Matthew 8:2-3 And, behold, there came a leper and worshipped him, saying, Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean. And Jesus put forth his hand, and touched him, saying, I will; be thou clean. And immediately his leprosy was cleansed.
"and behold, there came a leper"
During ancient biblical times there was a loathsome disease called leprosy (Heb. tzarah meaning smitten and Gr. lepra meaning scaly) of which there was no known cure. It was an uncontrollable, slowly growing disease that would cause swollen lumps on the skin and ulcerous scabs all over the body. There was a numbness sensation that caused the leper to scratch himself, and damage his body unknowingly. A leprous person would look scaly and very deformed, their hair and body was noticeably white and therefore they were easy to identify. Their bodies would rot, body parts would deform, and fingers and toes and sometimes feet would fall off. The leper would drag himself along and his voice would often sound like a dog growling or howling in pain. The only hope and rest for the leper was death.
In biblical times lepers were considered unclean, and they were forced to separate themselves from the public. The mere touch of a leper brought uncleanness, and breathing the same air of a leper was believed to be dangerous. When someone was pronounced "leprous" they were looked upon as dead and cast out of society to dwell in a special place or colony in the wilderness, living in caves or tents. In ancient Israel lepers were commanded to wear certain clothes, keep themselves a certain distance from people, wear special bells, and they had to cry "unclean unclean" if someone was too close (Lev 13:45). The rabbis viewed leprosy as a chastisement from God because of moral issues.
The ancient Jewish Law made no provision for the cleansing of a leper, but only the ability to declare someone clean who had been suspected of leprosy. The Law required lepers to be quarantined, and there were strict rules for ceremonial cleansing. For a man that was suspected of leprosy the priest would make the decision if the disease was harmless or dangerous. He would examine the skin, hair, and beard and if the man was "smitten with the plague of leprosy" he would be cast out of society. The priest would also give the word if the disease was harmless and the man would be considered "ceremonially clean" and he could live a normal life.
The Talmud indicates that a leper could not come within 4 cubits of any Israelite or 100 cubits if there was an east wind blowing. The Mishnah indicates that any contact with a leper, his dwelling, or any of his possessions would make a person ceremonially unclean. According to Leviticus 13:45 a leper was commanded to cry "unclean, unclean" when he was near any Israelite. According to Josephus there were many lepers in the land and they were forbidden to come into a city at all or to live with any anyone in a house. The leper was to be treated as a dead person.
The Leper came to Jesus
Luke give us a bit more detail:
Luke 5:12-14 - And it came to pass, when he was in a certain city, behold a man full of leprosy: who seeing Jesus fell on his face, and besought him, saying, Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean. And he put forth his hand, and touched him, saying, I will: be thou clean. And immediately the leprosy departed from him. And he charged him to tell no man: but go, and shew thyself to the priest, and offer for thy cleansing, according as Moses commanded, for a testimony unto them.
Luke tells us that a man "full of leprosy" came to Jesus and "fell on his face." The leper came, perhaps from his primitive dwelling in the fields to speak with Jesus. He had no doubt heard Jesus' message and believed in him. The Bible says the leper came to Jesus and "worshipped" him. He certainly knew that in the Law it was forbidden to bow down and worship any man, but only God. Jesus took note of this as the leper pleaded with him, "if you are willing you can make me clean," Jesus suddenly reached out and touched the man, and then spoke the word "I am willing, be clean" and the leprosy left the man. You can feel the compassion that Jesus had for this poor man, as Jesus reached out and touched him. This would have been a shock if anyone was close enough to observe, because touching a leper meant instant uncleanness. In reverence for the Law (Lev 14:2) he told the leper to go and present himself to the priest and offer the gift as a testimony to them.
Bibliography on Ancient Customs
The Art of Ancient Egypt, Revised by Robins, 272 Pages, Pub. 2008