Beckett: Pastoral Thoughts – When Jesus Touched Lepers (Leviticus 13-14)

Reminder: As we read about Jesus’ earthly ministry, we should always have the Book of Leviticus in the background. For when we consider the laws God Himself laid down, it should not surprise us when the Jews become so offended and shocked when Jesus did the things He did, for example, when He touches and heals lepers. The Law pronounced such people unclean (13:3), so they were not to be touched. Rather, they were to remain separated from everyone else until they were made clean.

Naturally, as sin always has a habit of doing, instead of the lepers’ separation being for their own health as well as that of others, by Jesus’ day their separation was the cause of their social and religious marginalisation—they were ostracised from society. Yet Jesus, being God, not only reverses this social separation when He approaches and touches lepers but also religiously when He heals them (e.g., Matthew 8:1-4). It is more than Jesus just risking His life for the sake of others, which St. Elisabeth of Hungary would be famous for imitating.

Rather, as all of Jesus’ healings indicate, He was bringing the kingdom of God to these ostracised and unclean people, indicating salvation is even for the unclean. “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17). Lepers and other such people were considered sinners by the Jewish community and so were ostracised from normal social customs and religious participation. Jesus restored them to their community order.

Jesus, the clean one, touches unclean people and makes them clean! I esteem how Rev. Jonathan Fisk puts it:

Evil is a filthy thing. It rubs off on everything it touches. Like leprosy. Like leaven. It can’t be gotten out just by rubbing it with some soaps and salts. When you rub your finger across a dusty table, the dust might come off the table, but it only does so because it sticks on you. But what if there were a being so clean, so unable to be dirtied, that when He ran His finger across the table the dirt didn’t come off on Him? What if instead His pure cleanness came off on the dirt?

Echo, pp. 138-139

Jesus is so pure—so clean—that when He touches unclean people, instead of their uncleanness coming off on Him like it would happen to any normal human being, His cleanness comes off on others instead, just as we saw with the menstruating woman (Matthew 9:20-22).

While his book is based on the Small Catechism, I sense Rev. Fisk is drawing from elsewhere in our Lutheran Confessions, specifically the Formula of Concord Solid Declaration. Settling matters among dissenting Lutherans on the doctrine of original sin, the reformers write, “Before God [we] are thoroughly and utterly infected and corrupted by original sin, as by a spiritual leprosy” (FC SD I, 6). As a spiritual leprosy, original sin corrupts, decays, makes ugly, and kills. It’s infectious; indeed, we pass it down to our children, for we inherited it from our first parents, Adam and Eve (hence why original sill will sometimes be called “inherited sin”). And the more time we spend around unregenerate sinners, the more sin will corrupt us until it finally kills us. Perhaps this is why the psalmist writes, “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers, but his delight is in the Law of the LORD, and on His Law he meditates day and night” (Psalm 1:1-2).

So, what’s the antidote? What is the elixir to our spiritual leprosy? If you guessed Baptism, you would be most correct. As our Confessions put it, “this hereditary evil is so great and horrible that, only for the sake of the Lord Christ, can it be covered and forgiven before God in those baptised and believing. Furthermore, human nature, which is perverted and corrupted by original sin, must and can be healed only by the regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit [Titus 3:5]. However, this healing is only begun in this life. It will not be perfect until the life to come [Ephesians 4:12-13]” (FC SD I, 14; emphasis mine).

Strictly speaking, “original sin is a complete absence or lack of the created state of hereditary righteousness in Paradise, or of God’s image, according to which man was originally created in truth, holiness, and righteousness,” and consequently “a person inherits an inborn wicked disposition” for which he is guilty and deserves punishment, which is death and eternal damnation (FC SD I, 10, 11, 13). Yet according to God’s abundant mercy, in Baptism and the faith which receives this means of grace, the cleanness of Christ comes off on you as His Spirit begins your regeneration into a perfect human being (i.e., God’s image fully restored), which will not be seen in this life but only in the life to come. Until then, you can be comforted by the fact that the leprosy of your original sin has been cleaned out for the sake of Christ, who took your punishment on the cross.

Theology Terms Used

  • Original Sin: man’s natural inclination toward living in sin and rebelling against God rather than original righteousness.

Bibliography

Fisk, Jonathan. Echo: Unbroken Truth. Worth Repeating. Again. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2018.

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