About a month ago, my wife Melody came down with a cold. Coincidentally, she became sick in the thick of the so-called "swine-flu" scare, so I, of course, joked with her about contracting the fearful virus. Thankfully, however, her condition was not nearly so dire. Just a runny nose, a mild headache, general fatigue, a relentless cough, and a low-grade fever.
Even though Melody's symptoms were relatively mild, I took all the precautions I could to protect myself from her unpleasant illness. I washed my hands constantly; I took plenty of vitamin C; I ate lots of yogurt. I even took some Zicam just to be on the safe side. Thankfully, I avoided getting sick.
For such an innocuous illness, I admittedly reacted with what may have been a disproportionate amount of concern, not wanting to get laid up in the middle of a busy season of ministry. If I reacted so vigilantly to an illness that is relatively and harmless and extensively treatable, then you can imagine the reaction of those who found out they had a loved one with the disease of leprosy in Jesus' day. For, unlike our present day with all of our advanced medical technologies, there was no way to effectively treat this dreaded disease in the first century. This disease, in this day, was a sure and certain death sentence.
Leprosy would generally begin with fatigue coupled with joint pain, followed by the development of nodules on the skin. These nodules would subsequently ulcerate and emit a foul smell. Eventually, a leper would lose sensation in his digits, which meant that he could sustain a cut, puncture wound, or even sever a limb, and scarcely notice. Finally, a leper would lose his ability to function mentally, slip into a coma, and die. Such was the dreaded fate of those who contracted this dreaded disease.
With the apprehension that accompanied leprosy, both medical and religious protocol dictated that lepers be quarantined away from the general population: "The person with... an infectious disease [such as leprosy] must wear torn clothes, let his hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of his face and cry out, 'Unclean! Unclean!' As long as he has the infection he remains unclean. He must live alone; he must live outside the camp" (Leviticus 13:45-46). With such strict instructions for lepers to remain separate from the healthy, you can imagine the crowd's surprise in our reading for today from Matthew 8 when, "A man with leprosy came and knelt before Jesus and said, 'Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean'" (verse 2). Notably, in Greek, this verse begins with the word idou, meaning, "Behold!" Idou is meant as a verbal marker to draw the reader's attention to a startling scene. Thus, as this leper approached Jesus, gasps, whispers, and sneers offense would have been audible from the crowd. For no leper would ever dare approach such a large crowd of people. After all, he risked infecting them with his grisly ailment! Consequently, a more literal translation of this verse would read: "Idou! A man with leprosy comes and kneels before Jesus!"
This leper, however, approaches not with a bald disdain for the health of others, but with a humble request for Jesus: "Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean." Notice the surrender of the leper's will to Jesus' will: "If you are willing, Jesus," the leper says. "Not my will, but yours is what counts." The great fourth century preacher, theologian, and archbishop John Chrysostom, wrote of this passage: "The leper did not say, 'Lord, cleanse me!' But leaves all to him, and makes his recovery depend on him, and testifies that all authority is his" (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers 10:172).
You see, the most beautiful part of this leper's story is not the miraculous healing which he receives, but the faith that he displays in God's will, even if that will would have been to receive his healing in heaven rather than here on earth.
All too often, our requests of Jesus begin, "Dear Jesus, please... " And then follows our laundry lists of pressing needs and not-so-necessary wants. Today when you pray, try taking the posture of the leper before God: "Lord, if you are willing... " Seek God's will before praying your own, perhaps even in the midst of a precarious plight like that of the leper's. And remember that your prayers, even if they get a little demanding at times, as all of ours do, never fall on deaf ears. For God always idous us when we pray in Jesus' name.