Book 3, Chapter 15. Second Journey Through Galilee – The Healing of the Leper.

(Mat_4:23; Mat_8:2-4; Mar_1:35-45; Luk_4:42-44; Luk_5:12-16)

A day and an evening such as of that Sabbath of healing in Capernaum must, with reverence be it written, have been followed by what opens the next section. To the thoughtful observer there is such unbroken harmony in the Life of Jesus, such accord of the inward and outward, as to carry instinctive conviction of the truth of its record. It was, so to speak, an inward necessity that the God-Man, when brought into contact with disease and misery, whether from physical or supernatural causes, should remove it by His Presence, by His touch, by His Word. An outward necessity also, because no other mode of teaching equally convincing would have reached those, accustomed to Rabbinic disputations, and who must have looked for such a manifestation from One Who claimed such authority. And yet, so far from being a mere worker of miracles, as we should have expected if the history of His miracles had been of legendary origin, there is nothing more marked than the pain, we had almost said the humiliation, which their necessity seems to have carried to His heart. ‘Except ye see signs and wonders, ye will not believe;’ ‘an evil and adulterous generation seeketh a sign;’ ‘blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed’ – such are the utterances of Him Who sighed when He opened the ears of the deaf and bade His Apostles look for higher and better things than power over all diseases or even over evil spirits.  So would not the Messiah of Jewish legend have spoken or done; nor would they who invented such miracles have so referred to them.

In truth, when, through the rift in His outward history, we catch a glimpse of Christ’s inner Being, these miracles, so far as not the outcome of the mystic union of the Divine and the Human in His Person, but as part of His Mission, form part of His Humiliation. They also belong to that way which He had chosen in his initial conquest of the Tempter in the Wilderness, when He chose, not the sudden display of absolute power for the subdual of His people, but the painful, slow method of meeting the wants, and addressing Himself to the understanding and capacity of those over Whom He would reign. In this view, it seems as if we could gain a fresh understanding, not only of the expediency of His final departure, so far as concerned the future teaching of the disciples by the Holy Spirit, but of His own longing for the Advent of the Comforter. In truth, the two teachers and the two modes of teaching could not be together, and the Ascension of the Christ, as the end of His Humiliation, marked the Advent of the Holy Ghost, as bestowing another mode of teaching than that of the days of His Humiliation.

And so, thinking of the scene on the evening before, we can understand how, ‘very early, while it was still very dark,’ Jesus rose up, and went into a solitary place to pray. The use of the same expression in Mar_13:35 enables us to fix the time as that of the fourth night-watch, or between three and six o’clock of the morning. It was not till some time afterwards, that even those, who had so lately been called to His closest fellowship, rose, and, missing Him, followed. Jesus had prayed in that solitude, and consecrated it. After such a day, and in prospect of entering on His second journey through Galilee – this time in so far different circumstances – He must prevent the dawn of the morning in prayer. And by this also would they learn, that He was not merely a worker of miracles, but that He, Whose Word demons obeyed, lived a Life, not of outward but of inward power, in fellowship with His Father, and baptized his work with prayer. But as yet, and, indeed, in measure all through His Life on earth, it seemed difficult for them in any measure to realise this. ‘All men seek for Thee,’ and therefore they would have had Him return to Capernaum. But this was the very reason why He had withdrawn ere dawn of day. He had come forth, and that, not to attract the crowds, and be proclaimed a King, but to preach the Kingdom of God. Once more we say it: so speaks not, nor acts the hero of Jewish legend!

As the three Synoptists accordantly state, Jesus now entered on His second Galilean journey. There can be little doubt, that the chronological succession of events is here accurately indicated by the more circumstantial narrative in Mark’s Gospel. The arrangement of Luke appears that of historical grouping, while that of Matthew is determined by the Hebraic plan of his Gospel, which seems constructed on the model of the Pentateuch, as if the establishment of the Kingdom by the Messiah were presented as the fulfilment of its preparatory planting in Israel. But this second journey through Galilee, which the three Gospels connect with the stay at Capernaum, marks a turning-point in the working of the Christ. As already stated, the occurrences at the ‘Unknown Feast,’ in Jerusalem, formed a new point of departure. Christ had fully presented His claims to the Sanhedrists, and they had been fully rejected by the Scribes and the people. Henceforth He separated Himself from that ‘untoward generation;’ henceforth, also, began His systematic persecution by the authorities, when His movements were tracked and watched. Jesus went alone to Jerusalem. This, also, was fitting. Equally so, that on His return He called His disciples to be His followers; and that from Capernaum He entered, in their company, on a new phase in His Work.

