I want you to think this morning about what it’s like to be on the outside. And not just to be on the outside, but to be on the outside when you desperately want to be on the inside. Almost everyone’s been on the outside at some point in time. Maybe it was just being excluded from the “in” group when we were in school. Most people have experience much more serious exclusions: maybe from your family or even from other Christians.
Think of a cheating husband, now living on the outside of his own family because of his sin. Think of an ex-convict, now literally on the “outside”, but still excluded from everything: shunned by friends and family, a liability to future employers. I remember once talking with a convicted paedophile who was coming to grips with the fact that he would never again be able attend a church service. Even if he found a church willing to be gracious to him, he was legally prohibited from being anywhere there were children. I think of a husband, falsely accused of abuse, and with a restraining order against him. Not only on the outside of his own family, but even outside his church whenever his wife was present there. I think of men to whom I’ve ministered, struggling with same-sex attraction, who sought help from fellow Christians and ended up ostracised and on the outside of the Church’s fellowship. Think again of what it means to be on the outside. We may be there because of our own sins or because of someone else’s, but there’s nothing we want more than to be back on the inside.
Now think about what we’ve seen of Jesus’ ministry so far. At his miraculous birth the kingdom of God began breaking into the world. Jesus began his ministry preaching that he had come to bring good news to the poor. And at that time and place “poor” covered more than just being monetarily poor. Ultimately it meant being on the outside. And so in these short vignettes that Luke gives us of the early days of Jesus’ ministry we see Jesus ministering to the poor in ways that show us who the poor were (and who, in many ways, they continue to be).
You see, many of the Jews had it all figured out. They knew—or they thought they knew—just what the Messiah was supposed to do, who he was supposed to high-five for their righteousness and who he was supposed to rebuke, crush, and destroy for their evil. And yet Jesus did none of that. Instead he showed who the “poor” were by walking away from his own family and friends in Nazareth and instead casting out demons and healing sick people. Instead of going to the nearest rabbinical school to find followers, Jesus went to a fishing village and called a bunch of rough-and-tumble fishermen to follow him. And yet in each instance we see Jesus challenging the people. With each new sermon and each new healing he zeroes in on exactly what he came to do. He doesn’t deliver and heal those on the inside, he delivers and heals the people on the outside. And as he delivers and heals we see that Jesus hasn’t come to amaze people with a bunch of miracles. In fact, we see that his miracles are aimed at showing that he’s actually come to do battle with a much deeper problem. Both demons and sickness are the results of humanity having sold our collective soul to the devil. Sin and death are the real enemies and we see Jesus zeroing in on them as the story progresses. And we see that again in today’s lesson.
We’ll be looking this morning at Luke 5:12-16, but before we get into the text, consider how often we Christians make the same sorts of mistakes that the Jews made. We think we know what the Messiah is all about. We’ve got it all figured out who Jesus is going to high-five when he returns and who he’s going to condemn to an eternity of hellfire. Brothers and sisters, as we make our way through Luke’s Gospel, be challenged to reconsider these things. As the Jews needed to learn that the Romans weren’t their real enemies and that, in fact, both they and the Romans shared a common enemy in sin, we often need to learn—or to be reminded—that our enemy is also sin—not the people we don’t like, not people who are different, not people who hate us. The “poor” are all those who are outside of God’s salvation, outside of his grace, and the work of the kingdom is to preach good news to them, to draw them in.
Look now at verse 12:
While he was in one of the cities, there came a man full of leprosy. And when he saw Jesus, he fell on his face and begged him, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.”
It’s difficult for us as modern people to understand fully what it mean to be a leper in that time and place. Leprosy covered a broad range of skin diseases. Hansen’s disease, which is what we’re referring to today when we talk about “leprosy”, assuming it was around in those days, would have fallen under the biblical label of leprosy, but so did any contagious skin disease or fungus, many of which were much more contagious than Hansen’s disease. Leviticus 13 gives instructions for the priests as to how to diagnose leprosy and what the law required of those who had it. Let me read Leviticus 13:45-46 to give you some idea of the law this man lived under.
The leprous person who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. He is unclean. He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp.
The key words there are “unclean” and “outside the camp”. The reason for the law was simple. Lepers were potentially highly contagious and needed to be quarantined. We see throughout Leviticus 13 that anyone with a suspected lesion, boil, or discolouration of the skin was to be quarantined for a week and then evaluated by a priest. But during that time of uncertainty he or she was to have no contact with anyone lest the potential disease spread. And of course, as we see throughout the law, anything that carried disease or had the potential to carry it was ceremonially unclean. And God used these unclean objects, persons, and conditions to teach the people lessons in holiness. Nothing and no one unclean was permitted into the tabernacle. In extreme cases, like leprosy, the unclean weren’t even permitted in the camp itself. To have contact with an unclean person was to be rendered unclean yourself.
This gives us sense of this man’s condition. He was forced to live outside the camp. If for some reason he found himself near other people he was to keep his distance, cover his mouth, and warn them off by announcing that he was unclean. It’s not hard to imagine everyone scrambling to get out of his way. His family might have brought food and clothing to whatever shack or cave he lived in, but this was a man who had no human contact. In fact, the law forbade him to have any human contact. Not only that, but he was completely excluded from the religion of Israel. He couldn’t attend the services at the synagogue and, more importantly, he couldn’t go to or enter the temple. If he sinned there was no forgiveness because he couldn’t make a sin offering.
