A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.”
Jesus was moved with compassion. He reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cleansed.
Jesus sent him away at once with a strong warning: “See that you don’t tell this to anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them.”–Mark 1:40-45
In order to understand how wonderful this story is, you first have to understand leprosy. Leprosy is a terrible disease that slowly eats away at your flesh, making it start to rot and fall off. It was a slow disease; it would start as a rash, but over the course of weeks, months, and years, it would spread and get worse and worse, even to the point of fingers and ears and noses falling off. Gross, right? Leprosy victims were in terrible pain and horribly disfigured—that means, their faces got all messed up—and eventually, they would die from the disease. It was one of the most feared diseases of biblical times. (By the way, today there is medicine that quickly treats leprosy, and it’s not around so much anymore, so you don’t need to worry about catching it!)
But the worst part of leprosy, even worse than the fingers falling off and your face rotting away, was that leprosy victims couldn’t be around anyone else. This was to keep other people from getting sick. And in the days before hospitals and doctors, if you got leprosy, you had to leave your family and your friends and go live by yourself, or with other lepers. You couldn’t be around healthy people. A leper wouldn’t even be allowed to come in to the synagogue or temple to worship God! In fact, if a leper saw a healthy person coming towards them, the law said they had to call out, “Unclean, unclean!” to warn them away.
So imagine for a moment that you had leprosy, and think about how terrible it would be. You would have lots of pain. You would look worse and worse (and feel worse and worse) as the disease spread all around your body. And you couldn’t be with your friends or family at all. In fact, most of them would probably be scared to come near you. You would be all alone. No one could even touch you. Think about that! No hugs when you were feeling sad, no goodnight kisses, no handshakes, no wrestling around with friends, no pats on the back. How would that make you feel?
So in this story, when we meet a man with leprosy, that’s what’s going on. His face and skin is decaying and rotting away. It’s probably been years since he has seen his family, or slept in his own bed, or been able to have a job, or felt the touch of another person.
Remember, he’s not supposed to come near or talk to anybody. But when he hears that Jesus is coming, he’s so desperate that he decides to break all the rules. He runs (or, probably, limps) up to Jesus and falls down to his knees in front of him. He knows Jesus can do amazing things. Maybe, just maybe, he thinks, Jesus would be willing to help him. “If you are willing,” he says to Jesus, “you can make me clean!”
There was a pause as Jesus looked at him. The crowd around Jesus, who probably scattered as soon as they saw the leper coming, held their breath and waited to see what Jesus would say. Would he yell at the man? Would he tell him to get lost and not come near again? Would he lecture him about breaking the leprosy rules?
Jesus looked at the broken, disfigured man in front of him, and didn’t do any of those things. Mark chapter 1 says that Jesus was “moved with compassion.” His eyes welled up with tears. His heart ached for all the pain and sorrow this man had experienced. He looked at the poor, helpless man in front of him, and he loved him. Jesus loved this disgusting, diseased leper.
And then he did something that no one had ever done before, something that probably made the crowd gasp in horror. Jesus reached out his hand… and touched the man. How many years had it been since the man had felt the touch of another person? No one was brave enough to even look at his twisted, rotting face, let alone touch him. But here was Jesus, completely unafraid, loving this man in a way that no one dared to.
The leper probably looked up at Jesus in shock. He probably wanted to shout, “Don’t touch me, Jesus! I’ll infect you!” But to his surprise, Jesus was smiling. “I am willing,” Jesus said gently. “Be clean!”
All at once, a warm feeling spread through the man’s arms and legs and all around his body. Fingers and toes that he hadn’t been able to feel anymore tingled back to life. The roaring pain in his face and arms died away. The leper looked down at his hands. A moment ago, they had been red and black and cracked and oozing. Now the skin was soft and smooth like a baby’s. He felt his face. The wounds and scars were healed. The leprosy was completely gone!
The compassion of Jesus in this story is amazing. Jesus loved people that no one else would even look at. He loved the unlovable. He touched the untouchable. He forgave the unforgivable.
And today, at this moment, Jesus is still the same. He still loves people that no one else wants to. He still loves you, even though your sin is a far worse disease than leprosy. And if we come to him, asking for forgiveness for all the things we’ve done wrong, we’ll find that he still has the same love and same answer that he gave to the leper: “I am willing. Be clean!”