While he was going through one of the towns, a man came up, who had an advanced case of leprosy, and when he saw Jesus, he fell upon his face before him and petitioned him, saying: “Lord, if you are willing, you have the power to cleanse me”. And Jesus stretched forth his hand and touched him and said: “I am willing, be cleansed,” The man was instantly healed from the leprosy. And Jesus gave him strict orders to tell no one, but rather to go show himself to the priest, bringing the offering commanded by Moses as a testimony to them. But instead, the man spread the word about Jesus so that large crowds were thronging Jesus to listen to him and to be healed from their diseases. So he had to make a habit of going into the desert to find time to be alone in prayer.
Luke 5:-12-16 (Translation mine)
This text as well as the parallel texts in Mark and Matthew have traditionally been preached as a demonstration of the compassion of Jesus Christ. The account in Mark is especially vivid in its showing the emotion of Jesus. Here in Luke, the text just records Jesus as simply saying that he was willing to heal. So the text has been traditionally applied to say that all we need to do is to come to the compassionate Jesus who wants to heal you and meet all of your needs. But is there more to this passage than what first appears? I believe there is a very important message that is entirely overlooked. We all have ears to hear what we want to hear. But just for a minute, let us open our ears and listen.
The term “leprosy” in ancient times could refer to many different skin diseases, not just the one we think about which is called Hansen's Disease in which the body slowly goes numb, and body parts start falling off like toes and fingers. So we can't be sure what the man had, but Luke, the doctor, states that his body was covered with the disease. Anyone who saw this man would immediately know and keep their distance from him. A leper was not to touch anyone, nor was anyone to touch him. They would have to leave their begging bowls by the side of the road for their family or someone who wanted to show compassion to drop food and water into it. The leper could only get his food and drink when no one was around.
Lepers could only keep company with other lepers. As human beings are made to be touched, this isolation from society must indeed have been very hard. So the desire to be normal must have driven the man to the desperate act to come into public and fall on his face before Jesus. I can just see the crowd panicking and trying to get out of the leper's way. What the man did to this point was totally against the rules.
The man falls on his face before Jesus. This is the posture of worship. This seems to point out that this leper has already seen that Jesus is more than a mere man. The Jews were forbidden to worship anyone but God. In addition to this, he addresses a petition to Jesus. The word here is most often used here in the sense of making a petition to a god. Then he uses the words “If you are willing”. The Greek word for “willing” is most often used to describe the will of the gods, or in the Hebrew culture, God. He plainly states that Jesus has the power to cleanse him. So this action and words of the leper is extraordinary. This man knows more than his disciples do about Jesus. In fact, to this point, only the demons know him like this leper does. And when the demons tried to reveal Jesus' full identity, Jesus immediately silenced them. Jesus tells the leper the same thing. This is an important point.
Jesus' response to the leper's plea is just as extraordinary. He stretched out and touched the man. The crowd must have shuddered. Then for the only time in all the gospels, Jesus says “I am willing” and gives the command to be cleansed. The word Jesus uses here is the same word for “willing” the leper does. In the Gospel of Luke, the Holy Spirit is the means by which Jesus heals. But here, Jesus heals the man by His own authority as the Son of God.
The Word of God is meant to be obeyed. In the Old Testament, Israel's first king, Saul, was rejected because he disobeyed God's explicit command to him. Jesus here affirms the Law God gave to Moses. “Go show yourself to the priest and bring the offering Moses command you.” To this he also commands the man not to tell anyone about his identity. In the Gospel of Mark, this direct command is even more explicit.
This man knew by whatever means who Jesus was. If the man is addressing Jesus as divine, then he should have reverenced him and obeyed, especially since Jesus had shown him such compassion. But this man deliberately disobeyed the word of God. He did not go to the priest. He did not bring an offering. And he did not obey Jesus' command to be silent. Jesus was not using reverse psychology on this man to get him to publish Jesus as has often been claimed by modern expositors. Luke is a little kinder than is Mark. Mark says that after Jesus healed the man from compassion that he became angry with that man as He commanded the cleansed leper to go to the priest, bring the offering, and to remain silent about Jesus' identity. Mark uses the vivid term “he snorted with anger” a word that appears only here and in John 11 where it is stated that his reaction to the Jews' unbelief was “He groaned within Himself”. Wherever the word is used in ancient Greek, it has a negative connotation. And Mark adds to this that Jesus dismissed the man. The particular term Mark uses is better translated “threw him out”. The same word is said of Jesus exorcizing demons (“He cast them out”).
So this story is not the happy one we all insist of making of it. This leper had a much more serious condition than leprosy of the skin. He had leprosy of the soul. Cleansing the skin was the easy thing. But cleansing the heart is the more important of the two. We get the idea that this man rejected the second healing. How sad it is to reject the God who so loved the world that He gave His Only-Begotten Son to die in our place.
If this be the proper interpretation of the text, then its implications to us are far more serious. It is easy to portray Jesus, and god for that matter as an ooey-gooey God of love and grace. It is a different thing to consider that Jesus is Lord. As Lord, He is in charge, not us. He gives orders, not takes them. Salvation and heaven are on his terms, not ours. Paul talks to us about the “obedience of faith”. Yes God has compassion and is willing and able to give us grace and healing. He hears our petitions. But He also expects to be obeyed. In both Greek and Hebrew, “hearing” and “obeying” are very closely related. We read from Deuteronomy in the Old Testament “Hear O Israel! Jehovah is your God, Jehovah alone.” The only difference between “Hear” and “Obey” is the vowels added by the reader to the text. “If read as “shema” it means “hear”. If read as “shimeh” it means “obey”. The Greek uses the same words for hearing and obedience. If we truly believe then that Jesus is the Son of God, then we should obey Him.
This cleansed leper thought he had a better idea than Jesus. He willfully disobeyed Jesus as well as the Law given to Moses by the finger of God, the same finger that had just touched him and cleansed him. Jesus, on the other hand, obeyed the Law to the letter and fulfilled it. In a like manner, we feel sometimes that we have a better way. We want to publish Jesus on our own terms. Satan had tempted Jesus in the wilderness to change the plan of His Messiahship. Peter, who had just affirmed Jesus as the Son of God was addressed as Satan when Peter tried to change Jesus' mind about going to the cross. The devils had to be silenced because they were trying to inflame the crowds to make Jesus a political Messiah rather than the Messiah who came to die for the sins of the world, to be the Messiah of Israel and not Christ to the Nations. And this man went out and did what the devils could not, to proclaim Jesus. It is amazing that the devils obeyed Jesus, but not this man.
The result of this is that large crowds began to press Jesus to the point that he had to sneak out at night to find the solitude to pray. And not too far from this time, Jesus would again show compassion, this time to feed five thousand who had come out. And the result of this is vividly portrayed in the sixth chapter of John. After dismissing the disciples to the boat, it is said that the crowd tried “to arrest Jesus and make him king, all this in the shadow of Herod Phillip's palace.
Jesus would not be deterred from His mission. And neither does He want us to try to make Jesus more acceptable to the masses. We do not mold Jesus, but rather Jesus molds us. Are we willing to obey? Do we really want to please the Lord Jesus? Then obey Him. Take His yoke upon you and learn of Him. For He is meek and lowly of heart”. If you would find true rest for your soul, then obey him. If you trust Him, then you must also obey Him.