was a prescribed ritual in the very unlikely event of a cure.

The ritual is described in Lev.14. The leper was examined by a priest. Two birds were taken, and one was killed over running water. In addition there were taken cedar, scarlet and hyssop. These things were taken, together with the living bird, and dipped in the blood of the dead bird, and then the living bird was allowed to go free. The man washed himself and his clothes, and shaved himself. Seven days were allowed to pass, and then he was re-examined. He must then shave his hair, his head and his eye-brows. Certain sacrifices were then made consisting of two mate lambs without blemish, and one ewe lamb; three-tenths of a deal of fine flour mingled with oil; and one log of oil. The restored leper was touched on the tip of the right ear, the right thumb, and the right great toe with blood and oil. He was finally examined for the last time, and, if the cure was real, he was allowed to go with a certificate that he was cleansed.

Jesus told this man to go through that process. There is guidance here. Jesus was telling that man not to neglect the treatment that was available for him in those days. We do not receive miracles by neglecting the medical and scientific treatment open to us. Men must do all men can do before God’s power may cooperate with our efforts. A miracle does not come by a lazy waiting upon God to do it all; it comes from the cooperation of the faith-filled effort of man with the illimitable grace of God.

Back to: THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW

Back to: Barclay’s Commentary

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