Brief synopsis of the readings: In Leviticus we learn the procedure if someone is suspected of having contracting leprosy. Anyone with “a swelling or scab or shiny spot appears” must present himself to a priest. If the priest diagnoses leprosy, the person is deemed unclean and must avoid all other people. He must continue to do this as long as he suffers. If he is healed he must present himself to a priest and be declared cured. In Mark’s Gospel a leper approached Jesus on his knees and begged to be healed. Jesus touched him and cured him of his leprosy. He then instructed the man to present himself to a priest but tell no one else of his cure. But the man told everyone about his healing and as a result “Jesus could no longer go openly into any town, but had to stay outside in places where nobody lived. Even so people from all around would come to him.”
Leprosy, in the 21st Century, can be hard to understand. We almost never hear about it because, frankly, it’s not much of a problem for us. I don’t know anyone who has suffered from it and suspect most people haven’t. It’s now called “Hansen’s Disease” and is curable through antibiotics.
But even in the time of Jesus it was a puzzling disease. What we call leprosy may have been not only Hansen’s disease but any other skin condition. The reading from Leviticus talks about “a scab or pustule or blotch which appears to be the sore of leprosy.” And if we think we can judge previous generations for their obsession with skin conditions just look at the advertising we see about psoriasis, acne, dry skin, wrinkles, and blotches.
Even though we know the causes of (and cures for) these diseases we still assign and feel shame for them. When these readings from Scripture were written the people had no understanding of bacteria, antibiotics, hygiene or contagion. They commonly believed that disease resulted from sin but they also saw that diseases could be passed from person to person. We can’t fully know what they believed but we can see that they believed that while someone with a skin disease may be cursed for sinfulness, that person can also pass it along to someone who didn’t sin.
When I look at these readings I can’t help but think that they represent the intersection of fear and blame. When God gave us the gift of intellect we were also given ability to fear the future. All living beings in nature know fear, particularly fear of predators. But those fears don’t travel into the future. Animals don’t worry that the coming winter would make it harder to find enough food or that they wouldn’t find an adequate mate to propagate the next generation. And they don’t worry about getting sick.
But we can, and we do. Unfortunately this fear can can often take on a life of its own. Fear and blame, left unchecked, can lead us into dangerous territory and cause real damage. As we all know Germany lost World War I in 1918 and they lost for a number of reasons. But a sector of Germans, who didn’t realize that they were losing, looked for a scapegoat and they developed a theory that Germany had been betrayed or “stabbed in the back” by a conspiracy. They argued that the war wasn’t lost on the battlefield but instead by the Jews, among others. Within a few years of the end of the war, a lance corporal in the German Army began to campaign on this belief. His name was Adolph Hitler.
Admittedly this is a pretty extreme example but it’s worth noting that most Germans in the 1920s and 1930s believed this and allowed great evil to progress. They felt they were being patriots and wanted their nation to endure and believed that was only possible if they could eliminate those who they felt wanted their destruction.
In the same way many in Jesus’ time felt that lepers posed a threat to their very existence and needed to be harshly dealt with. Their lives were expendable for the greater good.
And in Mark’s Gospel we find something that must have been shocking. A leper approached Jesus and asked for healing. According to the laws of the day he wasn’t supposed to come near Jesus and Jesus was supposed to avoid all contact. But they both broke the rules.
In touching the leper Jesus made himself unclean. Not only was Jesus prohibited from touching the leper he didn’t have the authority to declare this man clean. Of the twelve tribes of Israel only the priests (the tribe of Cohen) could declare someone cured of leprosy and Jesus was of the tribe of Judah.
Interestingly enough, Jesus instructed the man not to tell anyone about the healing, but of course the man told everyone and this forced Jesus to avoid entering a town openly. I think most of us see this through the lens of Jesus becoming a popular healer and everyone in need of healing mobbed him.
I suspect this was partly true, but I also suspect that there were those who saw Jesus as being unclean and shunned him.
Reaching out to someone who is unclean, unpopular, or ugly always carries a risk. We may have a cure for Hansen’s disease but we still fear (or at least avoid) those with skin issues. But when Jesus reached out to this leper I believe he sent us a clear and direct message: everyone is deserving of healing and we are called to be those healers.
We can’t hide behind the belief that we are subject to, and excused by, fear and ignorance. Today’s Gospel commands that we touch the leper, whoever he may be. Maybe he’s an immigrant hoping for a better life for his family. Maybe he’s someone with an injury or defect that frightens us. Or maybe we fear that if we do reach out to this person we will be ostracized ourselves.
We can’t do this. When Jesus reached out to the leper his message was clear. We must do the same.