Maybe you know what it feels like to be left out – cast aside – relegated to the sidelines – to be outright ignored. Maybe you have felt the pain and isolation of being different from those around you – the butt of other’s jokes and jibes – the object of scorn and ridicule. Maybe just maybe you know what it is like to be excluded from something important. If you do (and who here doesn’t?) then maybe you can begin to imagine what it was like for the man with leprosy in our text.
Leprosy was a dreadful disease, but not so much for the physical consequences (gruesome though they were) as for the social implications. Lepers were seen as horrible unclean sinners bearing the rightful punishment of God in their afflicted flesh. A leper was seen as someone who had done something to deserve God’s wrath – and these are the kinds of people you do not want around you. Lepers were not allowed into towns, villages or cities. They were not allowed within 10 feet of anyone (100 if upwind). They couldn’t even remain under the same tree as an clean person. They had to announce their presence by continually calling out “Unclean, Unclean!” They were ostracized, rejected, spurned scorned, reviled, and feared.
Worse yet, was the fact that because of this social exclusion from the nation of Israel, they were also then spiritually excluded from the Kingdom of God. No leper was allowed in town, much less a synagogue where they could hear God’s word of Forgiveness. No leper could come within the walls of a city, much less the walls of the temple. Where then, were their sacrifices to be made. No sin offerings, no guilt offerings, no peace offerings or fellowship offerings. They were completely helpless to put things right between themselves and the God everyone was sure that they had offended. In short, lepers were completely excluded from not only family, friends and decent society; they were excluded from God’s family, and God’s House – they were excluded from life itself.
Notice in our text then, this very unusual happening: (40) And a leper came to him beseeching him, and kneeling said to him, “If you will, you can make me clean.” This leper knows that Jesus is someone who can help him. He just doesn’t know if he wants to. But nothing ventured nothing gained. So long excluded from everything of importance, he comes right up to Jesus and interrupts His work, in a brazen cry for help. He has nothing left to loose.
(41-42) Moved with pity, [Jesus] stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I will; be clean.” And immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. Notice here again the shocking details of this little account. Not only does Jesus will that this leper would be cleansed – Jesus does it! But he does it with a single Word, and a personal touch! Jesus reaches out with his hand and TOUCHES the leper! Picture all the people standing around the two recoiling in absolute horror. To touch a leper was to be made unclean yourself. To invite the same punishment of God upon your own head. To risk complete and total exclusion from the people of God. Yet in this repulsive act this personal touch – Jesus shows this poor leper an inclusion not felt for a very long time! By simply placing his hand upon the other, Jesus conveys the depths of his pity and desire for this human to be brought back into the blessings of the community. With a personal touch and a single word the leper is instantly made 100% clean.
(43-44) And he sternly charged him, and sent him away at once, and said to him, “See that you say nothing to any one; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, for a proof to the people.” And the compassion of Jesus continues. For He brings about the leper’s inclusion not only in His act of grace and mercy but also by the fulfilling of the Law. This is the work of the Saviour, not to ignore God’s law, but to complete it. Thus the once-excluded is told to do all things that the law requires so that his inclusion might be made complete, not just with the physical healing, but now the social healing as well. Until this is done the gift is not yet complete.
(45) But he went out and began to talk freely about it, and to spread the news, so that Jesus could no longer openly enter a town, but was out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter. I suppose that no one can really blame the man, who has now received his life back, for going straight into the midst of all the people around to praise and thank the one who blessed him. But in doing so, he not only put his own final inclusion in jeopardy, he actually caused Jesus to be excluded from entering populated areas any more. Think about the irony. Jesus who brings inclusion to those once cast aside, is now himself excluded! His positive reputation now makes it necessary to remain out in the wilderness, isolated from society – He switches places with the one He has saved!
Dear friends in Christ, this story of the leper – a story of one who was once excluded, but now is included – this story is yours. Each one of us born under original sin were born into a life in which we by that sin were excluded from the kingdom of God’s people. We, in sin, were rightfully ostracized, rejected, spurned scorned, reviled by God in His Holiness. We were outsiders to his blessings. We were excluded from his fellowship, his company, and his presence.
But God sent His only begotten Son to take our place, to live under the Law and fulfill it perfectly, where we in our sin never could. He sent His Son to substitute His life for ours, to take our sin upon himself, to bear the burden of our failures, and the penalty of our death. Upon the cross, Jesus the Holy One of God, became sin itself, and was excluded from his own kingdom, excluded from His own father’s love, excluded from life itself, all so we can be included. Through the single touch-point of this one perfect and holy life of our Lord and Saviour God showed not only his willingness to have us sinners cleansed, but actually made us clean. With a single word … the Word made flesh … we have been healed of all that would exclude us from the kingdom of heaven.
How sad it is then, when those God has called to be included in all of His heavenly treasures sometimes choose instead to exclude themselves once again. To remove themselves from His Holy House and the preaching of His Word. To distance themselves from their calling in Holy Baptism. To miss out on the opportunity to gather at His Holy Table for a foretaste of the great feast to come.
What would that brave leper, who risked all for a chance to be cleansed say to those who already know what God’s will is toward them in Christ … but can’t be bothered to interrupt their lives to meet with Him and receive His gifts? He would say: “Dear friends, don’t sit on the sidelines! Don’t exclude yourself from the riches that God wants to pour over your life!” These gifts of Christ’s Word and Sacraments are the very ways in which God continues to personally touch human lives even to this day. Through the Church’s preaching and the daily study of the Gospel; through the Water of Rebirth and Renewal and the Body and Blood of our Lord – this is how God both wills and actually cleanses excluded sinners, turning them into His beloved and included saints. This is where God’s gifts in Christ are made complete and we finally learn what it feels like to be truly, completely, entirely included!