What can we learn from the leper and Jesus?

Published 5:57 am Friday, February 17, 2012

By REV. GERALD LITTLE

First Presbyterian Church

A Midwestern newspaper asked its readers to send in definitions of life. A prize was offered to the best reply. The replies ranged from “life is the sunshine guaranteed every human being” to “life is the jail sentence passed upon us for the crime of being born.” The definitions conflicted so much that no prize was awarded. No doubt there are varied definitions among us that range from the bright to the less-bright side of things.

As Presbyterians, we are realistic enough to admit that life is not always fair. Some people seem to spend their entire life climbing out of a hole while others are born on a mountaintop as if the sky is no limit. Who’s to say what life will be for anyone?

One day, a leper stops Jesus and pleads for another life. He wants to live without being socially and physically cursed. Let us commend him because many in such circumstances resign themselves to existing as they are.

I don’t know what motive or belief led this person to Jesus other than “what do I have to lose?” I can relate stories of people who came to Jesus and were incredibly cured. I can also tell stories of those who were not incredibly cured, although they seemed better in other ways.

Once, I telephoned a pastor and someone else at the church answered. He said that he was not the preacher but that he was the carpenter. I quickly replied, “great,” and that I had wanted to talk to him for years and not to hang up. Today, as we consider this story, I pray that the carpenter will speak a word of good news to all seeking God’s help! I pray that faith will give us an advantage on life. What can this story tell us?

First, there is the advantage of coming to the end of one’s self. The leper implored Jesus, “If you will, you can make me clean.” He was desperate. Leprosy was the terror sickness of its day. It ate away the lips, the nose, the ears, the fingers, and the toes. Lepers wrapped themselves in cloth and many looked like walking mummies. They could be ritually declared dead while alive.

In all cases, they were ordered to avoid contact with normal, healthy people. In case they met the leper was to yell, “Unclean, unclean!” in order to allow the non-leper to leave the area without the possibility of contamination. They were the untouchables!

When this leper approached Jesus, he risked losing what life he had. If accused of breaking Mosaic custom, he could be exiled to hunger, exposure and certain death. But he gambled otherwise.

We’ve seen people in desperation where their predicament or their self-destructive behavior brings them to the end of themselves. They reach that point where they must either get busy living or get busy dying. It is this quandary that the soul discovers its deliverance. It is here where promise meets pain and it can be said, “This poor man cried and the Lord heard him and saved him out of all his troubles. (Psalm 34:6)”

Second, there is the advantage of seeking divine favor. Jesus said to this leper, “I am willing. Be cleansed.” They connected. The leprosy left. He felt clean and was cleansed. It was his happy day.

However, I am not sure that the leper was completely confident in Jesus’ willingness, otherwise he would not have asked, “If you are willing, you can cleanse me?” The theology of the day viewed leprosy as a curse or judgment from God. It said that maybe he bore this judgment due his parents’ sin or a judgment in light of what he would do if left healthy.

To the leper, it appeared that God was against him. But he reached a point where he decided, “I am going to Jesus. I will find out whether God is for or against me.” Give him credit. He did not give up on himself; he did not give up on God!

We can have “leprosy of the mind,” where we dismiss possibility for our life. We condemn ourselves to what is; we chain ourselves to mental slavery, believing nothing can be bettered. It is as if the will and the imagination cease to function. Did you know that the common flea can jump as high as 20 feet? However, if you place the flea in a six-inch container for a day, it will jump only six inches. It becomes conditioned to be less than what it could be.

It can happen to us, too. For the leper, his lot in life was acceptable until he stopped accepting. He refused the indictment on his life. He refused the indictment upon God. He decided to break the ceiling. And he flew in the compassion of God. The leper proved God through faith in the Son. I like to think that is what we do as Christians. And it is okay. Great things happen to those who believe. That is why we preachers preach.

Third, we see the advantage of obedience. Jesus commanded the healed leper to show himself to the temple priest for certifying his return to social normalcy. He did not. Rather, he went about telling what Jesus had done for him. His enthusiasm seems harmless and a good thing.

But the reaction was so tumultuous that Jesus could not longer openly minister in the nearby towns. Most likely, the leper was viewed with suspicion. No one was really sure if he was healed. When people experience a life-changing event, whether being spared death or experiencing God for the first time, I urge them to let the experience brew in their minds for a while. It needs time for maturation in order to help others as well as further one’s own faith understanding.

I did know a man who amazingly was healed of a terminal disease. Immediately he took to preaching. He ordained himself apart from the church. He attempted to start a church, but it failed. He frightened everyone off. He believed that his God-experience made him greater than others. Before long, no one took him seriously. I believed that he could have become something good for God if he had sat down and listened to his friends and his church.

He was like a rookie ball player who went to the big leagues too early. Initially he was a sensation but then he struck out and he struck out. We don’t know what became of the cleansed leper. Maybe he regretted his misguided enthusiasm. Maybe he was finally certified under the Mosaic custom and got on with his life. Whatever happened, we take heart that something amazing occurred that day where a soul cried out to God, “You can help me if you will.”

Maybe, just maybe, the selfishness that nibbles away our best motives; the apathy that weakens our helping-hands; the anger that spoils our forgiveness; the sin that darkens our soul; maybe all can be cleansed. Just maybe, we can be healed and in the name of Jesus step into a new morning for the world’s sake and our sake. Just maybe, because he said and still says, “I am willing. Be cleansed!”

The Rev. Dr. Gerald A. Little is the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Bainbridge.