The man was desperate and deranged by the hopelessness of his condition.
He could not recall how long it had been since he had felt the touch of another person. Disconnected from his community, his family and his friends, the man had been quarantined. His condition rendered him unclean. And as such, he was forced to live like a vagabond, cut off from people, living in shallow caves and shaded groves.
His body ached. He had no way of knowing whether his condition was mild or life-threatening. The man only knew that he was unclean and that he could not be reunited with his loved ones until his condition improved. Until that long-awaited moment of healing, he would be a living dead man; his hope like a rain that falls but never reaches the ground.
The man was a leper. He suffered from a terrible, and liberally diagnosed, skin disease called leprosy.
He had tried most everything he could think of to heal himself. His efforts, however, only aggravated his condition and depressed his already feeble spirits. Staying on the edges of towns and festivals, he could never seem to work up the courage to approach a teacher, rabbi or healer for relief. Since he was unclean, drawing close to others was strictly forbidden and could result in his death.
But this time was different.
The man had heard from other lepers of a man—Jesus of Nazareth—who drove out demons, healed the sick, and taught that the Kingdom of God was at hand. Unable to resist the magnetic pull of this man’s promising presence, the leper seized his moment, breaking through the crowds and flinging himself before the prophet.
“Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.”
People around him immediately drew back, repulsed by his condition. His statement also drew a smattering of snickers from the crowd. “If you choose?” they repeated. Was healing really that simple? Was healing possible just because Jesus was willing to heal him?
Meanwhile, Jesus had stopped and was now giving the man his full attention. Jesus seemed moved by the man’s proclamation of faith. Shocking the crowd and eliciting gasps, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I do choose. Be made clean! (Matthew 8:3)."
“Immediately,” the Gospel reports, “his leprosy was cleansed.”
This story humbles me and compels me to examine the faith of the leper. First, the leper acknowledged that he was not well. This is not always the case with us, is it? Some of us ignore the deficiencies and dis-eases in our hearts and in our bodies for long stretches in our lives. We choose denial. Or worse, we choose self-diagnosis and self-care. And we know how that typically works out.
I’m also impressed with the man’s hunger to get to Jesus. He takes a risk, violates the cultural norms, and strives with every ounce of his being to have an encounter with Jesus.
And how about the man’s faith? It is a fully committed, no-turning-back, profession of faith in Jesus’s ability to heal him.
Jesus touches him. Jesus heals him. He is made well. He experiences shalom.
This story reminds me of the Jesus Prayer. It is an old spiritual discipline, practiced by the faithful from a variety of Christian traditions. It is simple, and to the point. It is both profession of faith and petition for mercy.
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner.”
The prayer should sound familiar. It is a combination of well-known scriptures from the Gospels. Followers of Jesus have prayed this prayer—typically in a contemplative manner by internally saying this simple prayer repeatedly—as a declaration of Christ’s Lordship and our need to be saved.
Frederica Mathewes-Green says it better than I can: “The problem is not in God’s willingness to have mercy, but in our forgetting that we need it. We keep lapsing into ideas of self-sufficiency, or get impressed with our niceness, and so we lose our humility. Asking for mercy reminds us that we are still poor and needy, and fall short of the glory of God. Those who do not ask do not receive, because they don’t know their own need.”
As our journey with the Encountering God continues, perhaps this needs to be said: Those who encounter God do so because they truly desire to be in God’s presence.
"Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean."
Actually, the choice may be up to us.