Leprosy in the Bible, especially the Old Testament, is not modern Hansen's disease but any number of skin diseases. Leprosy was contagious, incurable, and usually fatal. Leviticus 13 contains strict rules of how a priest was to diagnose the disease. If someone was found to be leprous, they were run out of town, able only to to cohabit with other lepers. Rules such as this were important to keep the community free of debilitating disease. But to the leper the the disease was horribly disfiguring as well as a condemnation to social and religious isolation - no contact with friends or family and none with God through the system of temple sacrifice and ritual.
The man in this story is "full of leprosy" - covered with sores, perhaps missing fingers and toes, a crumbling nose, and surrounded by the stench of decay. In Jesus' day people believed disease was a curse from God, a direct result of a person's sin or perhaps the sins of his parents. So not only was the man isolated and diseased, he likely believed it was his own fault.
Despite the fact that he could be stoned for entering the town, he came to seek Jesus. Perhaps with no other options even stoning would have been a relief from his suffering. He knew Jesus was his only hope. Somehow in his isolation he had heard of Jesus and knew this was his only chance to be healed. Perhaps this miracle worker who could heal the sick and cast out the demons could help him as well - if only he was willing. Falling at the feet of Jesus in a posture of worship and submission, he begged Jesus to make him well.
Jesus healed him with a touch and a declaration. He could have healed with a word if he had desired, but he intimately touched him in the midst of his filth. To touch a leper was to make oneself unclean, but when Jesus touched him he was no longer unclean. He was made whole. The leprosy left him. Sores were instantly closed. Perhaps even new fingertips appeared before the man's eyes.
Jesus commands the man to show himself to the priest and tell no one. This would require a trip to the temple and eight days of multiple animal sacrifices. Jesus wants this to not be a publicity stunt and probably wants to buy some time. He is already so pressed by the crowds that he must preach from boats and sneak away to be alone with God. But the book of Mark tells us that the man went about spreading the news to everyone. As a result Jesus could no longer enter into cities but was even sought after in the wilderness because the crowds would not allow him to function normally. Just imagine the stampede in America if someone was curing cancer with only a touch!
What an analogy this provides to our lives. Jesus is our only chance to be saved from our filthy rotting rags of sin and self righteousness. As Isaiah wrote about the Lord (64:5-6) "You meet him who rejoices in doing righteousness, Who remembers You in Your ways. Behold, You were angry, for we sinned, We continued in them a long time; how then shall we be saved? For all of us have become like one who is unclean, And all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment; And all of us wither like a leaf, And our iniquities, like the wind, take us away."
Salvation comes not through our own good works, but when we fall broken at the feet of our Savior, imploring him to remove our filthy rags. With a touch he does so, freeing us from the disease of sin and giving us new life to live in true righteousness and holiness. What a vivid picture this leper gives us of what Christ has done for us!
Since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God. - II Corinthians 7:1