Significantly, His Work began where that of the Rabbis, we had almost said of the Old Testament saints, ended. Whatever remedies, medical, magical, or sympathetic, Rabbinic writings may indicate for various kinds of disease, leprosy is not included in the catalogue. They left aside what even the Old Testament marked as moral death, by enjoining those so stricken to avoid all contact with the living, and even to bear the appearance of mourners. As the leper passed by, his clothes rent, his hair dishevelled, and the lower part of his face and his upper lip covered, it was as one going to death who reads his own burial-service, while the mournful words, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ which he uttered, proclaimed that his was both living and moral death. Again, the Old Testament, and even Rabbinism, took, in the measures prescribed in leprosy, primarily a moral, or rather a ritual, and only secondarily a sanitary, view of the case. The isolation already indicated, which banished lepers from all intercourse except with those similarly stricken, and forebade their entering not only the Temple or Jerusalem, but any walled city, could not have been merely prompted by the wish to prevent infection. For all the laws in regard to leprosy are expressly stated not to have application in the case of heathens, proselytes before their conversion, and even of Israelites on their birth. The same inference must also be drawn from the circumstance, that the priestly examination and subsequent isolation of the leper were not to commence during the marriage week, or on festive days, since, evidently, infection would have been most likely to spread in such circumstances.

It has already been stated, that Rabbinism confessed itself powerless in presence of this living death. Although, as Michaelis rightly suggests, the sacrificial ritual for the cleansed leper implies, at least, the possibility of a cure, it is in every instance traced to the direct agency of God. Hence the mythical theory, which, to be rational, must show some precedent to account for the origination of the narrative in the Gospel, here once more breaks down. Keim cannot deny the evident authenticity of the Evangelic narrative, and has no better explanation to offer than that of the old Rationalists – which Strauss had already so fully refuted – that the poor sufferer only asked of Jesus to declare, not to make, him clean. In truth, the possibility of any cure through human agency was never contemplated by the Jews. Josephus speaks of it as possibly granted to prayer, but in a manner betokening a pious phraseology without serious meaning. We may go further, and say that not only did Rabbinism never suggest the cure of a leper, but that its treatment of those sufferers presents the most marked contrast to that of the Saviour. And yet, as if writing its own condemnation, one of the titles which it gives to the Messiah is ‘the Leprous,’ the King Messiah being represented as seated in the entrance to Rome, surrounded by, and relieving all misery and disease, in fulfilment of Isa_53:4. 

We need not here enumerate the various symptoms, by which the Rabbinic law teaches us to recognise true leprosy. Anyone capable of it might make the medical inspection, although only a descendant of Aaron could formally pronounce clean or unclean. Once declared leprous, the sufferer was soon made to feel the utter heartlessness of Rabbinism. To banish him outside walled towns may have been a necessity, which, perhaps, required to be enforced by the threatened penalty of forty stripes save one. Similarly, it might be a right, even merciful, provision, that in the Synagogues lepers were to be the first to enter and the last to leave, and that they should occupy a separate compartment (meḥiṣah), ten palms high, and six feet wide. For, from the symbolism and connection between the physical an the psychical, the Old Testament, in its rites and institutions, laid the greatest stress on ‘clean and unclean.’ To sum it up in briefest compass, and leaving out of view leprosy of clothes or houses, according to the Old Testament defilement was conveyed only by the animal body, and attached to no other living body than that of man, nor could any other living body than that of man communicate defilement. The Old Testament mentioned eleven principal kinds of defilement. These, as being capable of communicating further defilement, were designated Aḇoṯ hatumeoṯ – ‘fathers of defilements’ – the defilement which they produced being either itself an Aḇ hatumeah, or else a ‘Child,’ or a ‘Child’s Child of defilement’ (ולד יולד ולד הטומאה). We find in Scripture thirty-two Aḇoṯ hatumeoṯ, as they are called. To this Rabbinic tradition added other twenty-nine. Again, according to Scripture, those ‘fathers of defilements’ affected only in two degrees; the direct effect produced by them being designated ‘the beginning,’ or ‘the first,’ and that further propagated, ‘the second’ degree. But Rabbinic ordinances added a third, fourth, and even fifth degree of defilement. From this, as well as the equally intricate arrangements about purification, the Mishnic section about ‘clean and unclean’ is at the same time the largest and most intricate in the Rabbinic code, while its provisions touched and interfered, more than any others, with every department of life.

