[Note: This is the "Old" version of the Grace Commentary on Luke. It will be updated to the new version soon.]
After calling some fishermen to follow Him, Jesus begins to show them what it means to be a fisher of men. The people that Jesus tried to catch were not the rich, the powerful, and the influential, but primarily the poor, the sick, and the neglected. Tax collectors, prostitutes, Gentiles, and thieves were drawn to Jesus. In Luke 5:12-16, Jesus reaches out to a person from one of the most rejected groups of all—a leper. This account is parallel in many ways to 4:31-37, and continues to show that Jesus is a prophet like Elisha, and maybe more than a prophet. The point, however, is to show the reader how the mission of Jesus was carried out. He did not focus on the rich and powerful. He had no desire to gather multitudes of followers. He wanted to do exactly what He said in 4:18-19, to heal, mend, restore, and set free.
5:12. The event takes place when Jesus was in a certain city. Luke does not specify which city this was, but it was probably a city of Galilee. However, in this city, Jesus encounters someone who should not be there: a man who was full of leprosy. To be full of leprosy means that he had an advanced case of leprosy. It covered his body (Evans 2003:165).
Leprosy is a dreadful disease. Many believe that leprosy causes the skin to rot and fall off the body, but this is not really the case. Leprosy primarily attacks the body’s nervous system so that the leper eventually loses the ability to feel. The infected parts of the body go numb and eventually lose all sensitivity. So technically, having leprosy never actually kills anyone. Instead, what kills a person with leprosy is the damage that is done to the body as a result of it not being able to feel pain. True leprosy, also known as “Hansen’s disease, occurred rarely, if at all, in first-century Palestine; hence the term here probably refers to skin diseases of other sorts (cf. Leviticus 13)” (Malina 203:246). However, medical science of the time had little ability to distinguish between skin diseases, and so all skin diseases were categorized under “leprosy” and treated the same. Other skin diseases that may have been broadly categorized as “leprosy” are psoriasis, lupus, ringworm, and favus (Bock 1994:472).
Lepers were expected to wear torn clothing, live outside the town, and cry “Unclean! Unclean!” if approached by people (Lev 13:45). They were not allowed to have contact with other people, including friends or family. If a leper refused to leave a town, the authorities could enforce it by threatening him with thirty-nine lashes, the most allowable by law (Edersheim 1988:493; cf. Pentecost 1981:149). If a leper touched an animal, the animal had to be killed. If a leper entered a house, the house and all its contents had to be burned. But leprosy wasn’t just a Rabbis viewed leprosy as a type of “living death” and commanded people to avoid lepers, not only for sanitary or health considerations, but also for moral reasons (Edersheim 1988:492). Leprosy was often associated with sin (Bock 1994:473). They truly were “untouchables” in every sense of the word. They were despised, forsaken, forgotten, ignored, judged, and condemned. Some of them felt such shame and rejection, they committed suicide (Barclay 1975:58). This unqualified love and acceptance of those whom society rejects sets the scene for the calling of Matthew in Luke 5:27-32.
If this man was full of leprosy, he probably had not had much human contact for many years (Wright 2004:57). But for some reason, this man had come into the city, which is quite shocking. The crowds would have parted before him like the Red Sea before Moses. Nobody wanted to be near a man with leprosy.
Why did he come into the city? Luke does not say. Maybe he came searching for Jesus. And when hesaw Jesus, he fell on his face and implored Him, saying, “Lord, if You are willing, You can make me clean.” How did the leper recognize Jesus? Either he had seen Jesus before, or he had heard descriptions of Him. Or maybe, as the crowds gave way before the leper, Jesus did not move out of the way, but let the leprous man draw near. However it happened, the man prostrated himself before Jesus and begged for cleansing. This request was not conditional upon the ability of Jesus to heal, but rather upon His willingness. The leper knew Jesus could heal, if only He was willing (Bock 1994:474). This request is similar to 2 Kings 5;3 where Naaman is advised to seek a prophet if he would be cleansed of his leprosy.
