Luke XX: Lk. 5:12-26
In order to understand the healings of the leper and the paralytic, you have to understand a little bit about the Old Testament purity system, a fairly complex code of cleanliness regulating how one could draw near to God in worship (Lev. 13-15).
Uncleanness & God’s Grace
“Leprosy” was a broadly used term that applied to certain skin blemishes and diseases, as well as various forms of mold or mildew in clothing and houses (Lev. 13). In addition to leprosy, there were so many ways to become unclean, that most Israelites would be constantly becoming unclean and clean again. Not all uncleanness was sinful, but the point was to teach Israel that sin and death permeates all of human life and separates people from God – this is what Adam’s sin did (e.g. Rom. 5:12). So every time you became unclean and wanted to draw near to God, there was always a sacrifice to make “atonement” (e.g. Lev. 14:18-20). Once a year on the Day of Atonement, a goat was killed and its blood was sprinkled in the Most Holy Place for the uncleanness of Israel (Lev. 16:19), then the High Priest laid his hands on the head of a second goat and confessed the sins of Israel before sending it out of the camp to be set free in the wilderness (Lev. 16:21-22).
This is why the bigger point was to demonstrate God’s grace in dwelling in the midst of Israel despite all the uncleanness. Not only did He draw near to them, but He drew near to forgive and cleanse them and make a way for them to draw near to Him. But uncleanness not only affected people’s access to God, it also had major social ramifications. Since uncleanness was often contagious, suspicions of uncleanness might land you in a temporary quarantine (e.g. Lev. 13:4-5), and a really bad outbreak (of leprosy for example) could mean permanent ostracism outside the camp of the Israelite community (Lev. 13:45-46). Only the High Priest could examine the various leprous outbreaks and forms of uncleanness and make pronouncements about whether someone was clean or not (e.g. Lev. 13:3, 8, 11, 13, 17, etc.). He is the one who sprinkled the blood of the goat, confessed the sins of the people, and announced their forgiveness on behalf of God.
How Jesus Cleanses and Forgives
All of this background helps to explain these two scenes with the leper and the paralytic. First, the leper even coming anywhere near Jesus is incredibly risky. For anyone who cared about ceremonial cleanness, he would be viewed as a contagious outcast. Second, the fact that the leper comes to Jesus to be pronounced clean is another bold move (Lk. 5:12-13). Of course we assume he wants Jesus to heal him, but he’s still asking a non-priest to make him “clean” (Lk. 5:12). Third, Jesus not only heals the man and pronounces him clean, but He reaches out His hand and touches the man (Lk. 5:13). Ordinarily uncleanness is contagious: if you were touched or accidentally touched someone who was unclean, you could become unclean. But in this instance, the purity of Jesus infects the man. Fourth, even though Jesus has pronounced the man clean, He instructs him to go and show himself to the priest and perform the ritual cleansing as a proof that his healing is real (Lk. 5:14). This would ensure that the man would be fully reintegrated back into the community. What might seem like an empty detail – Jesus going into the wilderness to pray (Lk. 5:16) – is probably actually part of the explanation for how Jesus has this power to heal and cleanse in the first place. Jesus restores lepers to God and their community by taking their uncleanness, taking their place and going outside the camp into desolate places to cry out to His Father. Like the second goat, Jesus takes the uncleanness and carries it away into the wilderness, like He will be led to a desolate hillside to bear the sins of His people, on the last Day of Atonement.
This cleansing of the leper is probably what attracted the attention of the Pharisees and teachers of the law from Jerusalem (Lk. 5:17). So it’s striking that when the paralytic is let down through the roof, Jesus again performs the part of a priest and announces that the man’s sins are forgiven (Lk. 5:18-20). Literally, in Hebrew, He probably said something like “Adam, your sins are forgiven,” – announcing Adam’s reentry into the Garden-presence of God. The scribes and Pharisees are not objecting to a human announcing forgiveness (Lk. 5:21), but rather insisting that God has already established a way for sins to be forgiven through the priests at the temple – that’s the blasphemy (Lk. 5:21). Jesus perceives this objection and wants to know which is easier: healing or absolution (Lk. 5:22-23)? Once again Jesus proves His first action, by means of a second proof. He – as the new “Son of Adam” – has the authority to proclaim the forgiveness of sins, and this is proven by the man rising up and going home on his own two feet, once again restoring a man to his community (Lk. 5:24-25).
Conclusions & Applications
Both of these episodes prefigure what Jesus came to do. He came to make people clean and take away their sins. His death on the cross would be the great and last Day of Atonement. In one sense, you can think of His entire earthly ministry as a ministry of receiving the uncleanness and sins of the world. This did not happen only on Good Friday; rather, His entire earthly ministry was a process of gathering up and receiving all of brokenness of the world. The death of Jesus was the point at which all sin and uncleanness were finally made clean and taken away.
These two stories teach us that Jesus takes away both guilt (forgiveness) and shame (cleansing). Guilt is the judicial sentence against sin and forgiveness is your judicial release. However, shame is the feeling of worthlessness, filth, disgust, and cleansing restores you to real community. Sometimes even after forgiveness is announced, people still feel like second-class citizens because of their shame. This is what the two goats on the Day of Atonement were meant to address: both our objective guilt and our subjective shame. Jesus came to do what both goats pictured: He suffered and died outside the camp to bear our guilt and to take away our shame (1 Jn. 1:9).
The death of Jesus takes away all guilt and shame, and His resurrection proves it, and this is the same power that reintegrates all who believe into true community.