Matthew 8:1-4

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Matthew 8

1 When he came down from the mountain, great crowds followed him. And behold, a leper came to him and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” And Jesusstretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I will; be clean.” And immediately his leprosy was cleansed. And Jesus said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a proof to them.”

Matthew 8:1-4 records one of the truly beautiful healing episodes in the New Testament. Here, Jesus heals a leper, a person accustomed to being ostracized and kept at a distance from society. In so doing, Jesus demonstrated not only the wideness of His love for lost humanity but also His sovereign power.

If you have been following this series you might be curious why I have jumped from the last verse of Matthew 4 to the first verse of Matthew 8. This is because Matthew 5-7 is the Sermon on the Mount and from Sunday, January 27 to Sunday, October 6, 2013, I preached a 33-part sermon series through these chapters. While I would very much like to return to the Sermon on the Mount and will certainly do so again, at this point I will simply refer you to that earlier series and we will press on beginning in Matthew 8.

To understand what is happening in Matthew 8 it will be important to understand what the Bible is talking about when it refers to lepers or leprosy. The Anchor Bible Dictionary sets the stage and lays out the issues well.

A disease in humans (also known as Hansen’s disease) caused by the bacillus Mycobacterium leprae. This term “leprosy” is commonly used (more for convenience than medical accuracy) as a translation of Hebrew sara’at in the OT and Gk lepra in the NT. Scholars now generally agree that OT sara’at is not leprosy nor does it include it and that NT lepra, if it refers at all to leprosy, does so only as one among many skin conditions…There is some evidence, however, suggesting that though the NT term leprafollowed OT tradition concerning sara’at, true leprosy could have been included under the term lepra. The best historical reconstruction of the spread of leprosy argues that the disease appeared in the Near East about 300 B.C.E. (at this time the Greek physicians in Alexandria became familiar with the disease) and began to spread to Italy, for example, just two centuries later. This allows the possibility that the disease existed in Palestine shortly before the time of Jesus. Some Greek writers, too, confused the beginning stages of leprosy with other skin diseases called lepra. This shows that people at the time of the NT could have included leprosy under the term lepra[1]

Let us summarize like this: in the Old Testament leprosy is used to refer to a wide range of skin diseases and is not directly analogous to the what we call Hansen’s Disease (i.e., leprosy) today. In the New Testament, the same is true to an extent, but the fact that leprosy as we know it appeared around 300 BC means that it is possible that what is meant by the term in the New Testament might refer to what we mean when we say leprosy today. All of this interesting and helpful, but, truth be told, one wonders if it really matters for how lepers were treated in the Old and New Testament, regardless of the exact nature of their skin diseases. Whatever specifically was meant by the term, it clearly referred to unsightly skin diseases that were frightening to people, considered to be contagious, and that led communities to distance themselves from those who suffered from these maladies. In other words, to be a leper was to be alone and shamed because of one’s skin disease, regardless of the exact nature of that disease. The Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary lays out nicely what this social ostracization looked like.

            All those with leprosy were required to be examined by the priest, who after examination could pronounce a person clean or unclean (Lev. 13:22ff.). If found leprous, the diseased individual was to be isolated from the rest of the community, required to wear torn clothes, cover the lower part of his or her face, and cry out “Unclean! Unclean!” (Lev. 13:45-46; Num. 5:2-4). The rabbinic tractate Nega’imdistinguishes two categories of two types each of leprosy: the Bright Spot, which is bright-white like snow, the second shade of which is the white like the lime of the temple; the Rising, which is white like the skin in an egg, the second shade of which is the white like white wool…[2]

Imagine living with this stigma, this isolation, this shame. Imagine what it would have been like to yearn for community, for a friend, for love, and to know you would not have it. This is the position in which the leper of Matthew 8 found himself, and this is the leper through whom Jesus decided to demonstrate His great love and power.

The wide extent of Jesus’ love.

We begin with the leper presenting himself to Jesus.

1 When he came down from the mountain, great crowds followed him. And behold, a leper came to him and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.”