5:13. Before Jesus answered the man, He put out His hand and touched him. Such an action would have shocked both the leper and the disciples (Malina 2003:246). People were supposed to stay well away from lepers, but Rabbis and Priests in particular would avoid lepers, for touching one would make them ceremonially unclean. One Rabbi would not eat an egg purchased from a street that had a leper. Another Rabbi boasted that he threw stones at lepers in order to keep them well away (Edersheim 1988:495). The actions of Jesus were far different. Though touching the leper made Jesus ceremonially unclean, such an action was necessary for Jesus to show tenderness, acceptance, and compassion to a man who had not received such love in a long time. Jesus shows what is necessary to be a fisher of men.
Beyond just touching him, Jesus said, “I am willing; be cleansed.” He rewarded the man’s request of faith, announced His willingness to cleanse the man, and immediately the leprosy left him. Being healed of the leprosy may have meant more than just the disease leaving the man’s body. It may have been that the man was fully healed, receiving back his fingers, toes, or any limbs that may have been lost. If the people following Jesus had been shocked when Jesus touched the man, they would be more shocked at seeing the man become instantaneously whole again.
5:14. The man’s first instinct was probably to go home to his wife and family. However, Jesus instructed the man to make sure he follows the Mosaic Law, and tell no one but instead, first ”go and show yourself to the priest, and make an offering.” Jesus knew that the man would go home to his family, and also tell his neighbors what had happened. How could he not? But before he did that, Jesus wanted the man to first do what the Law required, and get pronounced clean by the priest, and then also make an offering, just as Moses commanded Such actions would enable the man to go home without fear of infecting his family (I agree with Bock 1994:475 who presents this as the most likely explanation).
In this way, the man would also be a testimony to the priests. Prior to this event, the Bible only records three people who had been cleansed of leprosy, and one of them wasn’t even Jewish (Moses, Miriam, and Naaman). Cleansing from this form of leprosy was always miraculous. When this man presented himself, the priest would have known that something amazing had just taken place. Possibly this was the very priest who had pronounced the man unclean years earlier. Getting declared clean was a week-long process (Lev 14:1-32; cf. Bock 1994:476).
The religious leaders of the day had developed a list of signs which would accompany the coming of the Messiah. One of them was the healing of those with leprosy. When this man appears before the priest claiming to be cleansed from what only two people had ever been cleansed from before, the priest should have recognized that the Messiah had come. When Jesus tells the man to go make the offering, it was to be a testimony to the priests that the Messiah had come.
Earlier, in Luke 4:27, Jesus has said that though there were many lepers in Israel at the time of Elisha, only Naaman was cleansed. So here, Jesus has done something that one of Israel’s greatest prophets had not done—heal a Jewish man of leprosy. This would have been a great testimony to the priests and people of that day, and the natural response should be to accept Him, not only as a prophet, but as the promised Messiah, for the only known cure of leprosy was by miracle (Lightfoot 1989:78).
5:15. After the man did what Jesus asked, the report went around concerning Him all the more (cf. 4:37; cf. Mark 1:4-54). It was not only the man who spread the news, but the people who saw Jesus heal the man. As a result, great multitudes came together to hear, and to be healed by Him.Hearing and healing is a constant theme throughout Luke, but especially in these opening chapters (Hearing, 4:16-30; Healing, 4:31-41; Hearing, 4:42-5:11; Healing, 5:12-26; Hearing, 5:27-6:5; Healing, 6:6-19; Hearing, 6:20-49; Healing, 7:1-17; etc.). If Jesus was trying to keep the report about Him from spreading, teaching and healing the multitudes was not the best way to accomplish that.
5:16. Some have understood verse 16 to say that rather than teach and heal the multitudes when they came to Him, Jesus retreated and went to the wilderness to pray. But this is not the best way to understand this text. Instead, after Jesus had taught and healed the multitudes, he withdrew into the wilderness and prayed. The wilderness was not only the place of Jesus greatest test and temptation, but also the place for being refueled spiritually. It was there, in the wilderness, alone with God and His thoughts, that he prayed to continue in the will of God. Of all the gospel writers, Luke emphasizes the prayer life of Jesus more than any other.
He often withdrew in such a manner, which means that this was not a onetime event. The multitudes often came to hear him teach and be healed. He often met their needs, and afterwards, withdrew to spend time in prayer. For Luke’s purposes, Jesus is shown to be focusing on His relationship with God, rather than fanning the flames of a people’s movement (Bock 1994:478).