Great Texts of the Bible by James Hastings - Matthew 8:2 - 8:3

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Great Texts of the Bible by James Hastings - Matthew 8:2 - 8:3

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The Leper

And behold, there came to him a leper and worshipped him, saying, Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean. And he stretched forth his hand, and touched him, saying, I will; be thou made clean. And straightway his leprosy was cleansed.—Mat_8:2-3.

1. The disease of leprosy is scarcely known, except in a mild form, among ourselves; only those who have seen it in Eastern lands can realize its full horror and loathsomeness. And not even then unless they place themselves in intelligent sympathy with the ancient Hebrew point of view, and understand the mysterious dread and utter abhorrence which surrounded the person so afflicted. He was an accursed thing, under the ban of God, the pariah, the unapproachable. Writhing under the dread disease, he was lost to the world. His home was the caves among the rocks, his food the scanty pittance which he could gather in the fields or by the roadsides. Leprosy was held to be the mark of awful sin, the manifestation of God’s special displeasure. Even if he recovered, he could not be restored without an elaborate ritual, which was supposed to cleanse him from the taint of disease, and to reconcile him to God. How horrible this all seems as we read and think about it. Yet we must realize it if we desire to appreciate fully all that the Saviour’s touch and healing implied.

2. To approach the leper, to look upon him, to bend over him, to reach out the hand and touch him, required no common courage. There was such pollution in the act that the one doing it became ritually unclean. For a man to step across the awful chasm which yawned between the leper and society, to minister to his wants, to show him the way back to health and home, was braver than to face death on the battlefield. To the beholder it would be an evidence of utter recklessness, an open defiance of all tradition and all law. Yet Christ, the Son of Man, did not hesitate for a moment. He did not come to set at naught the law, made sacred by Moses’ decree and by long ages of use. It was not that. It was only a declaration, of which His wonderful life was so full, of the higher law which was from henceforth to govern the world; that higher law of the sympathy of the great Father with all manner of suffering and sorrow, that higher law which was to take the place of the narrow rule of Hebrew ritual, of the possibility of the restoration of every outcast by the acceptance of the help of the Saviour.

Christ did not disregard the prohibition to touch the leper because He wanted to show His contempt for the statute. For Him the wealth of His own life repealed the statute. He was like a vessel riding the deep sea; all underlaid with rocks the sea may be, but for that vessel there are no rocks; the vastness of the deep waters on whose surface its course is swung practically obliterates the rocks, and bears the vessel forward in the confidence of infinite security.1 [Note: C. H. Parkhurst, A Little Lower than the Angels, 43.]


The Cry for Cleansing

“Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean.”

1. This is a confession of faith rather than a direct prayer. It expresses faith in the power of Christ. It is a grand thing when a leper can believe in anything besides his own misery. Probably this man had heard only at a distance (owing to the disabilities of his loathsome disease) of Christ’s deeds of power, and had never been near enough to Him to hear the tender tones of that voice which had melting pity in it, or to trace the lines of gentleness and grace in His loving countenance. Besides, men learn sooner to trace power than to trace tenderness. The Red Sea and Sinai revealed God’s power, but it took a millennium and a half longer for Calvary to reveal His love. The plea of the leper therefore is, “Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst.” Did he accept the general belief that only God could heal the leper? Then there was the more faith in this admission of Christ’s power.

What a consciousness of might there was in Jesus! Others, prophets and apostles, have healed the sick, but their power was delegated. It came as in waves of Divine impulse, intermittent and temporary. The power that Jesus wielded was inherent and absolute, deeps which knew neither cessation nor diminution. Christ’s will was supreme over all forces. Nature’s potencies are diffused and isolated, slumbering in herb or metal, flower or leaf, in mountain or sea. But all are inert and useless until man distils them with his subtle alchemies, and then applies them by his slow processes, dissolving the tinctures in the blood, sending on its warm currents the healing virtue, if haply it may reach its goal and accomplish its mission. But all these potencies lay in the hand or in the will of Christ. The forces of life all were marshalled under His bidding. He had but to say to one “Go,” and it went, here or there, or anywhither; nor does it go for nought; it accomplishes its high behest, the great Master’s will.1 [Note: H. Burton, The Gospel of St. Luke, 267.]

2. Now the exercise of faith must always precede healing. A certain moral temper there must be in the recipient, a certain spiritual outlook, a movement of trust, a personal desire of living interest that will go out from the soul towards the presence of Him who draws it into His mastery. These there must be if any virtue is to go out from Him. He moves along in silence, but His silence has power in it that can be felt, and it acts as a spiritual test of those on whom it falls. If they are in a moral condition to be helped, they become aware of the succour that is at hand. They feel about for what it means, they detect His personal supremacy. They have an impulse that goes out to Him; they put up a cry; they thrust out a hand to touch, if it may be, the hem of His garment. That act of theirs releases His force. Instantaneously and inevitably His life has passed into theirs. They are invaded by His strength; they are permeated by His vitality; they are quickened by His energy; they find themselves, by sheer and natural necessity, rising, walking, seeing, hearing. They could not do anything else. Surprise vanishes and wonder is slain. It is as simple as any other natural effect. They perfectly understand Him as He tells them that they had but to be in that condition and the thing is bound to happen—“Thy faith hath made thee whole.”

Oft had the Master to pass inactive and helpless as poor maimed men sat in moody silence by the roadside, and never asked who He was, and never hoped for a hand to save. He saw many a leper go by engulfed in his own shame, never lifting his eyes to beg of Him a boon. He had to watch the stupid indifference of those whom misery had dulled and hardened into despair, and still He might not speak. He might not shake them out of their torpor; His mouth was closed; His hope must hold itself back. Why will not they understand? Why cannot they cry out? Just one whisper, “Jesus of Nazareth, have mercy upon us,” and in a moment He would be free. He would be there at their side; His hand would have leaped out; His touch would have been upon them. The words would have rushed out willingly from his tongue, “I will; go in peace, for thy faith hath made thee whole.”

Just as the amazing resources of electricity lie all about us, quivering and inactive until we call out their capacities, so the vast pardon of God waits, and through its obedience to natural law must wait until the Master’s touch has on it a human pressure. The leper must discover it, must draw upon it, must open himself to it, and then the power long repressed leaps out in an instant, rushes forward in free haste, in liberated gladness. It pours itself out upon him, it bathes him round, it seizes upon him, it possesses him. Not a moment is lost. Before his own appeal has died off his lips, “Lord, if thou wilt,” the answer is upon him—it has already done its full work—“I will; be thou clean.”1 [Note: Canon Scott Holland.]

“Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean” is a prayer lovely in the simplicity of its human pleading—an appeal to the power which lay in the man to whom he spoke: His power was the man’s claim; the relation between them was of the strongest—that between plenty and need, between strength and weakness, between health and disease—poor bonds comparatively between man and man, for man’s plenty, strength, and health can only supplement, not satisfy, the need; support the weakness, not change it into strength; mitigate the disease of His fellow, not slay it with invading life; but in regard to God, all whose power is creative, any necessity of His creatures is a perfect bond between them and Him; His magnificence must flow into the channels of the indigence He has created.2 [Note: George MacDonald, The Miracles of Our Lord, 86.]

3. Why does the leper question the Saviour’s will? It does not appear as if our Lord had as yet healed any leper; this man is at any rate the first leper mentioned as coming to Him for healing. Then the poor man no doubt regarded his leprosy as a just judgment for the sins of which his conscience was afraid, and went about so humbled and ashamed that he hardly dared pray for deliverance. Besides, he might think (for so the Jews commonly thought) that there was no healing of leprosy except by miracle, by the immediate act of God Almighty Himself; and this again would make his request seem bolder. And so the wonder is, not that he questioned Jesus’ will, but that he believed in His power. By believing in His power he threw himself upon the innermost tenderness of Christ’s nature; and the whole being of our Lord answered to the call. There was no question of power to be solved or proved; the method of the appeal left no room for argument; the leper’s words, as they passed into the depths of Christ’s loving nature, which alone was invoked, cut a passage for themselves, through which the healing waters could flow. The response was instant—“if thou wilt”—“I will.”

