“Did Jesus Sin When He Touched the Leper?”

Categories: M. W. Bassford, Meditations

A few weeks ago, I got a request for a blog post on the issue raised in the title.  The question, of course, arises from the story described in Mark 1:40-44 and Luke 5:12-14.  The fact pattern here is simple.  A leper comes to Jesus (apparently in a town, where the leper shouldn’t have been) and asks Him to cleanse Him.  Jesus agrees, touches him, and cleanses him.  Was Jesus wrong to do so?

Here, we kind of already know the answer.  Hebrews 4:15 tells us that Jesus was without sin, so obviously He didn’t sin in his interactions with the leper.  OK, but why not?

Though I hardly qualify as an expert on Old Testament purity laws, three lines of argument suggest themselves.  The first is that intentionally touching a leper doesn’t appear to be specifically condemned in the Law.  Unintentionally touching a leper (or any other human uncleanness) is, in Leviticus 5:3. 

In Numbers 19:11-22, elaborate rules are provided for those who intentionally touch a corpse, but no corresponding ordinances exist for intentionally touching a leper.  This may be because a leper who is isolating himself as per Leviticus 13:45-46 is not going to be touched by anyone anyway.  Who would chase down a leper for the joy of touching him?  Thus, the leper in Luke 5 would have sinned by going into the city, but Jesus would not have sinned by choosing to touch Him.

Second, it may be that Jesus is asserting His priestly status by touching the leper.  During the purification ritual of Leviticus 14:10-20, the priest touches the leper in multiple ways before the leper becomes ceremonially clean (he already had been declared clean from infection in Leviticus 14:9).  Clearly, priests could touch lepers.  Though Jesus was not a priest under the Law, He was a priest according to the order of Melchizedek, and His willingness to touch the leper may hint at that.

Finally, and most intriguingly, Jesus may be indicating His special status.  The usual rule for holiness, as per Haggai 2:10-12, was that it could not be communicated.  That which touched a holy thing did not itself become holy.  However, the Law provides three exceptions to the rule:  the tabernacle and its furnishings (Exodus 30:26-29), the grain offering (Leviticus 7:18), and the sin offering (Leviticus 7:27).  All of those did communicate holiness to that which touched them.

On its face, the communication of holiness is what happens in the story of Jesus and the leper.  Jesus touches the leper, but instead of the leper making Jesus unclean (at least, there is no Scriptural evidence that this happened), Jesus made the leper clean (which the Scripture explicitly says did happen).  Under the terms of the Law, this implies the presence of at least one of the three exceptions listed above.

Indeed, in Jesus’ case, all three exceptions are present.  His body was the tabernacle of the Word among us (John 1:18).  He is the bread of life, the true food of the faithful (John 6:47-51).  Finally, He is the ultimate sacrifice for sin (Hebrews 10:10-12).  Thus, before the threefold holiness that He possesses, even leprosy could not remain unclean.