Lessons from a Leper

Matthew 8: 1-4, 16-17

Universal experience

The search for improved health is something that we can all relate to – either for ourselves or for a loved one. Even without a pandemic, it is a universal human experience to feel ill or broken and in need of healing. This need crosses the boundaries that ordinarily divide us, and stretches beyond physical health to wounds of the spirit that we experience as a result of oppression, alienation, and hurtful relationships. Our story from Matthew for today has some insights that may help us in our search for healing. Our teachers are both the expected one, Jesus, and the unexpected one, the man labelled a leper in the story.

It’s more than the physical that needs healing.

In our story, this man with a skin disease moves out of the shadows and onto center stage. We would expect him to stay in the shadows. But he comes seeking healing that is both physical and social and takes a risk to find it.

The Physical need for healing in this story was certainly challenging. Leprosy was a frightening illness, made more so because people didn’t have an understanding of the causes of skin diseases. Disease is always scarier when we don’t understand it. People with all sorts of skin diseases were labelled as “lepers” and isolated from the general population. True leprosy is a frightening disease – and other skin diseases were similar enough in appearance that the fear factor was real. That was bad enough.

But the social isolation was, if anything, worse. People labelled as lepers were prohibited from staying in cities or living in villages. They were expected to travel alone, with torn clothing identifying them as unclean.1 Anyone who stayed under the same roof or touched such a person would also be considered unclean. Socially, they were outcasts. They were excluded from human community. The social exile multiplied the trauma of the physical disease.

In search of healing, both physical and social, this man moved from the shadows and onto center stage. It took defying social expectations, changing long-standing habits and overcoming years of hurt from exclusion to dare to seek his healing. He provides an example for us

God’s nudges

There are times when God nudges us into taking a stand to confront something that is wrong, that is not in the path of God’s love and justice. Even when it isn’t comfortable – or even safe. God nudges us into “Good trouble” as Senator John Lewis called it.

  • (Christian) We were on the Bishop’s Bus Tour, focusing on Restorative Justice. One of the youth didn’t want to be there – his attitude was showing. And he made a derogatory comment tinged with racism. While the adults were gasping in shock, one of the young men stepped up. He clapped a hand on the boy’s shoulder and pulled him in for a sideways hug. “You probably didn’t mean that the way it sounded friend…your remark sounded racist and mean. THAT’S not what God wants. Let’s talk about this – where did you see God in the church we just visited? I saw God in the kindness of the people helping and the thankfulness of the people being helped. And also in a lot of churches supporting that important ministry. So, where did you see God? After all, that’s the side we want to be on!”

  • We get involved with equity politics and support candidates that represent the diversity of the community, particularly those who haven’t been much in the seats of power. We’ve seen in recent local elections that representatives of groups long excluded from power are taking their seats at the able. We keep drawing the circle wider, and celebrating the rich cultural differences that are a part of our community. That’s where God is working – and THAT’S the side we want to be on!

In our story, this man who was marginalized stepped out of the shadows and right up to Jesus, kneeling before him. ”Lord, if you choose… you can make me clean.” He stepped out of his familiar places to dare to speak to the prophet that he believed could make him well. There is an audacity in asking this holy man to heal him, certainly. But it started before then – he had the audacity to BELIEVE that things should be different than how he had experienced them. The AUDACITY to believe that GOD wanted him to be healed, whole. He rejected the assumption that his disease was a punishment from God. He rejected that idea that he deserved this. AND he rejected the assumption that the way things had been were the way they would always be. He had the audacity to believe that God wanted him to be well, and that everything could change. He was willing to get in “good trouble” as God nudged him into challenging the expectations to make room for a new possibility. God nudged him into the audacity of hope for a different reality.

Jesus Grants life.

Something miraculous happens in this story. It isn’t just the healing of an illness. We’ve heard enough stories about Jesus not to be surprised by healing stories at the onset. But in this one, a man who was socially dead is raised to life, restored to the community. Jesus shatters the separations and restores the dead to life.

This man approached Jesus, the living Temple or repository of the presence of God. Here he was cleansed and healed. Then Jesus sends him to the Temple in Jerusalem to confirm his cleansing and restore him to the community.2 Jesus instructs him to go straight to the priest at the Temple, not stopping to talk to anyone else on the way. “Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.”3 Just go to the Temple – be welcomed back into the community as soon as ever you can. Only the priest could ensure his restoration into society. And that mattered.

That same urgency drives us when we have experienced brokenness in our social relationships. We are driven to places where that can be healed. When L!ve Café was vandalized with hate speech, we rushed to the press conference and prayer vigil to show support. The social contract was violated and we rushed as the Community of Congregations, as Leadership Network, and as neighbors and friends, to offer healing and support to Resheeda and her staff. L!ve Café is decorated with hearts now – because love heals and restores.

And in case we missed the point earlier about what God and Jesus want – here it is again: Jesus is God’s agent of a new order, and he WANTS to heal and restore this man. He is EAGER to heal and restore this man. He REACHES OUT to touch and heal this man, to touch this man who may not have experienced human touch for years. To heal this man who has been living in the shadows and restore him to relationships and community.

God wants no one on the margins. God wants community for all people. God wants a radically inclusive community that values each person and doesn’t shut anyone out. No one is unclean. No one is illegitimate. No one is illegal. Everyone is loved, valued and given life. Social expectations are shattered in this story. Boundaries of who is acceptable and unacceptable are shattered in this story. Divine power and divine love shatter the divisions. Jesus restored health and relationships. Jesus heals.

In this story, we learn from the leper that sometimes we must take risks to find the healing that we need. We might have to move out of our accustomed places and patterns of behavior. It might be risky, even if it’s God who nudges us into taking a stand. The leper teaches us these things. And Jesus demonstrates that we can dare, can take these risks, because God WANTS to heal us, to restore us, and to help us obliterate the divisions that prevent us from being the community, the kindom, of God. This man was treasured -- WE are treasured by God. Jesus reaches out today, like he did in the story, to heal us. Thanks be to God.

1. Walter T. Wilson, Healing in the Gospel of Matthew: Reflections on Method and Ministry. Minneapolis: Fortress

Press, 2014. 37.

2. Wilson, 44-45.

3. Monopoly instruction. Milton Bradly.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash