Lepers were the zombies of the biblical world. But not in the way you might think. Nowadays, when leprosy is mentioned or portrayed, it’s usually in parody, in a rather odd attempt at humor. Bad jokes abound concerning body parts falling off, and rotting flesh, and it does begin to sound like a zombie apocalypse. But what these depictions have in mind is really one particular illness, Hansen’s Disease, which is no laughing matter for those who suffer from it; nor for their families.
In the Bible, though, what is typically called “leprosy” is probably more akin to modern eczema, and seems to cover a fairly broad range of skin conditions. It wasn’t debilitating or life-threatening in the way that Hansen’s Disease is, so a person might live with “leprosy” for many, many years.
Yet, to be a leper in the biblical world was a kind of living death, and to be viewed and treated almost like a zombie. The leper was unclean, according to the Law of God, and was therefore cut off from the community and fellowship of Israel: from both church and state, and from society. That seems harsh and unfair, but it belongs to the impurity of this fallen world in contrast to the holiness of God. The outward blemish of “leprosy” made visible the inward sickness of sin.
Which is not to say that lepers alone were sinful; but they bore in their skin the sickness of us all. And on account of that, they were separated from everyone else, as though they were corpses, already dead and buried. They were, to say it bluntly, excommunicated from the temple worship, and outlawed from the public life of the city, town, or village. Strangers and aliens. Foreigners.
Except that, now, the Lord Jesus Christ has drawn near to those who were far off. He has entered into the living death of our sin; into the darkness at the edge of town; into the zombie land of this fallen world, in order to bring us out of death into real life with Himself, into communion with God and man. He has come to cleanse our hearts by faith in His forgiveness of all our sin; and so to cleanse our souls and bodies, too, our spirits and our skin.
This rescue and salvation has arrived in His own Body of flesh and blood, as He proceeds on the Way of the Cross up to Jerusalem, to bear the sins of the world in His own skin and bones. For He is both our great High Priest in all things pertaining to God, and the final perfect Sacrifice of Atonement for the sins of the world. And He has come for this purpose: in order to have mercy.
It is, therefore, a prayer of faith in the Word and promise of the Son of God, when those ten leprous men call upon His Holy Name, and cry out to Him for mercy: for grace to help in their great need. It is by faith, as well, that they all respond immediately in obedience to the Word that He speaks.
The Lord Jesus sends them to the priests; which is to say, He sends them to the ways and means of grace that God the Lord has provided for His Old Testament people. In much the same way, He sends you to your pastors, who carry out the Ministry of the Gospel, in His Name and stead, by the preaching of His Word and the administration of His Sacraments, in His Church on earth.
It is in the Ministry of the Word and works of God that cleansing, health, and strength are found; because that is where and how the Lord bestows His Life-giving Spirit upon His people.
For Jesus to send those ten lepers to the priests implies that they will healed; for that is what the rubrics in Leviticus describe: Those who have been unclean because of their leprosy, if it comes about that they are healed of that skin disease, they are then to present themselves to the priests to be examined, their healing to be verified, and then to be cleansed and readmitted into fellowship.
The cleansing, then, according to the Word of the Lord in the Law of Moses, is accomplished by the rites and ceremonies instituted by God for those who have been healed of their leprosy.
This cleansing occurs in two distinct stages: The first part occurs outside of the camp, where the priest takes two birds, and he kills the one in order to drain its blood into a bowl of water, and he dips the other bird, the one that is still living, into the water and the blood; he also sprinkles the water and the blood seven times upon the person to be cleansed; and then the priest sets free the living bird in an open field, allowing it to fly away to its own nest. Then the person who is being cleansed must wash his clothes, shave off all his hair, and bathe his body in water. So shall he be clean, and he may enter the camp, but for the first week he still may not enter into his own tent. At this point he is still on the boundary, on the border between being “in” and being “out.”
The second stage of cleansing is undertaken on the seventh day: Then the person being cleansed again must wash his clothes, and shave off all the hair from his entire body, and once more bathe his body in water. Afterwards, on the eighth day (!), he brings two unblemished male lambs, and one unblemished ewe lamb, and a grain offering of fine flour, and a quantity of oil, and the priest brings him and his offering to the doorway of the Tent of Meeting: to the Tabernacle or Temple.
The cleansing of the former leper is completed with the offering of these several sacrifices: for reparation (because leprosy was associated especially with sacrilege), for purification from sin, and for atonement and reconciliation with God. Significantly, the person is anointed with the blood of the sacrifice, and with the oil, after it has been dedicated to the Lord, in much the same way that the priests were consecrated for service; for the one who was unclean is thereby fully restored to the fellowship of Israel, which is a priestly communion, a holy nation of God’s own possession.
These are the rites and ceremonies included in the Word of Jesus, when He sends those ten men to the priests. And as, once before, when He sent the waiters at a wedding with six stone jars to the master of the feast, and the water in the jars became wine; so now here, in their going to the priests as He commanded, the leprous men are healed of their leprosy. So it is that they are also cleansed by the ministry of the priests, once they have confirmed that the healing has occurred.
Okay, great. But, now what happens in the case of the Samaritan? He is healed of his leprosy, and he is cleansed to the extent that he is able to return to the life of the village; but he is still not going to be welcomed into the fellowship of Israel. He is still a “foreigner.” So, when his bird is let go, released into the open field, where is he supposed to go? What shall he do? Where will be home?
The Samaritan may not have much choice, but, the fact remains, he gets it right: He “flies” right back to Christ Jesus. And in that Man from Nazareth, the incarnate Son of God, that bird finds a nest in the Lord’s Altar: He finds the true Priest, the true Sacrifice, and the true Temple of God.
For this Lord Jesus Christ has made complete reparation for all the sacrilege and desecration of the entire creation. With His holy and precious blood, and by His innocent suffering and death, He has made atonement for the sins of all the sons and daughters of Adam. And in His Resurrection from the dead, God the Lord has reconciled the whole world to Himself in the Person of His Son.
There is, therefore, no longer any other sacrifice for sin: It is not possible; neither is it necessary. But in Christ Jesus, crucified and risen, you have now been found, and you are returned to God.
It is in and through Him that you now offer the one sacrifice that remains for the people of God, that is, the sacrifice of thanksgiving; and you partake of the true Holy Communion in His Peace.
Once you were a foreigner, cut off, far removed, and separated from the one true God; no less so than that Samaritan was, before Jesus came along. You also have been sinful and unclean, in your thoughts, words, and deeds, in your body and your soul; no less so than any of those leprous men.
But now, beloved, you are healed in body and soul, cleansed and sanctified, within and without, by the washing of the water with the Word of Christ, by the forgiveness of His Blood, and by the anointing of His Holy Spirit in the Gospel: No matter what your skin may look like on the outside, in truth you are without any blemish, spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; and your body also shall be made new in the Resurrection, glorious, immortal, and imperishable, like the Body of Christ.
Baptized into His Cross and Resurrection, into His perfect Sacrifice, you are set free from the bonds of sin and death: released like that living bird, set on the wing in the wide open fields of the New Creation. “Rise, and go,” Jesus says. For you are no zombie. You are made alive in Christ.
You are set free, indeed. But you are also given a home and a family, a place in the community of God’s holy people, a place of safety, peace, and rest, in the Body and Blood of Christ Jesus.
Truth be told, everything centers in this one Lord, Jesus Christ. Everything hinges and turns on Him. In Him is your life and your salvation, which is nothing else and nothing less than the Life everlasting of the Holy Triune God. That divine, eternal Life is yours in Christ.
And so it is, that you glorify the one true God, as that healed Samaritan did, by worshiping Christ and giving thanks to Him. With your heart and mind, your body and soul, your words and actions, you worship and adore Him by faith. Which is to say, that you look to Him for mercy, and you call upon His Name; you hear and believe His Word to you, and you live according to it; you receive His good gifts in peace, and you return thanks for all His benefits by the confession of His Name.
No longer are you a foreigner. A stranger and an alien on earth, yes, but not a foreigner from God.
For you have been given a new birth, another genealogy: You are a child of God in Christ, by virtue of your Baptism into Him, so that you belong to the household and family of His Father.
By His grace, you cling to this Lord Jesus Christ, as Ruth clung to Naomi and refused to let go; and everything that belongs to Him, is now also yours: His Father, His Spirit, His Name, and His Life. Therefore, lay hold of Him here in His Gospel, in the Word that He preaches to you, and in His Body and His Blood, which He gives to you freely, and generously pours out for you, for the forgiveness of all your sins. Rejoice in His salvation, and give Him thanks and praise.
For God is glorified in Him, who has come to you and met you in mercy. God is glorified in Him, because He lays hold of you in love, and clings to you, and cleaves to you, the Bridegroom to His Bride, forever and ever: Even death itself shall never be able to separate you from Him.
The One who promises is faithful: He will do what He has spoken. As He sends you to the priests, you may be sure that you are healed on the way, and so shall you be saved in both body and soul. It is the Lord Himself who sends you on this path, even as He calls you to Himself. He cannot and will not deny Himself, nor can His Word be broken. He will never leave you nor forsake you.
As God the Father raised this same Jesus from the dead, and receives Him into glory at His right hand in the heavenly places, so does He raise you up through the Gospel, the forgiveness of your sins. He receives you to Himself in the blessed Peace and Sabbath Rest of Christ, and so shall He glorify your body and your soul, your skin and bones, your flesh and blood, your heart, mind, and spirit, with His own eternal Life. This is most certainly true.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.