Sunday, February 15, 2015 - Click here for the readings
What is leprosy, and why is it so prevalent in the Bible?
Leprosy, as the term is employed by twenty-first century physicians, refers to the specific medical condition known as Hansen’s Disease. Hansen’s is a chronic bacterial infection affecting the nerves, lungs, skin, and eyes. By contrast, archaeological records indicate that the majority of those living with a skin disease during Jesus’ day would have been suffering from some other underlying pathology. The Hebrew word tzaraath, which is used in today’s first reading from Leviticus, included all manner of ailments, from psoriasis and eczema to more serious conditions such as skin necrosis.
What each of these conditions shares in common is a visible malady affecting the skin, and because the Mosaic Law had explicit indications as to whom could be considered pure (and therefore, “holy”), persons suffering from such ailments were frequently forced to live outside of the community. In fact, a person suffering from a skin disease usually would be shunned by his/her family and prohibited from entering the towns and villages where the rest of society dwelled. And since such diseases were considered to be contagious, family members dared not go out to the leper colonies in order to care for their relatives.
It must be remembered that, for the ancient Jews, there was no distinction between spiritual unholiness and physiological uncleanliness. Afflictions such as blindness, boils, or scaly skin were thought to be the direct result of personal sin... either of the individual, or of a person’s family. We witness a clear example of this worldview in the Gospel of John, when the disciples pass a man born blind, and they ask, “Rabbi, who sinned? This man, or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2)
So for Jesus to associate himself with “lepers” was not only to risk becoming unclean, himself, but also to place himself squarely among sinners. If scholars of the Law observed Jesus in this behavior, undoubtedly they would have gone apoplectic and insisted that Jesus present himself for ritual purification before daring to set foot in sacred spaces.
What does Jesus do for those who have leprosy?
First, it cannot be overlooked, Jesus goes out to them. Even to have association with lepers, much less to engage in voluntary physical contact, is to break down a massive social barrier. Jesus is offering an incredibly potent visual--there is literally no one on Earth who is outside God’s salvation and healing power. If society tells us that we are unworthy, unclean, or otherwise unfit for membership in the community of faith, God will march right out the front door and bring salvation to where we are. This is as astonishing a truth today as it was for the Jews of Jesus’ time. (And we continue to see the uproar it causes, when, for instance, Pope Francis chooses to wash the feet of Muslim prisoners on Holy Thursday, or to embrace a transgendered individual, as He recently did during a private audience at the Vatican.)
Second, Jesus offers healing. But more precisely, Jesus offers himself up as an instrument of the healing that only God can give. In today’s Gospel passage, we see an instance of what is known as the “theological passive,” or “divine passive.” Jesus does not say, “I make you clean,” but rather, “Be made clean.” This is a pervasive phrasing throughout the Gospels. Whenever the passive is employed, and the agent of the healing is left unstated, we are to understand that the individual responsible for the healing is not Jesus, but God. Later in Mark’s Gospel, we see Jesus ministering to a man born deaf, and Jesus commands, of the man’s ears, “Be opened!” Opened by whom, we should ask? And the answer is, “by God.”
Something we often overlook about Jesus’ many healing stories is that he does not set himself up as the source of healing, but, in what linguists would designate a performative utterance, he invokes God’s healing power to be at work in the life of this other person.
We see the passive construction again in the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus articulates the Beatitudes, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Again, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” Still again, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” Comforted by whom? Filled by whom? Receive mercy from whom? Throughout his public ministry, we see Jesus announcing that, those who follow this way of living, those who express faith, will be on the receiving end of God’s efficacious intervention in human life. The various healing stories depicted in the Gospel provide attestation to this promise, and they represent a prefiguring of the healing that God will visit upon each of us, when we put our faith in Jesus.
So what does this have to do with us?
In short, everything. For starters, we are invited to come to Jesus with what ails us, whether it is a physical disease, psychological affliction, or spiritual malady. We are assured that, no one, not any of us, is beyond the healing touch of God, who in the person of Jesus, breaks down social barriers and comes out to us, wherever we are. But more than that, we are reminded of our vocation, as followers of Jesus, to “love one another as He has loved us.” To be Christ to one another. And what does that look like? Well, as we see in today’s readings, that often means that we, ourselves, are called to be instruments of God’s healing power in the lives of others. Like Jesus, who risked ridicule, derision, and rejection for his ministry to those on the margins, we too are called to take on the difficult task of reaching out to those whom society has said are unclean, unworthy, or otherwise unfit for membership in our community. We are called to view them not as “lepers,” but as persons who are afflicted by a particular condition.
How often do we invalidate and verbally segregate our sisters and brothers when we refer to them with labels, like, “illegal immigrant,” “slut,” “homeless,” or “mentally ill?” Usually unintentionally, we may fall into habits of saying something like, “She’s depressed,” rather than, “She is a person, like me, who is created and loved by God, and who is also suffering from depression?” Or, “He’s an a**hole,” rather than, “He is a person, like me, who must be suffering immensely internally to be treating others so poorly.” Like those of Jesus’ day who negated the humanity of certain others by labeling them, “lepers,” we too, can fall into the trap of dismissing someone as outside our circle, and therefore not our concern.
Rather, today’s Gospel challenges us to see all persons as our concern, and to ask how we might be used to help bring healing to their lives. Moreover, it is an enormous relief to see that the agency for this healing is not on us, but is on God! Jesus provides precisely this example, as we see him asking God to intercede in a person’s life, expressing, “Be made clean!” or “Be healed!” This is wonderful news! Oftentimes, when we see another person suffering, we may feel powerless. Upon reflection, we may think, “There is nothing I can do to make this person’s pain go away,” be it the physical pain of cancer, or the invisible pain of a broken heart. In those moments, we should recall today’s Gospel and be reminded that, though there may be nothing WE can do individually, we can call down the healing power of God in that other person’s life. It is then that we can pray, with confidence and faith, that the person before us, “Be made well.” The rest is up to God.
Questions for Reflection
1. Have you ever known anyone who suffered from a condition that prevented them from full participation in the community? It may have been something rather severe, like cerebral palsy, or it may be something more common, such as a learning disability. Or, perhaps, it was an emotional distress, anxiety disorder, or other invisible ailment. How has that person’s condition made it a challenge for them to engage in all of the activities of the community?
2. How do you think you are called to be an instrument of healing in the life of those around you? What might that look like, when, for instance, a friend is going through a rough breakup, or fails an exam, or gets rejected from a job application?
3. Are there any categories of people (or individuals) that you sometimes struggle to reach out to? How do you think you could be part of breaking down barriers?