Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series. Previous post. Next post.
There was a leper, a paralytic, and a tax collector—it sounds like the beginning of a joke, but it’s actually the beginning of the gospel. Jesus is showing us what the gospel is, what it does, and how it works.
We are in the middle of a series of blogs looking at Jesus’ masterclass in man-fishing (Luke 5:10). In our first article Jesus taught us how to catch souls for God. In this post, I want to begin showing you three different individuals and their experience of Jesus. They each illustrate the kind of fish Jesus came to save (Luke 5:12–32). There is the leper: a picture of a dirty sinner. Then there is the paralytic lowered down through the ceiling: a picture of a helpless sinner. And last of all, there is the tax collector: a picture of a disgusting sinner.
We know Luke means us to make that connection because if you notice, the issue behind the issue is always sin with each of these individuals. First, the leper is one of society’s untouchables. For him, “unclean” was a badge of shame upon his soul. He was unworthy of the presence of God. Second, the paralytic. Everyone knew what his problem was: his body was broken; he couldn’t walk. But Jesus saw a deeper issue—behind a broken body lay a broken soul. What this man really needed was forgiveness. Third, the tax collector. He had betrayed everything the Jews held dear (and for the cheapest of reasons—to make money dishonestly). No self-respecting rabbi would eat with such a man, but Jesus did.
The Pharisees were appalled that Jesus would eat with such sinners (vv. 30–32). The very term drips with contempt: “sinner”—a godless wretch, someone who is hopelessly and scandalously irreligious. The Jews used this term to describe prostitutes and tax collectors (v. 32). Peter used it to describe himself (v. 8). Like twine around a bale of pine straw, Luke seems to use this word to hold the passage together as a thematic unit. This post will focus specifically on the leper. Future posts will focus on the paralytic and the tax collector.
In the days of Jesus Christ, it was not good to be a leper. Decent society pronounced them outcasts, forever banished beyond the camp. It wasn’t just men who viewed lepers this way; God did as well, forbidding them to live within the camp, much less draw near to His presence in the temple (Lev. 14:1–8).
To modern sensibilities, this may seem like the superstitious overreaction of a primitive people. We know better, after all. We know how to cure leprosy—it’s a bacterial disease not dissimilar to tuberculosis. We also know the disease isn’t really that contagious—it takes constant chronic exposure before it latches on to a healthy individual. This leaves many wondering, How could God do this to this man?
In the Old Testament, lepers were set apart as life-size pictures of sin. They were illustrations of uncleanness, visible pictures of what sin really does to people. Sin makes lepers of us all, and God ordained these lepers as a picture to show us what we all deserve. None of us are worthy of His presence. None of us are clean (Ps. 24). While God allowed most men to live in the merciful illusion of cleanness, in those days God ordained the leper to have a much larger dose of reality.
From this perspective, the leper functions like a mirror in which we can see ourselves. We are not nearly as clean as we like to imagine.
There are a number of reasons human beings resist the knowledge of our uncleanness.
First, we measure ourselves by other men—men who are also sinners. Sin seems normal down here on earth, even commonplace. When I was a medical student, I had the opportunity to visit the shantytown slums of India. To a Westerner, the hygiene conventions in these places were simply nonexistent. Because Hinduism views cows as sacred animals, locals spread their manure on everything (even their front doorstep). In one particularly tragic case of a burned child, I was appalled to see the parents had covered his injuries with cow manure, hoping contact with the sacred would cure their son. What was normal to them represented the most degraded and depraved practice to me. Isn’t it a bit like that with sin? It’s normal for us down here to observe parents yelling at their kids, teenagers rolling their eyes at dad, men googling sexually immoral images, drunks lying unconscious in the gutter, women grumbling about their passive husbands. It’s the lie of Masters and Johnson: what’s selected is average, what’s average is normal, and what’s normal is good (or at least excusable). But how would such practices appear in heaven, a world of glory and love?
Another reason humans resist the knowledge of sin is because we measure ourselves by appearance instead of reality. We are masters at dressing things up. We cover our naked shame with fine clothes and eau de toilette. But this clean veneer is paper thin. We are whitewashed sepulchers full of dead men’s bones. We clean the outside of the cup (the appearance), but in reality, inside we are all “foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another” (Titus 3:3).