When he came down from the mountain, large crowds followed him, and -see this!- a leper came to him, knelt before him and said, “Master, if you want to, you can make me clean.” He stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I want to. Become clean!” And immediately he was cleansed from the leprosy. And Jesus says to him, “Mind you don’t blab to anyone. But go and show yourself to the priest, making the offering that Moses prescribed, as proof for them.”

The miraculous instruction by Jesus is followed by miraculous action.

Commentators are at pains to acknowledge that the Greek word lepros could mean a whole range of scaly skin conditions in the ancient world. However it referred to disease that was feared and loathed and led to the complete ostracisation of the victim. Matthew here relies on his source material in the Gospel of Mark, abbreviating it a little, especially missing out Mark’s report of the healed leper disobeying Jesus’ instruction not to broadcast his cure.

As we shall see, Matthew has a very particular interpretation of Jesus’ healing work, and is therefore very careful in his wording of these events. Here he connects the healing with the Sermon by showing Jesus descending from the mountain of God’s wisdom to meet the crying need of the people. The leper is convinced that Jesus is able to cure him; only his willingness is in doubt. Probably Matthew wants to show a man so accustomed to rejection that he must say, “If you want to” but he is met with Jesus’ forthright word, “I want to.” Matthew uses the tradition received from Mark to assert Jesus’ desire to heal, in spite of his evident dislike of being known as a miracle worker, as expressed in his instruction to the healed man.

The healing itself happens through a command to the patient: Become clean! The sick person is told to cast out his sickness! Ultimately we will be told that this only works because Jesus is prepared to ‘carry’ the disease. There should be no attempt to rationalise this or other miracles that Matthew recounts; he wants to present them as evidence of Jesus’ battle with the powers of evil and death. The moment of healing involves a gesture of Jesus’ invasion of the devil’s territory: his hand is stretched to touch the leper in a deliberate breach of the Mosaic law, indicating his (and his Father’s) partnership with him. The distance between need and rescue, enforced by society and religion, is abolished by the movement of Jesus’ hand.

Jesus’ words to the cured man about going to the priest have been variously translated. I have understood the Greek verb “prosfero” usually translated as bring, take with you, in its sense of giving a present, offering; and therefore as making the offering prescribed by Moses, which should provide “proof” (Greek, marturion) for people that the man is free of disease.

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