The phrase, “[w]hen he came down from the mountain” may sound like a transition phrase, but is much more than that, for the mountain to which the text refers is the mountain on which Christ just finished preaching His most famous sermon. In earthly terms, the conclusion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount must constitute one of the peaks of His fame. He has just finished this unbelievable, enthralling, captivating, controversial sermon and “great crowds fallowed him.” Again, for any merely earthly orator this would have been the great goal: the adulation and worship of the crowds! Imagine this throng following Jesus, enchanted and overwhelmed by His power and insight. And then imagine all of this momentum coming to a screeching terrifying halt. Why? Because “a leper came to him and knelt before him.”

Again, from an earthly perspective nothing could have been more undesirable to any of the great orators of the day. A person seeking to build celebrity would have been deeply offended and irritated and angry not only at the intrusion but at the intrusion by one so utterly undesirable as this: a leper!

Anybody else would have demanded that his handlers remove the unwanted intruder…but we may thank God that Jesus was not like anybody else.

Jesus not only does not have the leper cast out of His presence, He moves with love toward the leper!

And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I will; be clean.” And immediately his leprosy was cleansed.

It would probably be difficult to overstate how shocking this would have been to the watching crowd, not to mention the leper Himself! But in this act of touching the leper and speaking to the leper and healing the leper Jesus was demonstrating something vitally important about Himself: He was no mere orator and He had no interest in earthly fame or building a platform; He was the Kingdom come, He was “God with us,” and He was the incarnation of the love of the Father for lost and suffering humanity.

It is very difficult not to allegorize leprosy, not to say that it can stand as a symbol for sin. The effects are the same. Both sin and leprosy isolate, shame, break relationships, lead to loneliness, and cause a sense of despair. You might be reading this text and thinking, “That is me! I am the leper!” But here’s the thing: we are all the leper! It is me. It is you. And the same Jesus that approached the leper in love approaches us in the same way.

Wherever love toward the despairing and the outcast and broken and lonely and the sick is shown, there Jesus is.

It has been proposed by some biographers of Francis of Assisi that his great conversion moment truly happened not when he disrobed in front of the shocked citizens of Assisi and left his family and home to follow God but rather in the moment when he overcame his lifelong shock and revulsion toward lepers and kissed one of these poor and suffering people on the mouth. That, some biographers say, is when he truly gave himself to Christ. And they say this not without reason: we are most like Christ when we love lepers, be they physically or spiritually so.

I rather appreciate Nikos Kazantzakis’ novelistic reimagining of Francis encountering a leper in his book, Saint Francis. Listen:

Suddenly Francis stopped and grasped my arm. He was deathly pale.

“Did you hear?” he asked in a low voice.

“No. What?”

“Bells . . .”

And as he said this, I actually did hear the sound of bells coming from the plain, still far in the distance. We both stood still. Francis’s lower jaw was quivering. The bells came continually closer.

“He’s coming. . . ,” stammered Francis, leaning upon me for support. His whole body was quaking now.

“Let’s get away, let’s escape,” I cried, and I clasped Francis round the waist in order to carry him to safety.

“Where can we go? Escape—escape from God? But how, my poor, unhappy Brother Leo, how?”

“We can take another road, Brother Francis.”

“There will be a leper on every road we take. You’ll see, the streets will become filled with them. They will not disappear until we have fallen into their arms. So, Brother Leo, put on a bold front—we’re going forward!”

The bells could be heard near us now, just behind the trees.

“Courage, Francis, my brother,” I said. “God will give you the strength to endure it.”

But Francis had already darted forward. The leper had emerged from the clump of trees. In his hand he held a staff covered with bells that, as he shook the staff, warned passersby to flee. As soon as he saw Francis running toward him with outspread arms, he uttered a shrill cry, apparently from fright, and halted, his knees giving way beneath him as though sudden exhaustion prevented him from continuing. I came close and gazed at him with horror. Half of his putrescent nose had fallen away; his hands were without fingers—just stumps; and his lips were an oozing wound.

Throwing himself upon the leper, Francis embraced him, then lowered his head and kissed him upon the lips. Afterward he lifted him in his arms and, covering him with his robe, began to advance slowly, with heavy steps, toward the city. Surely there would be some nearby lazaretto where he could deposit him.

He walked and walked. I followed behind, my eyes filled with tears. God is severe, I reflected, exceedingly severe; he has no pity for mankind. What was it that Francis had just finished telling me: that God’s will was supposed to be our own deepest, unknown will? No, no! God asks us what we don’t want and then says, “That’s what I want!” He asks us what we hate and then says, “That’s what I love. Do what displeases you, because that is what pleases me!” And you see, here was poor Francis carrying the leper in his arms, having first kissed him on the mouth!

