THE disease of leprosy was peculiarly fearful to a Jew. In its stealthy beginning, its irresistible advance, the utter ruin which it wrought from the blood outward until the flesh was corroded and fell away, it was a fit type of sin, at first so trivial in its indications, but gradually usurping all the nature and corrupting it. And the terrible fact, that the children of its victims were also doomed, reminded the Israelite of the transmission of the taint of Adam.
The story of Naaman and that of Gehazi make it almost certain that the leprosy of Scripture was not contagious, for they were intimate with kings. But, apparently to complete the type, the law gave to it the artificial contagion of ceremonial uncleanness, and banished the unhappy sufferer from the dwellings of men. Thus he came to be regarded as under an especial ban, and the prophecy which announced that the illustrious Man of Sorrows would be esteemed "stricken of God," was taken to mean that He should be a leper. This banishment of the leper was indeed a remarkable exception to the humanity of the ancient law, but when his distress began to be extreme, and "the plague was turned into white," he was released from his uncleanness (Lev.13:17). And this may teach us that sin is to be dreaded most while it is yet insidious; when developed it gives a sufficient warning against itself. And now such a sufferer appeals to Jesus. The incident is one of the most pathetic in the Gospel; and its graphic details, and the shining character which it reveals, make it very perplexing to moderate and thoughtful skeptics.
Those who believe that the charm of His presence was "worth all the resources of medicine," agree that Christ may have cured even leprosy, and insist that this story, as told by St. Mark, "must be genuine." Others suppose that the leper was already cured, and Jesus only urged him to fulfill the requirements of the law. And why not deny the story boldly? Why linger so longingly over the details, when credence is refused to what is plainly the mainspring of the whole, the miraculous power of Jesus? The answer is plain. Honest minds feel the touch of a great nature; the misery of the suppliant and the compassion of his Restorer are so vivid as to prove themselves; no dreamer of a myth, no process of legend-building, ever wrought after this fashion. But then, the misery and compassion being granted, the whole story is practically conceded. It only remains to ask, whether the "presence of the Saintly Man" could work a chemical change in tainted blood. For it must be insisted that the man was "full of leprosy," and not, as one suggests, already far advanced towards cure. The contrast between his running and kneeling at the very feet of Jesus, and the conduct of the ten lepers, not yet released from their exclusion, who stood afar off while they cried out (Luke 17:12), is sufficient evidence of this, even if the express statement of St. Luke were not decisive.
Repulsive, and until now despairing, only tolerated among men through the completeness of his plague, this man pushes through the crowd which shrinks from him, kneels in an agony of supplication, and says "If Thou wilt, Thou canst make me clean." If Thou wilt! The cruelty of man has taught him to doubt the heart, even though satisfied of the power of Jesus. In a few years, men came to assume the love, and exult in the reflection that He was "able to keep what was' committed to Him," "able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think." It did not occur to St. Paul that any mention of His will was needed.
Nor did Jesus Himself ask a later suppliant, "Believest thou that I am willing," but "Believest thou that I am able to do this?"
But the charm of this delightful incident is the manner in which our Lord grants the impassioned prayer. We might have expected a shudder, a natural recoil from the loathsome spectacle, and then a wonder-working word. But misery which He could relieve did not repel Jesus; it attracted Him. His impulse was to approach. He not only answered "I will," -- and deep is the will to remove all anguish in the wonderful heart of Jesus, -- but He stretched forth an unshrinking hand, and touched that death in life. It is a parable of all His course, this laying of a clean hand on the sin of the world to cleanse it. At His touch, how was the morbid frame thrilled with delightful pulses of suddenly renovated health. And how was the despairing, joyless heart, incredulous of any real will to help him, soothed and healed by the pure delight of being loved.
This is the true lesson of the narrative. St. Mark treats the miraculous cure much more lightly than the tender compassion and the swift movement to relieve suffering. And he is right. The warm and generous nature revealed by this fine narrative is what, as we have seen, most impresses the doubter, and ought most to comfort the Church. For He is the same yesterday and today. And perhaps, if the divinity of love impressed men as much as that of power, there would be less denial of the true Godhead of our Lord.
The touch of a leper made a Jew unclean. And there is a surprising theory, that when Jesus could no more openly enter into a city, it was because the leper had disobediently published what implied His ceremonial defilement. As if our Lord were one to violate the law by stealth.
But is it very remarkable that Christ, Who was born under the law, never betrayed any anxiety about cleanness. The law of impurity was in fact an expression of human frailty. Sin spreads corruption far more easily than virtue diffuses purity. The touch of goodness fails to reproduce goodness. And the prophet Haggai has laid stress upon this contrast, that bread or pottage or wine or oil or any meat will not become holy at the touch of one who bears holy flesh in the skirt of his garment, but if one that is unclean by a dead body touch any of these, it shall be unclean (Hag.2:12, 13). Our hearts know full well how true to nature is the ordinance.
But Christ brought among us a virtue more contagious than our vices are, being not only a living soul, but a life-imparting Spirit. And thus He lays His hand upon this leper, upon the bier at Nain, upon the corpse of the daughter of Jairus, and as fire is kindled at the touch of fire, so instead of pollution to Him, the pureness of healthful life is imparted to the defiling and defiled.
And His followers also are to possess a religion that is vitalizing, to be the light of the world, and the salt of the earth.
If we are thus to further His cause, we must not only be zealous but obedient. Jesus strictly charged the leper not to fan the flame of an excitement which already impeded His work. But there was an invaluable service which he might render: the formal registration of his cure, the securing its official recognition by the priests, and their consent to offer the commanded sacrifices. In many a subsequent controversy, that "testimony unto them" might have been embarrassing indeed. But the leper lost his opportunity, and put them upon their guard. And as through his impulsive clamor Jesus could no more openly enter into a city, but even in desert places was beset by excited crowds, so is He deprived today of many a tranquil ministration and lowly service, by the zeal which despises order and quiet methods, by the undisciplined and ill-judged demonstrations of men and women whom He has blessed.