Jesus did not treat slight ailments, only the most profound, obstinate, ghastly maladies. He did not concern Himself with simple aches and pains, but proved His Divine authority and efficacy in distinguishing leprosy, palsy, fever, blindness, and terrible psychic derangements. Numbers of reformers are prepared to deal with the superficial ailments of humanity—with its toothaches, sores, and scratches; but only One dares attack the deep, stubborn, chronic diseases of our nature, the fundamental evils of the race. He alone is the grand physician of the world-lazaretto, the healer of the incurable, despairing of no man. Let me, then, seek in Him for the grace that shall root out the most malign morbid humours of the soul. The darkest and deadliest elements of evil He can rebuke and expel. “Lord, that I might be clean!”1 [Note: W. L. Watkinson.]


The Healing Touch

“And he stretched forth his hand, and touched him, saying, I will; be thou made clean.”

1. “Touch is the sense which love employs.” It means the annihilation of distance between one who loves and that which he loves, so that mere nearness is replaced by contact. Our sense of the significance of touch finds expression in such phrases as “getting into touch,” or “living in touch,” with people. They stand for sympathetic contact, the sympathy which seeks contact, and does not keep others “at arm’s length.” Children learn it in their mothers’ laps, and are never content to be merely near those they love without actually touching them.

A very little thing was this touch, even as an indication of kindly purpose, but it was just the little thing that a sensitive sick man needed. It is, after all, little things that indicate either sympathy or antipathy. “I will buy with you,” says Shylock, “sell with you, talk with you, walk with you, and so following; but I will not eat with you, drink with you, nor pray with you.” Had Jesus held aloof from the afflicted they never would have trusted Him. Nothing so pains a sick person as the sign of shrinking from him. Wear your gloves in any room you like, but not in the sick-room. Bend your ear to the trembling dying lips, and shun not to lay your hands on the diseased, if you are to do them any good, either as nurse or as spiritual adviser and Christian friend.

We may be allowed to insert here a few words from an account sent to us of Dolling’s influence with the rough youths of Landport by a lady (then Miss Nance, now Mrs. Cator) who managed a club for those fellows, under his sanction, when he was at S. Agatha’s: “Mr. Dolling and S. Agatha’s Mission was the only kind of religion that ever appealed to them, and I feel sure I could never have persuaded them to go and talk about their lives to anyone else. They said, ‘Oh, he’s different; we don’t mind him.’ I could tell of miracles of healing under Mr. Dolling’s touch. One young soldier said to me, ‘He laid his hand on my head, and, I don’t know why, I told him all I had ever done.’ ”1 [Note: O. E. Osborne, The Life of Father Dolling, 269.]

2. It would have been quite possible for our Lord to heal this leper by a word alone. It would be quite possible for God Almighty to say to all the moral lepers of the world, “Be thou clean!” and the cure would be Divinely perfect. Why, then, does He not? Just because the cure would be Divinely perfect. God wants it to be humanly perfect, and this can be effected only by a touch. Elijah in the desert may be fed by ravens or he may be fed by man’s philanthropy. The physical effect will be the same, but not the moral effect. Elijah fed by the ravens is not a whit nearer to his kind than Elijah faint and hungry; but Elijah fed by human hands becomes himself more human. The greatest calamity of a leper was not his leprosy; it was his divorce from his fellow-men. It was not his physical disease that divorced him; it was the belief in his moral contagion. His greatest cry was for some one to touch him—to bridge the river of separation. It was easy to get the touch after he was healed. But the hard thing was to get contact before healing—to receive the touch before receiving the mandate, “Be thou clean!” His fellow-men would not grant him that boon. Doubtless they prayed for his recovery, but they would not touch him un-recovered. God could have healed him in answer to their prayers, but He wanted to heal him in answer to their contact.