In the elaborate code of defilements leprosy was not only one of ‘the fathers of uncleanness,’ but, next to defilement from the dead, stood foremost amongst them. Not merely actual contact with the leper, but even his entrance defiled a habitation, and everything in it, to the beams of the roof. But beyond this, Rabbinic harshness or fear carried its provisions to the utmost sequences of an unbending logic. It is, indeed, true that, as in general so especially in this instance, Rabbinism loved to trace disease to moral causes. ‘No death without sin, and no pain without transgression;’ ‘the sick is not healed, till all his sins are forgiven him.’ These are oft-repeated sayings; but, when closely examined, they are not quite so spiritual as they sound. For, first, they represent a reaction against the doctrine of original sin, in the sense that it is not the Fall of man, but one’s actual transgression, to which disease and death are to be traced according to the saying: ‘Not the serpent kills, but sin.’  But their real unspirituality appears most clearly, when we remember how special diseases were traced to particular sins. Thus, childlessness and leprosy are described as chastisements, which indeed procure for the sufferer forgiveness of sins, but cannot, like other chastisements, be regarded as the outcome of love, nor be received in love. And even such sentiments in regard to sufferings are immediately followed by such cynical declarations on the part of Rabbis so afflicted, as that they loved neither the chastisement, nor its reward. And in regard to leprosy, tradition had it that, as leprosy attached to the house, the dress, or the person, these were to be regarded as always heavier strokes, following as each successive warning had been neglected, and a reference to this was seen in Pro_19:29.  Eleven sins are mentioned which bring leprosy, among them preeminently those of which the tongue is the organ.

Still, if such had been the real views of Rabbinism one might have expected that Divine compassion would have been extended to those, who bore such heavy burden of their sins. Instead of this, their burdens were needlessly increased. True, as wrapped in mourner’s garb the leper passed by, his cry ‘Unclean!’ was to incite others to pray for him – but also to avoid him. No one was even to salute him; his bed was to be low, inclining towards the ground. If he even put his head into a place, it became unclean. No less a distance than four cubits (six feet) must be kept from a leper; or, if the wind came from that direction, a hundred were scarcely sufficient. Rabbi Meir would not eat an egg purchased in a street where there was a leper. Another Rabbi boasted, that he always threw stones at them to keep them far off, while others hid themselves or ran away.  To such extent did Rabbinism carry its inhuman logic in considering the leper as a mourner, that it even forbade him to wash his face.

We can now in some measure appreciate the contrast between Jesus and His contemporaries in His bearing towards the leper. Or, conversely, we can judge by the healing of this leper of the impression which the Saviour had made upon the people. He would have fled from a Rabbi; he came in lowliest attitude of entreaty to Jesus. Criticism need not so anxiously seek for an explanation of his approach. There was no Old Testament precedent for it: not in the case of Moses, nor even in that of Elisha, and there was no Jewish expectancy of it. But to have heard Him teach, to have seen or known Him as healing all manner of disease, must have carried to the heart the conviction of His absolute power. And so one can understand this lowly reverence of approach, this cry which has so often since been wrung from those who have despaired of all other help: ‘If Thou wilt, Thou canst make me clean.’ It is not a prayer, but the ground-tone of all prayer – faith in His Power, and absolute committal to Him of our helpless, hopeless need. And Jesus, touched with compassion, willed it. It almost seems, as if it were in the very exuberance of power that Jesus, acting in so direct contravention of Jewish usage, touched the leper. It was fitting that Elisha should disappoint Naaman’s expectancy, that the prophet would heal his leprosy by the touch of his hand. It was even more fitting that Jesus should surprise the Jewish leper by touching, ere by His Word He cleansed him. And so, experience ever finds that in Christ the real is far beyond the ideal. We can understand, how, from his standpoint, Strauss should have found it impossible to understand the healing of leprosy by the touch and Word of Jesus. Its explanation lies in the fact, that He was the God-Man. And yet, as our inner tending after God and the voice of conscience indicate that man is capable of adoption into God’s family, so the marked power which in disease mind has over body points to a higher capability in Man Perfect, the Ideal Man, the God-Man, of vanquishing disease by His Will.

