SERMON: The Cleansing of the Leper by Richard Chenevix Trench

The Cleansing of the Leper by Richard Chenevix Trench

When he was come down from the mountain, great multitudes followed him. And, behold, there came a leper and worshipped him, saying, Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean. And Jesus put forth his hand, and touched him, saying, I will; be thou clean. And immediately his leprosy was cleansed. And Jesus saith unto him, See thou tell no man; but go thy way, shew thyself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a testimony unto them.  (Matthew 8:1-4)

We are told that the ascended Lord confirmed the word of his servants with signs following; here he does the same in the days of his flesh for his own.  his discourse upon the Mount, that solemn revision of the moral code, lifting it up to a higher level, has scarcely ended when this and other of his most memorable miracles are performed.  He will thus set his seal to all that he has just been teaching, vindicate his right to speak in the language of authority which he has there held.  As he was descending from the mountain, “There came a leper and worshipped him,” one, in the language of Saint Luke, “full of leprosy,” so that it was not a spot here and there, but the tetter had spread over his whole body; he was leprous from head to foot.  This man had ventured, it may be, to linger on the outskirts of the listening crowd, and, undeterred by the severity of the closing sentences of Christ’s discourse, came now to claim the blessings promised at its opening to the suffering and the mourning.

But we shall ill understand this miracle unless first a few words have been said concerning leprosy in general, and the meaning of the uncleanness attached to it in the Levitical law.  The medical details, the distinction between one kind of leprosy and another, as between the white, which among the Jews was the most frequent, and the yet more terrible elephantiasis (thought by many to have been that with which Job was visited, and so named because in it the feet swelled to an elephantine size), would be here out of place.  Only it will be necessary to correct a mistake, common to all writers who, like Michaelis, can see in the Levitical ordinances little more, for the most part, than regulations of police or a Board of Health, or, at the highest, rules for the well ordering of an Earthly society; thus missing altogether a main purpose which these ordinances had – namely, that by them men might be trained into a sense of the cleaving taint which is theirs from birth, into a confession of impurity and of consequent separation from God, and thus into a longing after purity and reunion with him.  I refer to the mistaken assumption that leprosy was catching from one person to another; and that the lepers were so carefully secluded from their fellowmen; lest they might communicate the disease to others; as, in like manner, that the torn garment, the covered lip, the cry, “Unclean, unclean,” were warnings to all that they should keep aloof, lest unawares touching a leper, or drawing into too great a nearness, they should become partakers of this disease.  So far from any danger of the kind existing, nearly all who have looked closest into the matter agree that the sickness was incommunicable by ordinary contact from one person to another.  A leper might transmit it to his children, or the mother of a leper’s children might take it from him; but it was by no ordinary contact communicable from one person to another.

All the notices in the Old Testament, as well as in other Jewish books, confirm the statement that we have here something very much higher than a mere sanitary regulation.  Thus, where the Law of Moses was not observed, no such exclusion necessarily found place; Naaman the leper commanded the armies of Syria; Gehazi, with his leprosy that never should be cleansed talked familiarly with the king of apostate Israel.  And even where the Law of Moses was in force, the stranger and the sojourner were expressly exempted from the ordinances relating to leprosy; which could not have been had the disease been contagious, and the motives of the leper’s exclusion been not religious, but civil.  How, moreover, should the Levitical priests, had the disease been this creeping infection, have ever themselves escaped it, obliged as they were by their very office to submit the leper to actual handling and closest examination?  Lightfoot can only explain this by supposing in their case a perpetual miracle.

But there is no need of this.  The ordinances concerning leprosy had another and far deeper significance, into which it will be needful a little to enter.  It is clear that the same principle which made all having to do with death as mournful, a grave, a corpse, the bones of a dead man, the occasion of a ceremonial uncleanness, inasmuch as all these were signs and consequences of sin, might consistently with this have made every sickness an occasion of uncleanness, each of these being also death beginning, partial death – echoes in the body of that terrible reality, sin in the soul.  But instead of this, in a gracious sparing of man, and not pushing the principle to the uttermost, God took but one sickness, one of these visible outcomings of a tainted nature, in which to testify that evil was not from him, could not dwell with him.  He linked this teaching but with one; by his laws concerning it to train men into a sense of a clinging impurity, which needed a Purity and a Purifier to overcome and expel, and which nothing short of his taking of our flesh could drive out.  And leprosy, the sickness of sicknesses, was throughout these Levitical ordinances selected of God from the whole host of maladies and diseases which had broken in upon the bodies of men.  Bearing his testimony against it, He bore his testimony against that out of which every sickness grows, against sin; as not from him, as grievous in his sight; and against the sickness also itself as being grievous, being as it was a visible manifestation, a direct consequence, of sin, a forerunner of that death, which by the portal of disobedience and revolt, had found entrance into natures created by him for immortality.

