“Free Bird”: Lynyrd Skynyrd, Leviticus, and the Leper

LynyrdSkynyrdOkay, so I admit I may have brought you here under false pretenses.  This is not a post to reminisce upon the iconic Southern rock song with the world’s longest guitar solo.  However, the concept of “free bird” is found in the Gospel of Matthew.  If you have read Matthew, no doubt you recognize his formulaic, “Thus was fulfilled the utterance through the prophet…”  However, the prophetic quotations in Matthew are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to links, allusions, and echoes of the Old Testament.  The fulfillment statements are the diving board; from them you plunge deep into an ocean of rich, frothy current of briny, Old Covenant-soaked meaning.  Matthew placed some nice treasures on the surface, but the ones you have to dig for are really worth their interpretive weight in gold.

Consider this buried treasure: the connection between Matthew 8 and Leviticus 14.  Just hear me out.  When Jesus comes down from giving the Sermon on the Mount, he is approached on the road by a leprous man.  The man falls before Jesus and cries out to be made clean, rather than to be healed–implying that the ultimate problem for the man is his ritual uncleanness that separated him from God’s presence in the temple.  Leviticus 13:45 describes the appearance of a leper: “The leprous person who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.'”  Gross.  And yet, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched the man.  In the history of God’s people, every time a man touched a leper, he himself became unclean.  Yet when Jesus touched the leper, the leper became clean.  Amazing.

Now, here’s the connection.  Jesus commands the leper to go straight away to the temple–the very thing the leper must have been eager to do.  Remember that he was never, ever, allowed anywhere near the temple.  Never able to offer a sacrifice; never able to raise his hands in prayer in the courts of the temple.  Jesus tells the leper to offer the sacrifice required by Moses “as a witness to them.”  Matthew makes no further mention of the “sacrifice” that Jesus references.  However, a learn-ed reader would know Leviticus 14:3-7…

Then, if the case of leprous disease is healed in the leprous person, the priest shall command them to take for him who is to be cleansed two live clean birds and cedarwood and scarlet yarn and hyssop.  And the priest shall command them to kill one of the birds in an earthenware vessel over fresh water.  He shall take the live bird with the cedarwood and the scarlet yarn and the hyssop, and dip them and the live bird in the blood of the bird that was killed over the fresh water.  And he shall sprinkle it seven times on him who is to be cleansed of the leprous disease. Then he shall pronounce him clean and shall let the living bird go into the open field.

Need I say more?  Can’t you see the amazing “witness” Jesus intends?  That by the blood of one, the other is made clean; the one is killed so that the other may be set free.  The cleansing of the leper was symbolic.  The leper was now “as free as a bird,” as Ronnie Van Zant sang.  It was meant as a sign to the temple cult that a Cleanser was among them: One who would heal not only the outer icky skin disease, but who would fix our separation problem.  Matthew understood what Jesus meant.  He hints at it with his own allusion:

“This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: ‘He took our illnesses and bore our diseases.'”

In Isaiah 53, the Suffering Servant’s ultimate purpose was to bear the transgressions of his people.  As Isaiah said, “He was wounded for our transgressions…and with his stripes we are healed.”  The free bird of Leviticus 14 symbolized the leper, cleansed by the blood of the Savior, but it also symbolized every Christian.  When we see the filthy leper approach Jesus on that road, we ought to recognize our woefully unclean state before we were cleansed at his expense.  Through his blood our separation from the presence of God was removed, and through his death we now have access to God–just like the leper!

(photo credit)