It is not quite so easy at first sight to understand, why Christ should with such intense earnestness, almost vehemence, have sent the healed man away – as the term bears, ‘cast him out. Certainly not (as Volkmar – fantastically in error on this, as on so many other points – imagines) because He disapproved of his worship. Rather do we once more gather, how the God-Man shrank from the fame connected with miracles – specially with such an one – which as we have seen, were rather of inward and outward necessity than of choice in His Mission. Not so – followed by a curious crowd, or thronged by eager multitudes of sightseers, or aspirants for temporal benefits – was the Kingdom of Heaven to be preached and advanced. It would have been the way of a Jewish Messiah, and have led up to His royal proclamation by the populace. But as we study the character of the Christ, no contrast seems more glaring – let us add, more painful – than that of such a scene. And so we read that, when, notwithstanding the Saviour’s charge to the healed leper to keep silence, it was nevertheless – nay, as might perhaps have been expected – all the more made known by him – as, indeed, in some measure it could scarcely have remained entirely unknown, He could no more, as before, enter the cities, but remained without in desert places, whither they came to Him from every quarter. And in that withdrawal He spoke, and healed, ‘and prayed.’

Yet another motive of Christ’s conduct may be suggested. His injunction of silence was combined with that of presenting himself to the priest and conforming to the ritual requirements of the Mosaic Law in such cases. It is scarcely necessary to refute the notion, that in this Christ was prompted either by the desire to see the healed man restored to the society of his fellows, or by the wish to have some officially recognised miracle, to which He might afterwards appeal. Not to speak of the un-Christlikeness of such a wish or purpose, as a matter of fact, He did not appeal to it, and the healed leper wholly disappears from the Gospel-narrative. And yet his conforming to the Mosaic Ritual was to be ‘a testimony unto them.’ The Lord, certainly, did not wish to have the Law of Moses broken – and broken, not superseded, it would have been, if its provisions had been infringed before His Death, Ascension, and the Coming of the Holy Ghost had brought their fulfilment.

But there is something else here. The course of this history shows that the open rupture between Jesus and the Jewish authorities, which had commenced at the Unknown Feast at Jerusalem, was to lead to practical sequences. On the part of the Jewish authorities, it led to measures of active hostility. The Synagogues of Galilee are no longer the quiet scenes of His teaching and miracles; His Word and deeds no longer pass unchallenged. It had never occurred to these Galileans, as they implicitly surrendered themselves to the power of His words, to question their orthodoxy. But now, immediately after this occurrence, we find Him accused of blasphemy. They had not thought it breach of God’s Law when, on that Sabbath, He had healed in the Synagogue of Capernaum and in the home of Peter; but after this it became sinful to extend like mercy on the Sabbath to him whose hand was withered. They had never thought of questioning the condescension of his intercourse with the poor and needy; but now they sought to sap the commencing allegiance of His disciples by charging Him with undue intercourse with publicans and sinners, and by inciting against Him even the prejudices and doubts of the half-enlightened followers of His own Forerunner. All these new incidents are due to one and the same cause; the presence and hostile watchfulness of the Scribes and Pharisees, who now for the first time appear on the scene of His ministry. Is it too much then to infer, that, immediately after that Feast at Jerusalem, the Jewish authorities sent their familiars into Galilee after Jesus, and that it was to the presence and influence of this informal deputation that the opposition to Christ, which now increasingly appeared, was due? If so, then we see not only an additional motive for Christ’s injunction of silence on those whom He had healed, and for His own withdrawal from the cities and their throng, but we can understand how, as He afterwards answered those, whom John had sent to lay before Christ his doubts, by pointing to His works, so He replied to the sending forth of the Scribes of Jerusalem to watch, oppose, and arrest Him, by sending to Jerusalem as His embassy the healed leper, to submit to all the requirements of the Law. It was His testimony unto them – His, Who was meek and lowly in heart; and it was in deepest accord with what He had done, and was doing. Assuredly, He, Who brake not the bruised reed, did not cry nor lift up His Voice in the streets, but brought forth judgment unto truth. And in Him shall the nations trust!