Immediately after preaching the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus descends from the mountain, and a leper comes up to Him. Will Jesus heal him?
This Gospel is one of has the feeling of one of those “turning point” moments in the Bible. It’s not unlike the moment in the Gospel of John when the Greeks came to Philip saying “Sir, we want to see Jesus.” It’s like the tectonic plates of the spiritual cosmos itself shifted at that moment – God’s grace in Christ is spilling over to the Gentiles!
Of course, there are a lot of “Gentile moments” in the Gospels, particularly in the Gospel for this week, but Jesus Himself seems to give the moment with the Greeks and Philip that “turning point” feel with His words, “The hour has come that the Son of Man should be glorified.” Mary came up to Jesus at Cana and Jesus said, “My hour has not yet come,” but when Greeks come up, it’s a different story! God must really like Greeks!
This week’s “turning point” moment from Matthew is very, well, Matthean. Which is to say, there’s a lot of Old Testament background. One of Matthew’s goals is to present Jesus as the “prophet like me” promised by Moses. Jesus assumes the mantle of the Moses type, and as He does with all types, fulfills it and then, like wine in old wine skins, bursts it open.
Jesus had just finished teaching the Sermon on the Mount. Like Moses, He’s on a mountain. Like Moses, He’s issuing divine teaching. Like Moses, there’s a “thundering” character to that teaching – people know God means business. Or as the Gospel puts it, after Jesus had finished, “the people were astonished at His teaching, for He taught them as one having authority.”
In the Old Testament, when the scene was first laid down, the people begged Moses to speak on behalf of God, and even Moses needed a veil when He spoke with them. The book of Hebrews describes the scene at that mountain well:
“[It was a] mountain that [could not] be touched and that burned with fire, … blackness and darkness and tempest, and the sound of a trumpet and the voice of words; …those who heard it begged that the word should not be spoken to them anymore.”
So when Jesus replicates this scene and proposes Himself as the prophet like Moses, surely wonderment spread over the people. “What will this new prophet be like? Will this be more fear and trembling? Clearly this is a divine being bearing Moses’ mantle. What will happen when He comes down from the mountain?”
Now, last time God came down the mountain, He veiled Himself in the tabernacle so He could be with His people. It was a time of grace, indeed, but unfulfilled, and insofar as it was unfulfilled, the people remained in fear.
And here comes Jesus, whom St. John testifies as the “Word tabernacled among us.” What will this be like?
Throughout the Sermon on the Mount, the people got a clue what sort of divine presence Jesus would be. Throughout the sermon He called God “your Father” and “your heavenly Father.” In other words, He was sharing what was declared of Him in the waters of the Jordan. His words combined with the waters embraced all who heard and were baptized, together with Him, under that glorious declaration, “This is My beloved Son!” Think of the Sermon on the Mount as a baptism in the Word. Or, we might say, a baptism in the Spirit. And it all began in the waters.
So there are some good indications that, though this Jesus is carrying the mantle of the Moses type and replicating the Old Testament scene, we have some indication that something greater and more is going on. What will this divine Person be like? What will He use His divine authority to do? Will He use it to create? Will He use it to help us and save us from our earthly troubles, from death, from disease…from leprosy?
So the leper goes up to Him – He’s got nothing to lose! And on behalf of all of us – because at the end of the day, we’re all lepers falling apart on the way back to dust! – he makes a simple statement. Not a question, not a plea, just a statement, or, a beautiful confession: “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.”
Yup, absolutely true! The same is true as we confess, by the way. The Creeds are not just statements of intellectual fact we say to be on the right team. Behind each article is the implied statement, “Father, Son, Holy Spirit, you are source of all that is good. By Your will, we live, and if you are willing, you can cleanse us from our sin and death.” That’s why we say “I believe” and not just, “The Father is Maker of heaven and earth; the Son is….” To say “I believe” is to say “I trust this one I confess will save me.”
Jesus’ response to the leper are where the tectonic plates shift. We’re not at Sinai. We’re not begging the Lord to speak a different way to us. We’re not hiding in the clefts and mountains. No, it’s as the book of Hebrews continues after the above quoted verse on Mount Sinai:
“[Y]ou have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the new testament, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel.”
Yes, a new “blood” is in town! This blood doesn’t, with Mount Sinaia, speak fear, trembling, and vengeance against sin. It speaks something new. It speaks “Given for the forgiveness of your sins.”
But foundational to all that, from Jesus it speaks these beautiful words to humanity’s representative falling-apart human, “I am willing.”