As if simply living under quarantine wasn’t bad enough, it gets worse. Because of the association between leprosy and uncleanness, the disease over time became associated with sin and God’s judgement. If a man or woman had leprosy it was usually assumed that he or she deserved it. And as is so often the case, when we start looking at a person’s condition as deserved—as their just desserts for some they’ve committed—we stop looking on them with compassion.
AIDS may be the closest modern equivalent. Our attitude towards the disease has improved, but especially twenty-five or thirty years ago when little was known about it, Christians often wrote off anyone with AIDS as being under God’s judgement, at which point we often felt that to show sympathy was somehow to go against God. If you had AIDS, you deserved it. It didn’t even matter how you contracted it. The husband of a family friend contracted AIDS through a blood transfusion in the days before blood was tested for the virus. When word got out, he was ostracised even by his church family. Only “bad” people get AIDS, they thought; not “good” people. I’m happy to say that most of this sort of thing is now in the past as far as AIDS goes, but brothers and sisters, it should serve as a warning not to let it happen again in future. It should be a warning against self-righteousness. As human beings we’re all—every one of us—subject to disease and death because all of us are guilty of sin and because all of us have been removed from the presence of the tree of life.
Getting back to Luke’s leper: the remarkable thing is that despite everything, this man had faith. He had heard the stories of Jesus casting out demons and healing the sick and he risked everything by coming to town to find Jesus. We see all these things as he throws himself on Jesus’ mercy. Just as Peter had done, he addresses Jesus as “Lord”. We can’t read too much into that, but we can’t read too little either. It probably wasn’t a confession of Jesus’ divinity, but was also more than just a title of respect. This man had heard the stories; he’d probably heard reports as to what Jesus was preaching; and as a result he had a sense that the God of Israel was working in and through Jesus. Notice there’s no doubt in his request about what Jesus can do. The man knew that Jesus could heal him. It was only a matter of whether or not Jesus would agree to heal him. This is where he doubted—where he wasn’t sure. Someone else with the miraculous power to heal might have refused him. After all, most people assumed that God had given him leprosy as a form of punishment for his sins. Most people probably wouldn’t have wanted to heal him. And so he risks everything to come to town and to find Jesus and he begs him: “Lord, I know you can make me clean. Please, will you?”
And in his request we see the real problem. He wants to be healed, but he doesn’t ask Jesus, “Please, heal me.” He asks him, “Please, make me clean.” The disease itself wasn’t the worst part; it was the uncleanness. The disease was awful, but even worse was being an outcast and a pariah, having no part in the worship of God and no way to get back inside the covenant family where grace was found. If there was ever anyone on the “outside”, this man was there. He was suffering the consequences of sin and death in a way that only other lepers could understand. This is exactly what Jesus came to deal with. Luke goes on in verse 13:
And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I will; be clean.” And immediately the leprosy left him.
This man went into the town to see Jesus and in doing so he risked everything. He wasn’t allowed in town. He wasn’t allowed around other people. It’s not hard to imagine him coming to Jesus, but keeping his distance and covering his mouth as the law prescribed. Yes, he knew Jesus could heal him, but what if Jesus was just like everyone else and didn’t want to? What if Jesus was as afraid as everyone else was of being infected by his disease? What if instead of healing him, Jesus called on the people to stone him? And so we can imagine him approaching Jesus, afraid, and probably keeping his distance.
And look at what Jesus does. He draws near to the man—or draws the man near to him. He reaches out and lovingly places his hand on the man. But instead of the man’s uncleanness being transferred by that touch to Jesus, just the opposite happens: Jesus’ cleanness is immediately transferred through that touch to the leper. Immediately, Luke says, the leprosy left him. It’s the same language used of the demon leaving the man possessed or the fever leaving Peter’s mother-in-law. It’s not that the leprosy was caused by demons or by the man’s sin, but that the universal problem of disease itself is the result of humanity’s captivity to sin and death. That’s the problem that Jesus came to deal with and we see already his victory over sin and death. Again, there’s no fight, no struggle, no incantation, no mumbo-jumbo. In response to the man’s faith, Jesus draws him near, pronounces him clean, and the leprosy is immediately gone. Jesus has authority; Jesus is sovereign; Jesus is Lord and once again we see his kingdom breaking in.
Jesus’ instructions to the man are interesting. Look at verse 14.
And he charged him to tell no one, but “go and show yourself to the priest, and make an offering for your cleansing, as Moses commanded, for a proof to them.”
Even the best New Testament scholars disagree on why Jesus told the man not to say anything. Jesus had to know that word would get around. Sometimes telling people not to say something is the best way to make sure they actually do, but the most likely reason for Jesus telling this man to be quiet about his healing is that he wanted a message sent to the priests. If we go back to Leviticus, this time to Chapter 14, we see the law for the cleansing of lepers. If a leper were healed and wanted to be declared clean, a priest was to go outside the camp (or in this case the town) to meet and examine the leper. The leper had to provide two birds. One was killed and the other dipped in the blood of the first. The blood was sprinkled on the leper for his cleansing and then the live bird was released. After this he was to shave and wash. But to be readmitted to the covenant community, he then had to present himself at the tabernacle or the temple where a priest would meet him at the entrance, where a lamb would be sacrificed for atonement.
