A Leper for Your Thoughts
You know the expression "a penny for your thoughts." It means a person is interested in what you are thinking. Well the leper in our text brings up some interesting things to think about, so I offer you a leper for your thoughts.
The first thing he brings to mind is the cry, "Dead man walking." That's what sounds out as a condemned man is escorted to his execution. Leprosy was a certain death sentence in the ancient world. Someone has said that "'it was death, but with full conscious of life'" (in Trench, Miracles, 229, fn. 2). The Bible supports this view. When Miriam is struck with leprosy for rebelling against Moses, Aaron describes her: "as one dead, of whom the flesh is half consumed" (Numbers 12:12). Furthermore, the cleansing to restore a healed leper used the same things as was used for the cleansing of one defiled by a dead body or anything pertaining to death. Cedar, hyssop, and scarlet were never used on any other occasion but death and leprosy.
However, you miss the point of the leprosy laws, especially the ones about excluding them, if you think leprosy is highly contagious. It's not now and was not then. Medicine would tell you this today; the Bible shows you this by the fact that where the Law of Moses was not observed no exclusion took place. Naaman the leper commanded the Syrian armies. Even where Mosaic Law was kept the stranger or the pilgrim was expressly excluded from the ordinances related to leprosy. If the reasons for the leprosy laws were medical this would not have been the case.
The laws pertaining to leprosy were not medical but spiritual. They were to teach what you already know. Sin defiles, contaminates, and eventually kills, and there is no escaping it. I had a Sunday School teacher in Louisiana who use to teach this to the kids by bringing apples to class. They carved those apples to look like human heads. Week by week they shriveled, turned brown, and became gross. This is what leprosy taught the Old Testament Church. Sin was at work in their mortal bodies leading them inevitably to the grave.
But you already know that, don't you? Every which way you turn there is sin: in your thoughts, your words, your actions. You confess sins and you are oppressed by the thought that you're going to do them again. Like Paul says in Romans 7 you see sin at work in your mortal body as if you were standing outside yourself and it was happening to somebody else. But you know you are the apple shriveling, browning, dying.
A leper can produce thoughts of sinfulness, despair, hopelessness, so I offer you a different leper for you to think about it: the Messiah leper. A Jewish tradition said that the Messiah, the Christ, would be a leper. St. Jerome followed their interpretation (Trench, 231). It was based on Isaiah 53:4, "Surely He took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered Him stricken by God, smitten by Him, and afflicted." The Hebrew word for leprosy has as its root the word for smitten.' The rabbis said "smitten of God" meant leprous.
You know they're not that far off. 2 Corinthians 5 says, "God made Jesus to be sin." Actually it's more pointed then that. It says, "Jesus, the One not knowing sin, in behalf of us, in place of us, sin was made." You've seen those movies where the police burst into a home at night hauling away the man who has no idea of what he did. You've seen science fiction or wizard movies where a man is turned into something disgusting, yet still knows he's a man. These are the images called to mind by Scripture telling us Jesus who did not know sin was made to be sin.
Those times you become disgusted with yourself because you lost your temper again, you lusted again, you worried again, you doubted again. Those times when your sense of sin became so intense you called out with St. Paul, "O wretched man that I am." This is what Jesus bore in your place. This is how God would have you see Him hanging on the cross. Lift up your eyes off of you; stop seeing your sins on your head, in your body, suffocating your soul. They are on Jesus on the cross. They are there so much so that God can see nothing but sin. God's creature the sun is so disgusted at the sight it refuses to look for 3 hours.
Can you see why a real recognition of what Jesus did for us could lead to the picture of Jesus as a leper, cast out from God and man? "Unclean! Unclean!" He would have to cry before all even as the leper did. He would be like the Sin-eater in backwoods America or the scapegoat in the Old Testament Church. Because He bore the sins of others, others shunned His company. Once the high priest put the church's sins on the scapegoat it was led out into the wilderness. Once Jesus got the sins of the world on Him at His Baptism He was led by the Spirit out into the wilderness.
