Authority Over Ritual Purity

The touch of Jesus cleansed a leper, and the forbidden contact did not render him “unclean” – Mark 1:40-45

Clean water - Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash
His touch cleansed a leper from ritual impurity, restoring him physically AND religiously. Remarkably, Jesus touched the man BEFORE he was cleansed of his ritual impurity, let alone its confirmation by the priests. Any concern over contracting “uncleanness” did not stop the Messiah from healing one of the sons of Israel - [Clean water - Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash].

Leprosy was a skin ailment and one of the most feared afflictions in the ancient world. Contracting it meant inevitable death after an extended period of suffering and isolation from one’s family, home, and society for the remaining years of the victim’s life, and most ominously for Jews was their exclusion from the religious life of Israel.

The man who contracted leprosy became “unclean,” ritually defiled, and remained so unless healed miraculously by God, an extremely rare event in the Old Testament record, and he had to be certified “clean” by a priest, then he would perform the required rituals. Thus, leprosy meant banishment to a slow, painful, and lonely death - (Numbers 12:10, 2 Kings 5:1-2).
  • (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 were outcasts, and their “unclean” status prohibited them from entering Jerusalem and the Temple where atonement for sin was made. They were excluded from the spiritual life of the covenant community and cut off from the presence and forgiveness of God.

Lepers were required to maintain a repugnant appearance, bare their heads, and announce their presence. The rule in Second Temple Judaism was for the leprous person to remain at least fifty paces from others:
  • 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).
This leper approached Jesus near enough for physical contact, and certainly less than the fifty paces required by the rabbis. Regardless of the opinions of others, Jesus was moved with compassion by his plea.

The Greek clause reads, “he stretched out his hand and grabbed” the leper. This indicates a deliberate act done without hesitation. The word rendered “grab” means not simply to “touch,” but to “take hold, grab, cling to” - (haptomai – Strong’s - #G680).

To touch any leper would render an Israelite ritually impure - “Unclean” - which then necessitated his undergoing the rituals required by the Torah to remedy the condition. But this did not concern Jesus. He did not disregard the Law, but he did relativize its requirements when confronted with a genuine human need.

A cured leper was not “healed” but instead “cleansed,” and when this one approached Jesus, he asked to be “cleansed.” Being delivered of leprosy meant physical healing, but much more is implied by the word “cleansed.” To be ritually “clean” enabled this man once again to participate in the religious life of the community.

Jesus ordered him to show himself to a priest for examination. Only a priest could declare that he was “clean.” To instruct the leper to follow the required regulations was an act of compassion. The sooner this was done, the sooner the man would be reintegrated into the covenant community.

But instead of going to the priest, the leper went about broadcasting what Jesus had done for him. The spread of this news made it difficult for him to preach in the local villages, so instead, “he was outside in desert places.”

The story ends ironically. Rather than render the “Son of Man unclean” as defined by the Law and Jewish custom, his touch cleansed the ritually “unclean” leper. And while Jesus did not reject the Levitical purity codes, his act anticipated their obsolescence. In his kingdom, all citizens would be cleansed of sin’s stain by his one sacrificial act.



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