Jesus Heals the Leper
In biblical times, the term leprosy was used to describe a number of similar skin diseases. Characterized by visible open sores and other blemishes on the body, leprosy was nearly impossible to hide, and at the time there was no known cure — or even any effective forms of treatment. As such, when Jesus heals a leper, as described in the Gospel of Matthew, it is certainly a miracle worth taking note of. But this miracle goes beyond the life it saved more than 2000 years ago; even today, it continues to illustrate the Savior’s divine mission, and his compassion for all of us.
Jesus Heals the Leper: Background and Summary
The story of Jesus and the leper is found in the Bible in the first verses of Matthew, chapter eight.
1 When Jesus came down from the mountainside, large crowds followed him.
2 A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.”
3 Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately he was cleansed of his leprosy.
4 Then Jesus said to him, “See that you don’t tell anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.”
View an excerpt from The Chosen, episode 5 of season 1, depicting this event.
In the Holy Land during the time of Christ’s ministry, those afflicted with leprosy had very difficult lives. Lepers were ostracized and cast out, forced to endure the pains and debilitations of their disease all alone. Partially, the reasoning behind this isolation was practical: leprosy was thought to be extremely contagious, and by removing infected individuals from society, the people at the time believed they were helping stem the spread of the disease.
But perhaps even more so, leprosy had become something of a metaphor. At a time and place where ritualistic cleanliness was considered an absolutely-vital component to spiritual purity, leprosy had come to represent the corrupting, insidious nature of sin. Thus it was only natural for the God-fearing people to want to distance themselves from it, and from those who carried it.
With this in mind, one can only imagine the utter despair that came from contracting the disease. The leper who approached Jesus and his disciples as they descended the mountain probably had nothing left. His life, as far as the world around him was concerned, was over. In fact, most of society would probably have preferred that he simply die. And he, in his heart, may have wished for the same thing.
But then, somehow, he heard about a great teacher who had the power to perform miracles. Could this man, this Jesus of Nazareth, possibly have the power to cure the incurable?
We don’t know how the poor man managed to track down Jesus, but when he found the Savior, all he could do was beg for help. And the Lord provided. With a few kind words, Jesus cleansed the leper of his disease. And then, he told him to go and get his life back.
More than a Miracle
When this account takes place, Jesus had already performed several mighty miracles, including healing the sick. But while Jesus healed lepers again later in his ministry, we have no record of Jesus healing leprosy before this chapter. However, Jewish tradition at the time would have included several stories of lepers being cured through the power of God (Naaman, Miriam, and even Moses experienced these skin conditions and were miraculously cured).
To those witnessing the miracle, they must have been dumbfounded; they were seeing, with their own eyes, something straight out of scripture. But while the miracle itself was undeniably noteworthy, this account also demonstrates the love Jesus has for all of us.
In Leviticus 13:45, we’re told that those who were afflicted with leprosy were required by law to tear their clothing, and to call out “Unclean! Unclean!” wherever they went. They were forced to make themselves so unpresentable that they could be easily spotted at a distance. And, the stigma of leprosy extended to anyone who might have the misfortune of encountering them; just having direct physical contact with someone with leprosy would make a person equally unclean in the eyes of the people.
But when the leper approached, Jesus showed no hesitation. He reached out and touched the man, something that would have been unthinkable given the cultural implications. He could have healed the man with his words alone (a power that he demonstrated a number of other times), but instead he made the conscious choice to make a more personal connection. In doing so, he not only showed his compassion, but also showed the leper and the disciples that even those who we might consider unclean are worthy of love, respect, and kindness.
Jesus Heals Us from the Leprosy of Sin
As previously mentioned, throughout scriptures, leprosy has come to represent sin. In fact, in several instances in the Old Testament, leprosy is viewed as a direct punishment from God. The fact that a person suffering from Leprosy could not be declared clean, and thus could not perform essential purification rituals, essentially meant that their condition deprived them of their connection to the Lord. The people in Jesus’ time would no doubt have understood this connection.
But in the face of the savior, sin holds no power. Through his atonement and sacrifice, Christ provided a way for all of us to move past the debilitating, ostracizing, and spiritually-dampening effects of our own poor choices. And just as Jesus did millennia ago when he lovingly approached the leper and took away the disease, he continues to offer all of us his hand. In him, our sins are forgiven, and he says to each of us, “Be clean.”
He does not ask much from us; only that we come to him. Still, this may at times feel prohibitively difficult. We can only imagine the lengths the leper went to in locating Jesus. He put in the effort and made the commitment. But when he finally found him, he put his faith completely in the Savior. He knew that Jesus did not have to heal him. But he also knew that he could. The leper essentially said “Thy will be done.” And Jesus did the rest.
Why Did Jesus Say not to Tell Anyone?
One final aspect of the story that may be worth considering is Jesus’ request of the healed leper — to go and have himself inspected and pronounced clean at the temple, and to not tell anyone of the miracle itself.
This may seem like an odd request. Wouldn’t the leper’s experience have served to bring others to Christ? In any case, we learn in the Gospel of Mark that the man did tell people about what happened, and given the miraculous nature of the experience, we can hardly blame him. So why would Jesus ask the man not to talk about it in the first place?
The most obvious answer to this is also found in the Gospel of Mark, chapter 1, verse 45.
45 Instead he went out and began to talk freely, spreading the news. As a result, Jesus could no longer enter a town openly but stayed outside in lonely places. Yet the people still came to him from everywhere.
Simply put, Jesus’ increased fame made it more difficult to enter towns and teach his people. But regardless, the people came out to him wherever he went.
But perhaps there is more than is obvious in the savior’s request. As with everything he did, Jesus stands as the perfect example of how we should live. When Jesus healed the leper, he didn’t do it for his own glory, or as a way to silence his critics. His gift was completely pure, desiring only to help a man in need. His example to us is to do likewise. As explained in the Book of Matthew, Chapter 6, our charity should always be for the benefit of others, not ourselves.
1 “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.
2 “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.
3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,
4 so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
Applying the Savior’s Example
As with most of the stories from Jesus’ life, there is much that we can learn from his experience with the leper. From the leper, we can learn to seek out the Savior and ask for his help in our lives. From Christ, we can learn to look past judgment and to show compassion, without demanding reward or recognition in return.
Through it all, a single eternal truth emerges: The Savior’s Gospel is about love. If we are to be his disciples, we must follow in his footsteps. As we serve one another in his name, we can share a message that heals minds and souls. And as Jesus heals the leper in our hearts and the hearts of those we serve, we all draw closer to him.
Experience for yourself what it might have been like to travel with Jesus; watch The Chosen, and bring Christ more fully into your life.