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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).
Third, like most golfers, we think our best moments represent who we are. I remember hearing a story once about Lee Trevino, a famous professional golfer in the 1970s and ’80s. He was playing golf with a weekend golfer who was all over the course—slicing and hooking the ball into trouble. After each errant shot, he would throw down his club and curse. Eventually, Lee Trevino could take no more and gently chided him: “You know, sir, you’re not nearly good enough at this game to get that angry. Your problem is that you think your occasional good shot is the real you. It’s not; that’s luck. The hook and the slice, that’s who you really are.” So it is with us—we confuse occasional, public, on-display niceness for righteousness, but that’s not who we really are. And then we remember Isaiah, even our righteousness is as filthy rags in God’s sight (Isa. 64:6). We need saving from our best works, not just our worst.
Fourth, we underestimate sin because we tend to view our own sins with grace (nobody’s perfect, after all) and everybody else’s sins with justice. Some years back, I remember sharing the gospel with a neighbor as we cycled around a lake in Savannah. Despite my best efforts, this man couldn’t see how sin was that bad. Then we happened upon some attractive girls jogging ahead of us. Their clothing was more than a little indecorous. As we passed them, my friend said to me, “If I wasn’t with a pastor, I think I’d get off my bike and enjoy the view.” Then it struck me, and I asked him, “How would your wife feel if she heard you say those words?” “Oh,” he said, “it would be very bad.” And I said: “It would, wouldn’t it? Don’t you see, what looks excusable in your eyes, to your wife would feel like a complete betrayal of your marriage?” Then I sought to really bring the point home: “How do you think God views our sin? Do you think He might have a different take on the practices we so easily excuse?”
We have met the leper and he is us. We look at him and see ourselves.
Put yourself in this leper’s shoes for a moment. Consider a modern-day version of his testimony:
I remember the morning I stepped out of the shower, and my wife saw the spot. I’ll never forget the look in her eyes. She knew, and so did I. Off I went down to the door on the back side of the temple. A line of us stood there waiting. The priest came out and looked at us in turn. Most of the time he would look and say, “Clean!” But when he came to me, he looked at me with cold, heartless disgust, and spoke that dread word: “Unclean!” It cost him nothing to say, but it took everything from me.
I went back to the house that night, but I never went home again. My wife stood at the door, sheltering the children behind her. My little girl, Ruth (she’s only four years old), wanted to run and hug her daddy. “No, Ruthie!” Mommy said. “Daddy’s dirty, remember? Don’t touch a leper, Ruthie, or you’ll become a leper!” We wept. I turned around and walked away.
Since then, I have watched leprosy do its awful work: beautiful girls become marred, and the handsome men became disheveled cast-offs. The swollen faces. The missing digits. The swollen joints. And those dead, lonely eyes.
Then one day, I heard about Jesus, a wandering rabbi whose words could make a blind man see. I came to Him and the crowds parted. There we were: the Creator of all things, and me, the leper. As I fell down on my knees and buried my face into the sand, I cried out, “Lord, if You are willing, You can make me clean.” I didn’t know what to expect. It was then I heard the crowd gasp as He stretched out His hand—His clean hand—and touched me. Somewhere in the crowd, I heard a little boy ask, “But Mommy, you always told me, ‘Touch a leper and you become a leper.’” Then He spoke a new word, and I was clean—not just in my skin, but a deep cleanness that seemed to stretch all the way down to my soul.
Isn’t this a glorious picture of how the gospel works? Our fictitious story is patterned off the historical event of Jesus’ healing of a leper that I referenced at the opening of this post (Luke 5:12–16). Jesus spoke the leprosy away. He didn’t need to touch the man, but He did. That touch signified the logic of the gospel. Through it, Jesus said more than just “I am willing to accept you.” Through it, Jesus was actually saying: “I am willing to become you. I will take your uncleanness as my uncleanness, and I will give you my spotless righteousness in return. I have come in your flesh, to become your sin, and to bear your curse” (John 1:18; 2 Cor. 5:21; Gal. 3:13).
Friends, this is the Savior we have to share with the world. No one is untouchable to Him. He opens wide His arms to a lost and perishing world. He says to you and to me, “Go, compel them to come. Plead with them to come! Go down to the outskirts of town, where the unclean people live, and reach out to them with the gospel. Tell them of a Savior who has come to touch them, to cleanse them, to bring them home to God.”