Brief synopsis of the readings: we begin in Leviticus (the third book of the Old Testament) where God instructs Moses and Aaron on what to do with someone with a swelling, scab, or shiny spot. He (or she) is to be suspected of leprosy and must be taken to Aaron (the priest) or one of his sons (also priests). That person will then declare the person suffers from leprosy of the head. The leper must then separate from the community and declare himself unclean lest anyone approach him. In Mark’s Gospel one of these lepers came to Jesus and plead on his knees for a cure. Jesus cured him of his leprosy then instructed him not to tell anyone but to report to the priest and then make an offering. The man then told everyone, preventing Jesus from going openly into any town. He stayed outside where people lived but even then people from all around came to see him.
We don’t really know when the Book of Leviticus was originally written, but for the sake of argument let’s say it was compiled around 500 years before Jesus. Our passage today was written for a particular problem (what do we do with lepers) with a particular answer: Aaron (or his son) were to diagnose both the existence and cure of leprosy. When I read passages like this I often wonder what they would say if they knew we would be reading those same words 2500 years later, in a world that they could not possibly imagine.
We can’t understand these readings without a basic understanding of how both Leviticus and Mark viewed leprosy, and disease as a whole. Outside of these readings we don’t think much about leprosy because it’s pretty rare. It’s a bacterial infection that is hard to spread (though, interestingly enough, in rare cases an armadillo can infect someone) and it can be cured with a course of antibiotics. We even have a new name for it: Hansen’s Disease.
But back then it was much more scary and much more serious. At the time Scripture was written our ancestors knew virtually nothing of the causes or spread of disease. Imagine if you or a loved one suddenly got sick: how would you explain it? Last week we read that Job’s friends saw suffering as a result of sin and today we read that disease is a result of God’s displeasure. When somebody became sick all they could do was hope and pray.
And if someone developed a skin condition that looked liked others with the same condition they may not have looked on this as a contagious disease but as a shared displeasure from God. And it made everyone afraid. Fear is a funny commodity if only because it’s incredibly effective. And if this skin condition was truly a result of God’s displeasure it only made sense that those who were afflicted needed to separate from those who were not, lest others also suffer from God’s displeasure.
We live in a world that no longer fears leprosy, or in fact most diseases. We have medicines for pain, fever, bacterial infections, and viral infections. We are constantly finding new chemotherapies or radiation routines for cancer and new surgeries to repair what is broken. And we know that the success rate has nothing to do with the relation the person has with God.
As science continues to find new ways to master our universe I’d like to be able to say that we continue to conquer fear with the same success that we conquer disease. But we haven’t.
It appears that we we no longer fear things, but have instead have turned our “fear goggles” on each other. If we used to fear that illness reflected God’s displeasure we seem now to fear there won’t be enough stuff for us. I’ve spoken of this before, but one of my wife’s colleagues once told me that conflict happens over only three things: resources, values, and feelings. I think she’s right and I think that resources claims the lead by a large margin.
Last month a supermarket chain in France discounted jars of Gnutella (an Italian hazelnut and chocolate spread) by 70% and we now know it as the “Gnutella riots.” Crowds knocked over others to ensure they purchased as much of it as they could. It sounds crazy but shoppers in France feared missing out (often called FOMO: fear of missing out).
Currently the United States President has weaponized this fear for his own gain. He has found tremendous success in convincing Americans of European descent that it’s “time to take back our country.” Last year I had my ancestry analyzed and found that I am 100% European. This narrative tells me that I should fear Americans from other continents but save my greatest fear for those from other continents who want to become Americans. I’m told that there simply isn’t enough to go around and we should take what we need and leave the others to scramble for what’s left.
In other words those who aren’t “us” are modern day lepers. We can’t get too close for fear that they will take us down with them. They can’t get too close to where we want to live because they will contaminate us. They are free to live in those areas we don’t want and use the things we toss aside but they must never forget who we are and who they are. By the way, if you think this is too close to politics, let me echo the words of Pope Francis on February 18, 2016: “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian.”
As Christians, let’s change the narrative. Let’s recognize that we don’t cure leprosy by hunting down the descendants of Aaron the priest and we don’t build the Kingdom of God by making it smaller and purer. In fact, let us be like the leper who begged Jesus for healing. Jesus instructed him not to tell anyone, but he did just the opposite. I like to think that Jesus winked when he told him to keep this secret, knowing the man would shout his good news from the rooftops.
This anonymous leper recognized that Jesus’ healing did not have limits and we need to recognize that God will always provide us with enough. We need to recognize that God’s generosity never hangs out the “no vacancy” sign and neither should we.