“And behold, a leper came to him and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, if you will, you can make me clean. And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, ‘I will, be clean.’ And immediately his leprosy was cleansed.” Matthew 8:2-3
In the society of First Century AD Israel, there were none lower than the lepers. They were a group of people who, due to their disease, were forced to live entirely cut off from the rest of society at large. This was due to two factors: one, the Mosaic Law required that lepers live outside of the camp of Israel due to their condition and ritual uncleanness and two, the way leprosy ravaged the bodies of its victims. Sores would break out all over the skin of those afflicted, the flesh around these sores would rot and decay, in most cases causing a terrible odor and excruciating pain. In advanced cases, the diseases would cause the noses, fingers, toes, hands, feet, or other extremities to decay and deteriorate to the point that was unrecognizable. There was no relief for the leper from their physical agony or their social isolation. People would not get close, for fear of accidentally coming in contact with the afflicted. If a leper had to go near people, the leper would have to yell loudly “Unclean Unclean!” as they neared, so that others had a chance to avoid them. The only thing more ritually unclean than a leper at this time in Israelite culture was a corpse. The leper lived a life of spiritual, social, and physical agony.
There was hope for the leper—God. In the Old Testament there are three recorded examples of YHWH healing a person afflicted with leprosy: in Exodus 4 God turns Moses’ hand leprous and then heals it to demonstrate to Moses that He is indeed who He says He is and that He has the power He claims to have; in Numbers 12 Moses’ sister, Miriam, is struck with leprosy for opposing Moses and Moses pleads to YHWH to heal her and she is healed; and in 2 Kings 5 Naaman of Syria is healed of leprosy. Interestingly, in the Naaman account, when Naaman approaches the king of Israel asking how he might be cleansed of leprosy, the king responds by saying ” Am I God, to kill and make alive, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy?” (2 Kings 5:7). It was recognized, even as the king knew, that only God could do such a thing as curing leprosy.
Fast forward to today’s text from Matthew: Christ is coming down from the mountain after having given the Sermon on the Mount, and a leper approached him. The leper took a massive step in faith because he is risking his own life by coming near to uninfected people. Then the leper does a series of things that demonstrate just how deep his faith was. He kneels before Christ. Kneeling, then as today, is a gesture of respect for authority and reverence thereof. The leper knelt in humble, faithful, earnest submission to Christ. The leper then refers to Christ as “Lord,” which is much more than just a title of authority. The Greek word here is Kyrios; this same term, Kyrios, is used in the Septuagint—the Greek translation of the Old Testament—to translate the Hebrew term Adonai, which is one of the names of God. In fact, many of the scribes who wrote the Hebrew scriptures would use Adonai in place of the term YHWH when making their copies of texts. So, when the leper refers to Christ as Kyrios, he is referring to him as Adonai or even YHWH. The leper, just as the Old Testament examples mentioned earlier, knew who could heal him.
Lastly, the leper said, “if you will, you can make me clean.” The leper knew that Christ need not do anything other than just will his healing to occur. No ceremony, no theatrics, no ritual. Christ just had to will it into happening; and all the suffering—physical, social, mental—all the anguish, all the isolation would end.
Christ did just that. Christ reached out and touched the man—something that goes against all the ritual purity laws. But, Christ wasn’t contaminated and made unclean by the man; instead, Christ’s cleanness and purification flowed into the leper. Christ tells the man that He indeed will make him clean, and he merely commanded him to be clean, and he became so. The gravity of this miracle might not appear to us when we skim over this passage, but think about how leprosy ravaged the bodies of its victims. Tissue and flesh were eaten away and destroyed; extremities deformed, mutilated, lost. Christ re-created all of that for this man; all of the damaged tissue was regenerated and restored, and the man made as he was before the disease took over. Christ did all of this immediately.
Matthew tells us of this encounter for us to see that Christ is, in fact, the God of Creation. He, as the leper correctly identified, is YHWH Adonai. Just as John 1:2-3 states “He was with God in the beginning. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.”
Christ was not a man with great powers for performing miracles. He was not a great teacher. He was not part-God, part-man. Christ is God. He is the Incarnation. He is Immanuel, God with us.