THE LEPER IS CLEANSED
A leper came to him, asking him to help him and kneeling before him. “If you are willing to do so,” he said, “you are able to cleanse me.” Jesus was moved with pity to the depths of his being. He stretched out his hand and touched him. “I am waling,” Jesus said, “be cleansed.” Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cleansed. Immediately Jesus sent him away with a stern injunction. “See to it,” he said to him, “that you tell no man anything about this; but go and show yourself to the priest, and bring the offering for cleansing which Moses laid down, so that you may prove to them that you really are healed.” He went away and began to proclaim the story at length and to spread it all over. The result was that it was not possible for Jesus to come openly into any town, but he had to stay outside in the lonely places; and they kept coming to him from all over.
In the New Testament there is no disease regarded with more terror and pity than leprosy. When Jesus sent out the Twelve he commanded them, “Heal the sick, cleanse lepers.” (Matt.18:8.) The fate of the leper was truly hard. E. W. G. Masterman in his article on leprosy in the Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels, from which we have drawn much of the information that follows, says, “No other disease reduces a human being for so many years to so hideous a wreck.” Let us look first at the facts.
There are three kinds of leprosy. (i) There is nodular or tubercular leprosy. It begins with an unaccountable lethargy and pains in the joints. Then there appear on the body, especially on the back, symmetrical discoloured patches. On them little nodules form, at first pink, then turning brown. The skin is thickened. The nodules gather specially in the folds of the cheek, the nose, the lips and the forehead. The whole appearance of the face is changed till the man loses his human appearance and looks, as the ancients said, like a lion or a satyr. The nodules grow larger and larger; they ulcerate and from them comes a foul discharge. The eye-brows fail out; the eyes become staring; the voice becomes hoarse and the breath wheezes because of the ulceration of the vocal chords. The hands and the feet also ulcerate. Slowly the sufferer becomes a mass of ulcerated growths. The average course of the disease is nine years, and it ends in mental decay, coma and ultimately death. the sufferer becomes utterly repulsive both to himself and to others.
(ii) There is anaesthetic leprosy. The initial stages are the same; but the nerve trunks also are affected. The infected area loses all sensation. This may happen without the sufferer knowing that it has happened; and he may not realize that it has happened until he suffers some burning or scalding and finds that there is no feeling whatsoever where pain ought to be. As the disease develops the injury to the nerves causes discoloured patches and blisters. The muscles waste away; the tendons contract until the hands become like claws. There is always disfigurement of the finger nails. There ensues chronic ulceration of the feet and of the hands and then the progressive loss of fingers and of toes, until in the end a whole hand or a whole foot may drop off. The duration of the disease is anything from twenty to thirty years. It is a kind of terrible progressive death of the body.
(iii) The third kind of leprosy is a type–the commonest of all–where nodular and anaesthetic leprosy are mixed.
That is leprosy proper, and there is no doubt that there were many lepers like that in Palestine in the time of Jesus. From the description in Lev.13 it is quite clear that in New Testament times the term leprosy was also used to cover other skin diseases. It seems to have been used to include psoriasis, a disease which covers the body with white scales, and which would give rise to the phrase “a leper as white as snow.” It seems also to have included ring-worm which is still very common in the East. The Hebrew word used in Leviticus for leprosy is tsara`ath (HSN6883). Now Lev.13:47 speaks of a tsara`ath (HSN6883) of garments, and a tsara`ath (HSN6883) of houses is dealt with in Lev.14:33. Such a blemish on a garment would be some kind of mould or fungus; and on a house it would be some kind of dry-rot in the wood or destructive lichen on the stone. The word tsara`ath (HSN6883), leprosy in Jewish thought, seems to have covered any kind of creeping skin disease. Very naturally, with medical knowledge in an extremely primitive state, diagnosis did not distinguish between the different kinds of skin disease and included both the deadly and incurable and the non-fatal and comparatively harmless under the one inclusive title.
Any such skin disease rendered the sufferer unclean. He was banished from the fellowship of men; he must dwell alone outside the camp; he must go with rent clothes, bared head, a covering upon his upper lip, and as he went he must give warning of his polluted presence with the cry, “Unclean, unclean!” We see the same thing in the Middle Ages, which merely applied the Mosaic law. The priest, wearing his stole and carrying a crucifix, led the leper into the church, and read the burial service over him. The leper was a man who was already dead, though still alive. He had to wear a black garment that all might recognize and live in a leper- or lazar-house. He must not come into a church service but while the service went on he might peer through the leper “squint” cut in the walls. The leper had not only to bear the physical pain of his disease; he had to bear the mental anguish and the heart-break of being completely banished from human society and totally shunned.
If ever a leper was cured–and real leprosy was incurable, so it is some of the other skin diseases which must be referred to–he had to undergo a complicated ceremony of restoration which is described in Lev.14. He was examined by the priest. Two birds were taken and one was killed over running water. In addition there was taken cedar, scarlet and hyssop. These things and the living bird were dipped in the blood of the dead bird and then the live bird was allowed to go free. The man washed himself and his clothes and shaved himself. Seven days then elapsed and he was re-examined. He had then to shave his hair, his head, his eye-brows. Certain sacrifices were made–two male lambs without blemish and one ewe lamb; three tenth deals of fine flour mingled with oil and one log of oil. The amounts were less for the poor. The restored sufferer was touched on the tip of the right ear, the right thumb and the right great toe with blood and oil. He was given a final examination and, if clear of the disease, he was snowed to go with a certificate that he was clean.
Here is one of the most revealing pictures of Jesus.
(i) He did not drive away a man who had broken the law. The leper had no right to have spoken to him at all, but Jesus met the desperation of human need with an understanding compassion.
(ii) Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him. He touched the man who was unclean. To Jesus he was not unclean; he was simply a human soul in desperate need.
(iii) Having cleansed him, Jesus sent him to fulfil the prescribed ritual. He fulfilled the human law and human righteousness. He did not recklessly defy the conventions, but, when need be, submitted to them.
Here we see compassion, power and wisdom all conjoined.
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