And fearful indeed, as might be expected, was that fearful disease, round which this solemn teaching revolved.  Leprosy was nothing short of a living death, a corrupting of all the humors, a poisoning of the very springs, of life; a dissolution, little-by-little, of the whole body, so that one limb after another actually decayed and fell away.  Aaron exactly describes the appearance which the leper presented to the eyes of the beholders, when pleading for Miriam, he says, “Let her not be as one dead, of whom the flesh is half consumed when he cometh out of his mother’s womb.”  The disease, moreover, was incurable by the art and skill of man; not that the leper might not return to health; for, however rare, such cases are contemplated in the Levitical law.  But then the leprosy left the man, not in obedience to any skill of the physician, but purely and merely through the good will and mercy of God.  This helplessness of man in the matter dictates the speech of Jehoram, who, when Naaman is sent to claim healing from him, exclaims, “Am I God, to kill and to make alive, that this man doth send unto me to recover a man of his leprosy?” as though the king of Syria had been seeking to fasten a quarrel upon him.

The leper, thus fearfully bearing about in the body the outward and visible tokens of sin in the soul, was treated throughout as a sinner, as one in whom sin had reached its climax, as one dead in trespasses and sins.  He was himself a dreadful parable of death.  He bore about him the emblems of death; the rent garments, mourning for himself as one dead; the head bare, as they were wont to have it who were defiled by communion with the dead; and the lip covered.  In a restoration too, of a leper, precisely the same instruments of cleansing were in use, the cedar wood, the hyssop, and scarlet, as were used for the cleansing of one defiled through a dead body, or aught pertaining to death; these same never being employed on any other occasion.  When David exclaims, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean,” he was looking through the outward to the inward, even to the true blood of sprinkling, contemplates himself as a spiritual leper, one who had sinned a sin unto death, needing therefore to be restored to God from the very furthest degree of separation from him.  And being this sign and token of sin, and of sin reaching to and culminating in death, it naturally brought about with it a total exclusion from the camp or city of God.  God is not a God of the dead; he has no fellowship with death, for death is a correlative of sin; but only of the living.  But the leper was as one dead, and as such was shut out of the camp; and the city, this law being so strictly enforced that even the sister of Moses might not be exempted from it; and kings themselves, as Uzziah must submit to it; men being by this exclusion taught that what here took place in a figure, should take place in the reality with everyone who was found in the death of sin: he should be shut out of the true City of God.  Thus, taking up and glorifying this and like ordinances of exclusion, Saint John declares of the New Jerusalem, “There shall nowise enter into it anything that defileth, neither whatsoever worketh abomination, or maketh a lie.”

Nothing of all this, as need hardly be observed, in the least implied that the leper was a worse or guiltier man than his fellows; though being, as it was, the symbol of sin, it was most often the theocratic punishment, the penalty for offences committed against the theocracy, that, for instance, of Miriam, of Gehazi, of Uzziah; compare Deuteronomy 24:8, where the warning, “Take heed of the plague of leprosy,” is no admonition diligently to observe the laws about leprosy, but to have a care lest any disobedience of theirs should provoke God to visit them with this plague.  The Jews themselves called it “the finger of God,” and emphatically, “the stroke.”  It attacked, they said, first a man’s house; and then, if he refused to turn, his clothing; and lastly, should he persist in sin, himself: – a fine parable, let the fact have been as it might, of the manner in which God’s judgments, if a man refuse to listen to them, reach ever nearer to the center of his life.  So, too, they said that a man’s true repentance was the one condition of his leprosy leaving him.

Seeing, then, that leprosy was this outward and visible sign of the innermost spiritual corruption, this sacrament of death, on no fitter shape of physical evil could the Lord of life show forth his power.  He will thus prove himself the conqueror of death in life, as elsewhere of death accomplished; and he therefore fitly urges his victory over this most terrible form of physical evil as a convincing testimony of his Messiahship: “The lepers are cleansed.”  Nor may we doubt that the terribleness of the infliction, the extreme suffering with which it was linked, the horror with which it must have filled the sufferer’s mind, as he marked its slow but inevitable progress, to be arrested by no human hand, the ghastly hideousness of its unnatural whiteness, must all have combined to draw out his pity, in whom love went hand in hand with power, the Physician and Healer of the bodies as of the souls of men.

