The Cleansing of the Leper (5:12-16)

If the call of the disciples shows Jesus reaching out to sinners, his healing of the leper shows that Jesus is also concerned for the total outcast. For a modern parallel to the leper, we may think of victims of AIDS. Just like the AIDS victim, the leper of the ancient world was ostracized from society and largely forgotten. True, today the victims of AIDS get much publicity, along with a great clamor to fund research to fight the HIV disease, but many people would prefer to forget these victims of disease and shunt them off to the fringes of society. To get close to them or touch them would be to risk too much.

I think of an attempt to launch a cooperative ministry to AIDS patients in my area. Many churches responded that the goal was admirable and they would offer moral support, but what would they do if AIDS patients came to faith and wanted to come into their church? The risk was too great, so they opted out of supporting the effort directly.

I wonder if Jesus would have responded this way. Jesus said he came to minister to those in need, and Luke 5:12-16 shows how that ministry extends to the very bottom rungs of the social ladder. No one is beyond the potential touch of Jesus' love.

Luke narrates this miracle with extreme economy. Jesus is in one of the towns. The leper humbly implores Jesus to help him, confident that if Jesus wills it, Jesus can make him clean. Clearly, word about Jesus had spread even to these marginal colonies in the society. Make me clean, though literal, suggests a real cleansing of the person (remember, all the miracles in this Gospel have a "picture" element). The leper knows Jesus' capability, but he is uncertain of the extent of his compassion. The extent of Jesus' compassion is revealed here. In the modern world it is perhaps the exact reverse. Today's person on the street does not doubt Jesus' compassion but does question his capability. Accounts like this demonstrate that Jesus opened himself to all.

Jesus' touching the leper is significant, since such contact rendered him ceremonially unclean (Lev 13:42-46; all of m. Nega`im). The physical communication of charity meant suffering ceremonial uncleanness that could affect his involvement in corporate worship. Given that Jesus' other miracles have occurred through the mere speaking of his word, it's clear that the act of touching is conscious. The healing is immediate; the compassion is demonstrable. Jesus is able and willing.

Jesus tells the healed leper to show [himself] to the priest, which fits with the command of Leviticus 14:1-32 about dealing with healing from leprosy. Beyond this, however, the healed man should keep silence about what has happened. This part of Jesus' instructions is perplexing. We would think Jesus would appreciate the public relations coup such a healing represents. Think of how we broadcast even the claim of such events today. The contrast is significant.

There are various explanations for the silence. One part of the explanation seems to be that Jesus wants to quell excessive excitement about his healing ministry so that the message he brings does not get lost in a flurry of requests for miracles. It may also be that the man is to keep silent only until the priest formally declares him clean. Regardless, it is clear that Jesus approaches his ministry of miracles circumspectly (Mk 8:11-13; Jn 6:26-27). Perhaps because the miracles are pictures of deeper realities, he wants people not to be overcome by their more obvious, surface meaning—a tendency that proves hard to avoid.

The instruction to go to the priests serves as a testimony to them. Is them a reference to the priests or to all people? The stress on obeying the Torah suggests that those who receive the testimony are the priests. In the next event Luke explains that the Jewish leadership is present, so clearly the testimony gets their attention. As 7:22 makes clear, the cleansing of lepers is a sign that "the time of fulfillment" has come.

Word does spread. Crowds gather (v. 15). Luke 4:44 is being fulfilled. Mark 1:45 notes that the crowd is growing to crushing levels. Nevertheless, Jesus periodically withdraws to collect himself and commune with God (v. 16). Seeking time with God is key to ministering effectively. In fact, numerous conflicts follow in Luke, so the Gospel writer is making it clear that before Jesus meets with trouble, he communes with God.

Sometimes reaching out to outcasts is unpopular. Sometimes conflict for doing so is not a sign of failure.

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