Social reformers are discovering that they can do little good for people of any sort while they hold them at arm’s length. “I have learned,” says a worker in one of the University settlements, “that you can get access to the people who need you only by living with them. They will not come to you; but Jew and Gentile will make you welcome if you come to them. Our meetings for their benefit are a failure. Our personal intercourse with them, man to man, has been promising great good. It is of no use to come once or twice to see them; you must live with them if you are to do anything for them.”1 [Note: R. E. Thompson, Nature, the Mirror of Grace, 81.]

The hand, more than any other limb or organ, differentiates man, begotten in the image of his Father, from the whole series of animal creations. No other animal has a hand. The corresponding organ in the anthropoid ape, which is the most like a hand, is not really a hand; it can fashion nothing, it is fit for nothing but to cling to a branch or convey food to the mouth. Only man has a hand, and as with it he stamps his impress upon nature, and founds his sovereignty of civilization, and performs his deeds of heroism, so, when he would caress, or soothe, or comfort, or encourage, or bless, or stimulate, or welcome his fellow human being, in obedience to some secret instinct, he invariably automatically lays his hand upon him.2 [Note: B. Wilberforce, The Power that Worketh in Us, 56.]

Jesus could have cured the leper with a word. There was no need He should touch him. No need, did I say? There was every need. For no one else would touch him. The healthy human hand, always more or less healing, was never laid on him; he was despised and rejected. It was a poor thing for the Lord to cure his body; He must comfort and cure his sore heart. Of all men a leper, I say, needed to be touched with the hand of love. Spenser says, “Entire affection hateth nicer hands.” It was not for our master, our brother, our ideal man, to draw around Him the skirts of His garments and speak a lofty word of healing, that the man might at least be clean before He touched him. The man was His brother, and an evil disease cleaved fast unto him. Out went the loving hand to the ugly skin, and there was His brother as he should be—with the flesh of a child. I thank God that the touch went before the word. Nor do I think it was the touch of a finger, or of the finger-tips. It was a kindly healing touch in its nature as in its power. Oh, blessed leper! thou knowest henceforth what kind of a God there is in the earth—not the God of the priests, but a God such as Himself only can reveal to the hearts of His own.1 [Note: G. MacDonald, The Miracles of Our Lord, 88.]


The Greater Gift

The physical cure is the pledge and promise of a still greater blessing. For leprosy was singled out by God Himself from the vast catalogue of human diseases and sufferings to keep before the eyes of His people of old a perpetual memorial of the vileness and awfulness of moral evil. The outer body was made by Him a mirror of the far deeper and darker taint in the soul. It was a silent preacher in the midst of the theocratic nation and to the end of time, testifying to the virulence of a more inveterate malady—that “from the sole of the foot even unto the head there is no soundness in us, but wounds and bruises and putrefying sores.” Although it by no means invariably followed that the lepers of Israel were afflicted with their dire plague in consequence of personal sin, yet we know that this was the case in some instances, such as those of Miriam, Gehazi, and Uzziah. And at all events the disease was regarded by the Jews as a mark of the Divine displeasure. They spoke of it as “the finger of God.” It was considered an outward and visible sign of inward disorganization, guilt, and impurity.

It is clear that the same principle [of the law of Moses] which made all having to do with death, as mourning, a corpse, the occasions of a ceremonial uncleanness, inasmuch as all these were signs and consequences of sin, might consistently with this have made every sickness an occasion of uncleanness, each of these being also death beginning, partial death—echoes in the body of that terrible reality, sin in the soul. But instead of this, in a gracious sparing of man, and not pushing the principle to the uttermost, God took but one sickness, one of these visible outcomings of a tainted nature, in which to testify that evil was not from Him, could not dwell with Him. He linked this teaching with but one; by His laws concerning it to train men into a sense of a clinging impurity, which needed a Pure and a Purifier to overcome and expel, and which nothing short of His taking of our flesh could drive out. And leprosy, the sickness of sicknesses, was throughout these Levitical ordinances selected of God from the whole host of maladies and diseases which had broken in upon the bodies of men. Bearing His testimony against it, He bore His testimony against that out of which every sickness grows, against sin; as not from Him, as grievous in His sight; and against the sickness also itself as grievous, being as it was a visible manifestation, a direct consequence of sin, a forerunner of that death which by the portal of disobedience and revolt had found entrance into natures created by Him for immortality.1 [Note: R. C. Trench, Notes on the Miracles of Our Lord, 226.]