Although the Messiah leper repels, He also draws.draws lepers like Himself. See how the man with leprosy came to Jesus? Matthew shows him pushing through a crowd. See how you are here to hear about the Messiah leper? An Anglican pastor after serving in the horrific trenches of World War I wrote a poem which he titled "Jesus of the Scars." It reads in part, "We must have Thee, O Jesus of the Scars.to our wounds only God's wounds can speak, And not a god has wounds, but Thou alone."
An author studying the plague in medieval Europe wonders why the crucifix at Monte Lupo drew plague victims to it. It is "a horrifying crucifix[T]he Christ is contorted in agony and covered with bleeding wounds. A purely rational observer might wonder how and why a community already full of tortured, suffering, and wounded people could want to look on such a dreadful image" (Cipolla, Faith, Reason, and the Plague, 41).
But you don't wonder do you? You sinful, dying, leprous people don't wonder. We preach Christ and Him crucified because that is the only thing that comforts sinners dying with guilt, shame, and repentance. As often as you eat His Body and drink His Blood you do proclaim the Lord's death to each other because, only in His death is your life. We have to have Thee O Jesus of the scars. We are drawn to the Messiah leper for only this One will touch us in our uncleanness even as He did the leper in the text.
Think about the leper who was a dead man walking; think about the Messiah leper, and think about the cleansed leper. "Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cured." A 1979 film titled "Jesus", through the wonders of special effects, shows the wonder that was this miracle. Jesus is reaching out His hand to a face that looks like raw hamburger and instantly it's whole, clean, healthy, glowing. But the healing extended beyond the face. "The flesh that was eaten away, the fingers and the toe joints that had dropped off, the raw sores that were spreading over the body were instantly restored sound and whole" (Lenski, Mark, 92).
Think about it. A cleansed leper is a leper no more, not to God, not to man, not to self. How foolish would it be for this man to have gone about dressed as leper, calling out "unclean, unclean" acting like a leper? Wouldn't you have gone up to him and said, "Why are you doing this to yourself? Don't you know you've been cleansed? Don't you know you are healed? Why do you persist on acting as if you weren't?"
But you know what? It wouldn't have been the end of the world if he had done that. What's more serious is a forgiven sinner acting, living, suffering as if his or her sins were not forgiven them. That's a shame; that's a tragedy; that is saying Jesus didn't do what He said He did do. This is one of the reasons why I'm not a fan of Alcoholic Anonymous and all her offspring that teach people to introduce themselves at their meetings, "I'm Paul and I'm and alcoholic."
But don't we begin the Divine Service saying, "I, a poor, miserable sinner." Yes we do, and we remain sinners until we die. But we don't live in the first part of confession. In our Catechism we say that confession has two parts. "First that we confess our sins, and second, that we receive absolution, that is forgiveness, from the pastor as from God Himself, not doubting, but firmly believing that by it our sins are forgiven before God in heaven." The first part is done because of the second. We live in the second part not the first. We don't live in "I'm a sinner," but in "I am forgiven."
You admit it would be tragic for a healed leper to go on living as if he were still a leper. It's worse for forgiven sinner to go on living as if he or she was still a sinner. That's what you're doing when you cut yourself off from the Church by not hearing the Word, by not swimming in your Baptism, by not eating and drinking with your Lord. You're acting as if Jesus healed the leper and didn't send him back to church. And church above all else is what the leprosy prevented Him from partaking of. He couldn't go into the temple with leprosy. He couldn't offer any of the sacrifices. Once healed he could. Once forgiven you can.
I would think from time to time the leper fell back into his old habits. He thought and lived like the leper he had been for years. But then he looked at his skin and saw no scabs, no disease, no leprosy and he remembered all over again. "I'm healed; I'm restored. I don't have to live like a leper any longer."
Take this leper for your thoughts. Learn from him when you fall back into thinking and acting like the lost sinner you once were. But you can't look at your healed body. If you look at your body, heart, mind, or soul, you'll still see sins and sinfulness, won't you? But I didn't point you there, did I? I pointed you to Jesus of the Scars. That's where your sins are; that's where your sins were answered for, paid for, carried away. I didn't finish that quote from 2 Corinthians 5. It begins with, "Jesus, the One not knowing sin, in behalf of us, in place of us, sin was made." It ends with: "in order that we should become the righteousness of God in Him." That's not just food for thought that's food for life. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Sixth Sunday after Epiphany (20120212); Mark 1: 40-45