When this leper with whom we now have to do came “and worshipped” Jesus we see in this an act of profound reverence, as from an inferior to a superior, yet not of necessity a recognition of a divine character in him to whom this homage was offered.  What he would receive from the Lord he expresses in words remarkable as the utterance of a simple and humble faith, which is willing to abide the issue, whatever that may be; and having declared its desire, to leave the granting or the withholding of it to a higher wisdom and love: “Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean.”  There is no questioning here of the power; nothing of his unbelief who said, “If thou canst do anything, have compassion on us and help us.”  “And Jesus put forth his hand and touched him,” ratifying and approving his utterance of faith, by granting his request in the very words wherein that request had been embodied, “‘I will, be thou clean.’  And immediately his leprosy was cleansed.”  This touching of the unclean by Christ is noteworthy, seeing that such contact under the law would naturally be avoided, as causing a ceremonial defilement.  The Gnostics, adversaries of the law, saw in this nonobservance by the Lord of its ordinances, a witness that he regarded it as coming not from the good God, but from the evil.  Tertullian answers them well.  He first shows what deeper meaning lay in the prohibition to touch the ceremonially unclean, namely, that we should not defile ourselves through partaking in other men’s sins; as Saint Paul, transfiguring these ceremonial prohibitions into moral, exclaims, “Come out from among them, and be ye separate, and touch not the unclean thing.”  These outer prohibitions held good for all, till he came, the Pure to whom all things were pure; who, incontaminable himself feared not the contamination of a touch; for in him, first among men the advancing tide of this world’s evil was effectually arrested and rolled back.  Another would have defiled himself by touching the leper; but he himself remained undefiled, cleansed him whom he touched; for in him health overcame sickness, – purity, defilement, – and life, death.

“And Jesus saith unto him, ‘See thou tell no man.’”  Ambrose and others see in this prohibition to divulge the cure a lesson of Christ to his followers that they also should avoid ostentation in the good which they do; lest, as he adds, they should be themselves taken with a worse leprosy than any which they healed.  I do not think this probable.  If the motive was external, and not grounded on the inner moral condition of the man, it more probably was, lest his own stiller ministry should be hindered by the untimely concourse of multitudes, drawn to him by the hope of worldly benefits (which by this very occasion did occur); or by the expectation of seeing wonderful things; perhaps also by the premature violence of his enemies, roused to a more active hate by the fame of his mighty deeds.  But, as already has been observed, the injunction to one that he should proclaim, to another that he should conceal, the great things which God had done for him, may have had a deeper motive, and have been grounded on the different moral conditions of the persons healed.  Grotius and Bengel suggest very plausibly that the, “See thou tell no man,” here is to be taken with this limitation – “Till thou hast done that which I enjoin thee, till thou hast fulfilled this injunction of mine, to go thy way, show thyself to the priests, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a testimony unto them.”  Till this was accomplished, he should hold his peace; lest, if a rumor of these things went before him, the priests at Jerusalem, out of envy, out of a desire to depreciate Christ’s work, might deny that the man had ever been a leper, or else that he was now truly cleansed.  We may thus account for the notice of Saint Mark, “He forthwith sent him away,” or, put him forth; he would allow no lingering, but required him to hasten on his errand, lest a report of the cure should outrun him that was cured.  “For a testimony unto them,” some understand “for a proof even to these gainsayers that I am come, not to destroy the law, but to fulfill it, not to dispel even a shadow, till I have brought in the substance in its room.  These Levitical offerings I still allow and uphold, while as yet that better offering to which they point, has not been made.”  We should understand the words rather, “for a testimony against them;” for a witness against their unbelief, who refuse to give credence to me, even while I am legitimating my claims by such might works as these; works whose reality they have ratified themselves, accepting thy gift, readmitting thee, as one truly cleansed, himself before the priest had this object, that the priest might ascertain if indeed his leprosy was cleansed, might in that case accept his gift, and offer it as an atonement for him; and then, when all this was duly accomplished, pronounce him clean, and reinstate him in all his rights and privileges, civil and ecclesiastical, again.

 

 

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