1. Salvation provides free access to God. When the Lord said, “I will; be thou made clean,” when He had put forth His healing hand, from that moment the man had a right of approach to the place where God’s honour dwelt—he might again tread the courts of the Temple; he might again offer his gifts; he might once more worship with the worshippers. And this is the great fruit of the sacrifice of Christ—of the “I will; be thou made clean,” pronounced concerning each and all of us—that it procures us admission into the holiest, into the presence of God, and so brings us under the mighty healing influences which are ever going forth from Him, that having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, purged from dead works, we are able to draw near in faith, and henceforth to serve the living God.

The Son of God, at once above our life and in our life, morally Divine and circumstantially human, mediates for us between the self so hard to escape, and the Infinite so hopeless to reach; and draws us out of our mournful darkness without losing us in excess of light. He opens to us the moral and spiritual mysteries of our existence, appealing to a consciousness in us that was asleep before. And though He leaves whole worlds of thought approachable only by silent wonder, yet His own walk of heavenly communion, His words of grace and works of power, His strife of Divine sorrow, His cross of self-sacrifice, His reappearance behind the veil of life eternal, fix on Him such holy trust and love, that, where we are denied the assurance of knowledge, we attain the repose of faith.1 [Note: Life and Letters of James Martineau, i. 286.]

2. Salvation links men together in a holy fellowship. As the Lord sent this suppliant, before an outcast, back to the society of his fellows, a cleansed man, no longer obliged to cover his lips in shame, no longer with a miserable sense of something that separated him from all his race, even so He gives unto His redeemed and sanctified a ground of true communion and fellowship one with another—He takes away the middle wall of partition that was between each man and his brethren, having slain the enmity and the selfishness by His cross.

I have endeavoured in my tracts to prove that if Christ be really the head of every man, and if He really have taken human flesh, there is ground for a universal fellowship among men (a fellowship that is itself the foundation of those particular fellowships of the nation and the family, which I also consider sacred). I have maintained that it is the business of a Church to assert this ground of universal fellowship; that it ought to make men understand and feel how possible it is for men as men to fraternize in Christ; how impossible it is to fraternize, except in Him.2 [Note: The Life of Frederick Denison Maurice, i. 258.]

3. It will be said that in any case the days of isolation are gone, and gone for ever. Nation can no longer hold itself aloof from nation, and people from people, as if they did not share a common humanity, hardly as if they lived in the same world. We are daily being forced into closer contacts, welded into closer unities. Well, what is to be the consequence of all this? Without the touch, the healing, cleansing, life-giving touch of Christ and His gospel, without the higher life of a genuinely Christian civilization, it may mean a disaster fearful to contemplate, whose proportions we can scarcely imagine. On the one side it can mean only destruction to the races of heathendom. It is a well-known law of ethnology that, unless there be some assimilating, unifying power such as the gospel alone can furnish, the weaker always perishes rapidly before the stronger. The contacts of trade, commercialism, and militarism bring invariably in their train contagion and infection. The heathen are apt pupils of evil. With a fatal facility they learn the new vices of the soldiers, sailors, and traders of so-called civilized and Christian peoples, and add them to their own native vices and diseases. And the combination means nothing less than destruction.

