“Moved with compassion, Yeshua stretched out His hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I am willing; be cleansed” (Mark 1:41). Ironically, by touching and cleansing the leper, the Master contracted ritual impurity. Though the leper was healed, Yeshua Himself became unclean. Why would He do that? He could have healed the leper with simply a word. Why did He touch the leper?
Becoming ritually unclean is not a sin. By touching the leper, Yeshua has not sinned. Some might object that the Messiah could not become unclean, but that objection stems from a misunderstanding of ritual impurity. Ritual impurity and contamination are not a moral state or the result of any sin; it is a human, mortal condition. To deny Yeshua the ability to contract ritual impurity is to deny His humanity.
By touching the leper, Yeshua only placed Himself into a state of ritual uncleanness. He could easily remedy the ritual impurity by an immersion in a mikvah. Such an immersion was a prerequisite for entering the Temple in any case. Nevertheless, in the days of the Temple, intentionally contracting ritual contamination by touching a leper constituted a social taboo.
Some theologians suggest that, by touching the leper, Yeshua intended to show His disciples that the ritual purity laws of the Torah are obsolete. That explanation is based on the mistaken assumptions of replacement theology. On the contrary, after healing the leper, the Master told him, “Go show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded” (Mark 1:44)—an affirmation of the Torah’s purity laws.
So why then did Yeshua intentionally touch the leper? He surely could have healed the man from a safe distance, as He did in Luke 17:14. By intentionally touching the leper to heal him, Yeshua illustrated His governing principle that concern for human suffering ought to take precedence over ceremonial concerns. In similar Gospel stories, Yeshua sets aside the Sabbath prohibitions for the sake of performing healings on the basis of Hosea 6:6: “If you had known what this means, ‘I desire compassion, and not a sacrifice …” (Matthew 12:7). That is to say that showing mercy to a human being by alleviating his or her suffering should take priority over ceremonial and ritual prohibitions.
Jewish tradition about the Messiah offers another way of viewing the story of Yeshua healing the leper. The Talmud explains that the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53:4 takes the disease of leprosy upon Himself for the sake of Israel and is therefore called “The Leper.” The Messiah takes upon Himself the diseases of Israel: “Surely our sicknesses he himself bore and our sorrows he carried, yet we ourselves esteemed him stricken [with leprosy], smitten of God, and afflicted” (Isaiah 53:4).
Just as He intentionally took on Himself the leper’s uncleanness in order to heal Him, so too He intentionally took upon Himself human mortality in order to heal it. He intentionally took upon Himself our sin in order to cleanse us of it. He took upon Himself our guilt in order to absolve us of it. He took upon Himself human uncleanness, allowing Himself to reach the highest level of ritual contamination by becoming a human corpse, in order to save us.