Authority Over Ritual Purity

Clean water - Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash
The touch of Jesus cleansed a leper from ritual impurity, restoring him, both physically AND religiously. Remarkably, the “Son of Man” touched the leprous man BEFORE he had cleansed him of his ritual impurity and had been certified so by one of the Levitical priests. Any concern over contracting uncleanness did not stop him from touching a son of Israel to make him whole - [
Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash].

Leprosy was a skin ailment, and one of the most feared afflictions in the ancient world. Contracting leprosy meant inevitable death preceded by extended periods of isolation from family, home, and society for however many miserable years remained in the life of the victim. Most ominous for a leper was exclusion from the religious institutions and rituals of Israel.

In Israel, a man or woman who contracted leprosy became “unclean” - Ritually defiled, and remained so unless healed miraculously by God, an extremely rare event in the Old Testament, and finally, certified “clean” by a priest - (Numbers 12:10, 2 Kings 5:1-2).

An old rabbinic adage claimed that the healing of leprosy was as difficult as the raising of the dead. Some rabbis called lepers the “living dead.” They were as “unclean” and as distant from the Lord as the dead. Leprosy meant banishment to a slow, painful, and lonely death.
  • (Mark 1:40-45) - “And there came to him a leper beseeching him and kneeling, saying to him, If you be willing, you can cleanse me; and moved with compassion, he stretched forth the hand and touched him, and said to him, I am willing, Be cleansed! And straightway, the leprosy departed from him, and he was cleansed; and strictly charging him, straightway, he urged him forth; and said to him, Mind, to no one say aught, but withdraw yourself, show to the priest and offer for your cleansing what things Moses enjoined for a witness to them. But he, going forth, began to be proclaiming many things and blazing abroad the story, so that no longer was it possible for him, openly, into a city to enter but outside in desert places was he, and they were coming to him from every quarter” – (Parallel passagesMatthew 8:1-4Luke 5:12-14).
Lepers lived as outcasts, and their “unclean” status prohibited entrance to Jerusalem and the Temple where atonement for sins was made. Thus, they were excluded from the rituals and the spiritual life of the covenant community, cut off from the presence and forgiveness of God.

The Torah required a leper to maintain a repugnant appearance, to bare his head, and to announce his approach and presence to others. The rule in Second Temple Judaism was for a leper to remain at least fifty paces from others, as proscribed in the book of Leviticus:
  • Now, as for the leper in whom is the plague, His clothes will be rent, and his head will be bare, and his beard will he cover, and, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ will he cry. All the days that the plague is in him will he continue unclean, unclean he is; alone will he remain, outside the camp will be his dwelling.” – (Leviticus 13:45-46).
In our story, the leper approached Jesus. Precisely how close is not stated, but it was near enough to touch him; certainly, less than the fifty paces required by the oral traditions of the elders. Unlike the rabbis, Jesus was moved with compassion at the leper’s plea.

The sense of the Greek clause is quite vivid; it reads - He “stretched out his hand and grabbed” the leper, suggesting a willing act done without hesitation. The Greek word rendered “grab” means not simply to “touch,” but more accurately, to “take hold, grab, cling to” - (haptomai – Strong’s - #G680).
Most of his Jewish contemporaries feared to be in the general vicinity of a leper; however, unhesitatingly, Jesus took hold of this leprous son of Israel and “cleansed” him.
To touch a leper rendered any uninfected Israelite ritually impure - “Unclean” - which then necessitated undergoing the rituals required by the Torah to remedy the condition. Apparently, this did not concern Jesus. This does not mean he disregarded the Law, but it does demonstrate his willingness to relativize its requirements when confronted with human need.

When a leper was cured, it was not said that he was “healed” but rather, “cleansed.” When this leper approached Jesus, he asked to be “cleansed,” not healed. By default, being delivered of leprosy meant physical healing, but much more is implied by the word “cleansed.” To be ritually “clean” enabled the individual to participate in Jewish society and in the religious life of the community.

Jesus ordered the now “cleansed” leper to show himself to a priest for examination. Only a priest was authorized to declare him “clean.” A leper was not officially “cleansed” and acceptable for reintegration into Jewish society until the process was complete. To order the leper to follow the required regulations was an act of compassion on the part of Jesus; the sooner this was done, the sooner the man could be restored to the covenant community.

Instead of going to a priest as ordered, the leper went through the area broadcasting what Jesus had done for him. This meant he was “unable to enter openly into a town but was, instead, outside in desert places.”

The story ends rather ironically. Rather than render the “Son of Man unclean,” as defined by the Law and Jewish customs, the touch of Jesus rendered a ritually “unclean” leper “clean.


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