There are consequences that run in the other direction also. With these ever closer relations of commerce and conquest which are fast knitting all the world into one come new and fearful dangers to ourselves. Up from the uncleansed life of heathendom shall sweep mighty plagues, both physical and moral. That life has diseases to give us whose horror we never dreamed of. It has sins to teach us which even in the depths of our depravity we have not imagined. And soldiers and sailors, traders and merchants, wanderers in far lands, away from the restraints of home, acquaintance, and familiar associations, are apt pupils in such things. That is what contact without Christ is bound to mean. If, through that inevitable touch of people upon people, virtue does not go out from us to them, then contagion and infection are sure to pass from them to us and us to them. If we will not share with them our highest life, our nobler ambitions, our blessings, above all, our gospel, then they will share with us their plagues of soul and body. Therefore alongside the warehouse, the barracks, and the saloon, which always mark the first wave of an advancing Western civilization, must be built the Christian school, the hospital, and the church.

During Sunday afternoons in June 1888, Professor Drummond delivered a series of religious addresses at Grosvenor House, London. After distinguishing between religion and theology, he said that the truth of Christianity is manifest in the fact that there is no real civilization without it, and that the purer the form of Christianity the greater the development of civilization. “Show me,” he said, with Matthew Arnold, “ten square miles outside of Christianity where the life of man or the virtue of woman is safe, and I’ll throw over Christianity at once.”1 [Note: G. A. Smith, The Life of Henry Drummond, 279.]

Chalmers’ address at the Exeter Hall meeting of the London Missionary Society in 1886 was the climax of his public work during this visit home. Exeter Hall was crowded, and the main interest of the meeting centred in Tamate’s unpolished but thrilling eloquence. To recall a few of the most striking passages: “I have had twenty-one years’ experience amongst natives. I have seen the semi-civilized and the uncivilized; I have lived with the Christian native, and I have lived, dined, and slept with the cannibal. I have visited the islands of the New Hebrides; I have visited the Loyalty Group, I have seen the work of missions in the Samoan Group, I know all the islands of the Society Group, I have lived for ten years in the Hervey Group, I know a few of the groups close on the line, and for at least nine years of my life I have lived with the savages of New Guinea; but I have never yet met with a single man or woman, or a single people, that your civilization without Christianity has civilized. For God’s sake let it be done at once! Gospel and commerce, but remember this, it must be the Gospel first. Wherever there has been the slightest spark of civilization in the Southern Seas it has been because the Gospel has been preached there, and wherever you find in the Island of New Guinea a friendly people or a people that will welcome you, there the missionaries of the Cross have been preaching Christ. Civilization! The Rampart can only be stormed by those who carry the Cross.”2 [Note: R. Lovett, James Chalmers, 276.]

The Leper


Burrell (D. J.), Christ and Men, 168.

Calthrop (G.), The Future Life, 256.

Davies (D.), Talks with Men, Women and Children, i. 21.

Gilbert (M. N.), in Sermons on the Gospels: Advent to Trinity, 119.

Howatt (J. R.), Jesus the Poet, 57.

Keble (J.), Sermons for the Christian Year: Christmas and Epiphany, 463.

Macduff (J. R.), Memories of Gennesaret, 51.

Mackennal (A.), Christ’s Healing Touch, 1.

McNeill (J.), Regent Square Pulpit, iii. 313.

Magee (W. C.), Growth in Grace, 271.

Matheson (G.), Thoughts for Life’s Journey, 16.

Parkhurst (C. H.), A Little Lower than the Angels, 39.

Power (P. B.), The “I Wills” of Christ, 67.

Raymond (G. L.), The Spiritual Life, 33.

Thompson (R. E.), Nature, the Mirror of Grace, 69.

Trench (R. C.), Westminster and Other Sermons, 15.

Wilberforce (B.), The Power that Worketh in Us, 54.

Williams (C. D.), A Valid Christianity for To-Day, 20.

Wilmot-Buxton (H. J.), By Word and Deed, 21.

Christian World Pulpit, liii. 48 (H. S. Holland); lxxx. 56 (H. E. Selwyn).

Churchman’s Pulpit: Third Sunday after the Epiphany, iv. 52 (E. Palmer).