Leprosy was perhaps the most feared disease in ancient times. The devastation included physical trauma caused by nerve damage and muscle weakness, resulting in severe disfigurement and significant disability. But. Some would say that even more horrible was the social trauma; leprosy came not just with a diagnosis, but with a sentence. Lepers were socially isolated from everyone, including their own families. They had to live alone, “outside the camp,” according to the law of Leviticus 13. Their quarantine was not for fourteen days, but for a lifetime. If anyone came near, they had to cover their mouths and yell, “Unclean, unclean!” The most horrible sentence a person could hear from the priest, who was charged with diagnosing leprosy, was, “You are unclean.” It was a sentence worse than death. In fact, the rabbis referred to lepers as “the living dead,” and they said that it was as hard to cure leprosy as it was to raise the dead. So, you can understand that the most joyful words for anyone to ever hear were, “You are clean.”
This is why one day a leper approached Jesus. Perhaps he had heard that this man from Nazareth was a healer who had authority over sickness and even demons. Perhaps he thought that Jesus would heal his leprosy. The leper got close enough to say to Jesus, “If you will, you can make me clean.” In his plea are evidences of faith that the Lord could save him. He does not question the Lord’s ability to make him clean, only his willingness to do so.
Jesus’ response to the leper is shocking and would have been unheard of in those days. Instead of turning from the leper, he turned to him. Instead of making the leper stand far off, at least 50 paces was the requirement, Jesus moved closer. Instead of wearing a mask and gloves and dousing himself in Germ-X, Jesus reached out and touched the leper. Why? The Bible tells us: he was moved with pity. He was moved with compassion for this outcast, this man who lived as a prisoner in his own skin. He touched the man and said, “I am willing; be clean.”
Jesus was not like the rest of the priests. James Edwards writes, “Jesus is not polluted by the leper’s disease; rather, the leper is cleansed and healed by Jesus’ contagious holiness.”
Do you see what is on display in this encounter? Not just a random act of kindness Jesus showed to one man two millennia ago. No. This is a picture of the Gospel. In this story, the man with unclean skin was touched by the Lord of all and his unclean skin was made brand new. In the most important story of all time, the story of the Gospel, the sinner is touched by Jesus and his unclean heart of flesh is replaced with a new heart; his dead spirit is made alive. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” It is the great exchange. The prisoner in his own body of flesh is set free by the Lord of all creation and called to a new life of freedom to serve the living Christ.
What does that mean for you and me? It means that as frightening as Covid-19 is, and as devastating as it has been to take lives and put people out of work and threaten the world economy, it is a candle in a hurricane when compared to the eternal consequences of sin. It also means that we have hope in Christ. He is for us.
This virus has a shelf life, and one day, hopefully soon, it will be remembered as “that weird pandemic that shut down the whole world in 2020.” We will not have to wear a mask at Aldi or search the shelves at the crack of dawn for Clorox wipes. Our quarantine will be over.
But we will still need to be made clean. We will still need to come to Jesus Christ with the same plea as the leper: “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” And, oh my friends, he is. Able. And willing.