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Scripture: Matthew 8:1–4
Matthew 8:1–4 gives no obvious reason for Jesus’ decision to heal, except that the man with leprosy asked. However, Matthew indicates elsewhere that compassion was Christ’s ongoing motivation for healing (see Matthew 9:35–36; 14:14; 15:32–38; 20:29–34). That compassion was justified, especially considering these awful facts about living with leprosy in those days:
- The term used for leprosy in the New Testament was a general reference to seemingly incurable skin infections. It could have included the formal affliction, which we now call Hansen’s Disease, or any other severe skin disease with inflammation.
- By Mosaic law, priests—not doctors—were charged with diagnosing leprosy in people (Leviticus 13:2). Sometimes they tried to treat the disease with various baths, ointments, and mixtures of herbs and oils applied to the skin.
- The process for diagnosing leprosy went something like this: A person with serious skin infections such as tissue-crusts on the skin, severe rashes, or “whitish-red swollen” spots would go to a temple priest to be examined. The priest would look to see if the infection had penetrated the skin, or if hair in the affected area had turned white. If so, he would declare the person “unclean” with leprosy. If not, a seven-day quarantine was instituted, with a new examination for leprosy scheduled afterward (Leviticus 13:2–8).
- Being diagnosed with leprosy was a death sentence, physically, socially, economically, and spiritually. In fact, rabbinic tradition, as Chuck Swindoll explains, “held that curing leprosy was as difficult as raising the dead, perhaps because they saw the disease as the physical manifestation of sin’s consequences.”
- A leper was considered physically unclean—and contagious—as well as spiritually unclean. That meant a leper was completely shunned from normal activities of community life and banned from inclusion in worship in the temple or any synagogue. The leper couldn’t hold a job, couldn’t live in a home with non-lepers (including his or her own family), couldn’t shop in a market, couldn’t own property, couldn’t touch or hug or hold hands. Nothing. The leper’s only option was begging for scraps, isolation, and waiting to physically deteriorate and die.
This was the terrible situation of the man who came to Jesus, begging to be healed. Christ’s response was compassion—and healing. My old pastor, Chuck Swindoll, notes one particularly significant aspect of this miracle:
[Jesus] reached out and literally touched the man society had rejected as untouchable. In other instances, Jesus merely spoke a word and the miracle took effect. In at least one case, He healed from a distance of twenty miles (John 4:46–54). But in this situation, he chose to touch the leper’s diseased skin, as if to say, “Your disease doesn’t prevent me from accepting you.”
JHT 161; ILJ 185–188; SLU 127–128
“What was it like to live with leprosy in Jesus’ time?” is reprinted from Bible-Smart: Matthew © 2023 Nappaland Communications Inc. Published Tyndale House Publishers/Rose Publishing. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.
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