Authority over Ritual Purity

The touch of Jesus cleansed a leper, and the forbidden contact did not render him unclean

The touch of Jesus cleansed a leper from ritual impurity, restoring him physically 
AND religiously. Remarkably, he touched the leprous man BEFORE he cleansed him of his ritual impurity or its confirmation by one of the priests. Any concern over contracting “uncleanness” did not stop the Messiah from touching and healing one of the sons of Israel - [Photo by Robert Anderson 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 isolation from family, home, and society for the remaining miserable years in the life of the victim. And most ominously for Jewish men and women was their exclusion from the religious life of Israel.

The man or woman who contracted leprosy became “unclean,” ritually defiled, and remained so unless healed miraculously by God, an extremely rare event in the Old Testament. Moreover, the person had to be certified “clean” by a priest and perform the required rituals - (Numbers 12:10, 2 Kings 5:1-2).

An old rabbinic adage claimed that the healing of leprosy was as difficult as the raising of the dead, and some rabbis called lepers the “living dead,” for they were as “unclean” and as distant from the Lord as the dead. Leprosy meant banishment to a slow, painful, and lonely death.
  • (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 lived as outcasts, and their “unclean” status prohibited them from entering Jerusalem and the Temple where atonement for sins was made. Thus, they were excluded from the rituals and spiritual life of the covenant community, cut off from the presence and forgiveness of God.

The Torah required the leper to maintain a repugnant appearance, to bare his head, and to announce his presence to others. The rule in Second Temple Judaism was for the leprous person to remain at least fifty paces from others, as proscribed in Leviticus:
  • 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).
In our story, the leper approached Jesus, near enough for physical contact, and certainly less than the fifty paces required by the “traditions of the elders.” Regardless of the opinions of others, Jesus was moved with compassion at this leper’s plea.

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

His Jewish contemporaries feared to be in the general vicinity of a leper, let alone to touch him. But without any hesitation, Jesus took hold of this leprous son of Israel and “cleansed” him.

To touch any leper would render an Israelite ritually impure - “Unclean” - which then necessitated undergoing the rituals required by the Torah to remedy the condition. Apparently, this did not concern Jesus. This does not mean he disregarded the Law, but it does demonstrate his willingness to relativize its requirements when confronted with genuine human needs.

A cured leper was not said to be “healed” but instead, “cleansed.” When this leper approached Jesus, that is what he asked, to be “cleansed.” By default, being delivered of leprosy meant physical healing, but much more is implied here by the word “cleansed.” To be ritually “clean” would enable this man once again to participate in Jewish society and 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, for the sooner this was done, the sooner the man could be reintegrated into the covenant community.

But instead of going to a priest, the leper went through the area broadcasting what Jesus had done for him. The spread of this news made it difficult for Jesus 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 rendered the ritually “unclean” leper “clean.” While Jesus did not reject the Levitical purity codes, his act anticipated their coming obsolescence. In his kingdom, all citizens would be cleansed from sin's stain by his one sacrificial act.



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