The sun had risen nearly to the center of the sky when we felt the large, scattered drops of an autumn sunshower. The city, which had grown larger now, suddenly loomed before us in the sunlight, its towers, churches, and houses glistening. We were drawing near.

Suddenly I saw Francis stop abruptly. He bent down and drew aside the robe in order to uncover the leper. But all at once he uttered a loud cry: the robe was empty!

Francis turned and looked at me, opening and closing his lips in a vain effort to speak. But his face was resplendent—ablaze! His mustache, whiskers, nose, mouth: everything had vanished in the conflagration.

The tears flowing from his eyes, he fell prostrate on the ground and began to kiss the soil. I remained standing above him, trembling. It wasn’t a leper; it was Christ himself who had come down to earth in the form of a leper in order to test Francis.[3]

Where love for the leper is, Christ is, and Christ identifies with the leper: the hurting, the lonely, the ashamed. Chris is for the leper! Christ came for us, lepers all!

The radical power of Jesus’ healing.

We also see here the radical power of Jesus’ healing. If you have grown up in church you might be so accustomed to these healing accounts that they lose their ability to shock, but make no mistake: what happens here is shocking in the extreme!

And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I will; be clean.” And immediately his leprosy was cleansed.

There is something so startling about this. It is so understated in the way it is presented: “I will; be clean.” And the result: “immediately his leprosy was cleansed.”

There is no illness, no sickness, no brokenness, no despair, no loneliness, no shame that is so powerful and so strong that the Lord of all cannot say “Go!” and it must go! Immediately! Such is the power of Jesus! Divine loved when coupled with divine power cannot help but heal!

Again, we pray too tepidly. Our expectations are too low. This is a particular weakness of the Baptist tradition, perhaps. We are so measured. We qualify things so much. But should not a text like this embolden us to cry out with great faith, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean”? Yes, the “if you will” must be included, for Jesus may choose not to. But one cannot help but wonder if indeed Jesus would heal more frequently if His skeptical children cried out more boldly for healing.

Read this text and take heart: the healing power of Jesus is awesome and strong!

The open door of humble faith.

Even so, the healing power of Jesus must be received, must be embraced. This is why the actions of the leper are so very illuminating.

And behold, a leper came to him and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.”

The leper does three things:

  • He came.
  • He knelt.
  • He asked.

In so doing, the leper gave us a model for how to come to Jesus. We should come to Him, that is, set aside all that hinders us and approach Jesus in faith! We should kneel before Him, that is, come humbly in recognition of His glory and sovereign power. We should ask of Him, that is, cry out to Him in faith and expectation.

Our brother the leper has shown us the way! The leper showed great faith! John Chrysostom pointed out that the leper did not say, “If you request it of God,” and he did not say “If you would pray.” He said, “If you will.”[4] In other words, he saw in Jesus Himself a power sufficient to meet his needs.

This is how we too should come, how we must come! Have you approached Him, knelt before Him, cried out to Him?

Epiphanius the Latin argued that “leprosy signifies sin” and told his listeners, “now if anyone is inundated in the leprosy of sin, let him show himself faithfully to the Lord and let him confess his sins, so that he might be able to depart from this world clean.”[5]

And there it is: the ever-relevant, ever-powerful, Christ -xalting Word of God. This story is our story, the story we must need to hear. It is a story I need to hear!

Brothers, sisters—lepers all—let us run to the feet of the one who makes all things new!

 

[1] David Noel Freedman, ed., K-N. The Anchor Bible Dictionary. v.4 (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1992), p.277, 281. Note, however: “Skeletal remains from the first century show no evidence of the kind of leprosy interior to the body that erodes bones of the face, hands, and feet.” John D. Currid and David W. Chapman, eds. Archaeology Study Bible. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017), p.1435n1:40-44.

[2] Michael J. Wilkins, “Matthew.” Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary. Gen. Ed., Clinton E. Arnold. Vol.1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), p.54.

[3] Kazantzakis, Nikos. Saint Francis (Kindle Locations 1446-1473). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

[4] D.H. Williams, ed., Matthew. The Church’s Bible. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co., 2018) p.168.

[5] D.H. Williams, p.170-171.

 

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