It wasn’t enough to be healed. The healing had to be verified by the priests and the appropriate sacrifices made before the man could be declared clean and restored to the community. Jesus has made the man clean, but according to the law it still has to be verified and Jesus uses all of this to send a message to the priests and ultimately to the temple: the Messiah is here and God’s kingdom has come. Jesus is ushering in a new world and a new way of doing things.
Consider the old way. God created human beings to be priests in his temple. Sin upset everything. And so in Abraham God called a people to himself, he redeemed them from sin and death, he placed the tabernacle and later the temple at the centre of their community as a reminder of their source of strength, and then he commission them to carry his light out into the world. But instead of going out into the world and confronting sin, they circled their wagons around the temple—around the place of God’s presence—and kept the light to themselves. Sin on the outside and righteousness on the inside. And yet as they grew more and more inward looking, their light grew dim. Sin crept into their midst anyway. And eventually even God’s presence left the temple. But they stayed there, camped out around an empty temple with their wagons circled around wondering why things weren’t as God had promised.
And then Jesus came—the one who is called Emanuel, “God with Us”. He bypassed the empty temple. He was the new temple. He stepped out of the circle of wagons and went on the hunt for sin. And when he found it, he didn’t run, he didn’t hide behind locked doors or circled wagons. No. Jesus confronted sin at high noon and shot it dead in the street. And people noticed. Something new, something different was happening. Luke goes on in verses 15-16:
But now even more the report about him went abroad, and great crowds gathered to hear him and to be healed of their infirmities. But he would withdraw to desolate places and pray.
The people were excited about what Jesus was doing. They weren’t quite at a place of understanding yet. To most of them Jesus was just a miracle worker and authoritative preacher. But his kingdom is breaking in. He wasn’t afraid to fulfil the mission Israel had failed; he wasn’t afraid to leave the safety of the wagons to confront sin. And he wasn’t afraid because he knew that his Father was his source of power and authority. He knew on whom he relied. That seems to be Luke’s point in telling us that it was Jesus’ usual habit or practise to draw away to a quiet place in order to prepare for ministry through prayer.
Brothers and sisters, Jesus’ willingness—and not just his willingness, but his readiness—to reach out to this leper ought to be a challenge to us. Just as Israel ignored God’s call to carry his light to the world and instead circled her wagons around the light, keeping it to herself, we often do just the same thing in the Church. We forget that each of us was once a slave to sin and that once someone came and reached out to us, drawing us into the circle of God’s grace and love. And having forgotten what we once were and where we once came from, we focus inwardly on ourselves. We study the Bible, we pray, we come and partake of Jesus’ gracious gifts at his Table. He equips us for ministry with spiritual gifts and strengthens us with his grace and by filling us with his Spirit. And then we circle the wagons and keep it to ourselves. We become afraid of sin the way the people of that Galilean town were afraid of the leper: if we get to close or—God forbid!—touch it, we might get dirty, we might contract the disease.
Now, that was the purpose of the law in dealing with lepers. In the Old Covenant, sin and uncleanness were to be kept on the outside in order to keep the covenant community safe and pure. But when Jesus ushered in his kingdom all of that changed. Under the law, it was dangerous to touch a leper. But with Jesus’ coming, the only things now in danger are sin and death, because they can’t stand before the grace of God. There was no fear in Jesus when he reached out to this man. It was the leprosy that fled from Jesus, so to speak.
And so brothers and sisters, let us live in faith knowing that Jesus has won the victory over sin and death. Let us minister to the people around us—carrying Jesus’ light into the darkness—knowing that the battle has been won, knowing that sin and death have been vanquished, knowing that Jesus has established his kingdom and empowered us with his Spirit that we might carry it in power and in faith to the world around us. Knowing it’s power, let us never be afraid to touch the outcast and the sinner. Let us never be afraid even to reach out and to wrap our arms around the very people who have wronged and rejected us. Jesus has touched us and made us clean not that we might spend all of our time celebrating our cleanness with the rest of the cleansed, but that we might carry his touch to all those who are still outside God’s salvation. Brothers and sisters, he has cleansed us that we might embrace the poor and all those on the outside, showing grace to them and sharing Jesus’ words of hope and forgiveness: “Be clean.”
Let us pray: Father, in the collect we asked you to pour your gift of love into our hearts. We ask that again. Pour your love into our hearts, that as we have experienced your love for sinners, our own love for sinners might be strengthened. Remind us of our calling to carry your message of forgiveness to all those outside your salvation, and as we think of the love you have shown to us, give us a love for others—a love that overcomes hatred, revulsion, and self-righteousness. Give us such a sense of your love, that we might desire to reach out to share your cleansing touch with any and all who have faith. We ask this through Jesus Christ, our Saviour and Lord. Amen.