Lepers of Convenience

Epiphany 6B

February 12, 2012

2 Kings 5: 1-14

Psalm 30

Mark 1:40-45

“Leper!  Outcast unclean!”

Manuscript with Portrait of Leper and Bell

Throughout history, the sound of these words has sent people scattering away, running to get out of reach of the person in question, yet staying just close enough to get a good look.  The word “leper” has always been synonymous with “outcast”, because for many centuries, people believed that Hanson’s disease (leprosy) was highly contagious.  People suffering from leprosy would be exiled to leper’s colonies and left to fend for themselves or starve to death.In the Bible, “leper” is actually a very generic term that can refer to any number of skin ailments – from garden-variety psoriasis to much more serious infections.  Consequently, a “leper” could have been someone who simply had a very prominent, stubborn rash, and who was not contagious at all in the clinical sense.

The reason that people with skin ailments became “lepers” is that the ancient purity codes of Israel made them such. Leviticus 13 outlines a very detailed regimen of examination for anyone having a rash, specifying the amount of time that they should be under observation (seven days), and the criteria for the priests to pronounce them clean or unclean.  If the rash meets the criteria for “leprosy” (as it was understood at the time), “the leper in whom the plague is, his [sic] clothes shall be rent, and the hair of his head shall go loose, and he shall cover his upper lip, and shall cry: ‘Unclean, unclean.’  All the days wherein the plague is in him he shall be unclean; he is unclean; he shall dwell alone; without the camp shall his dwelling be.” (vv.44-45).

Consequently, “leper” was a category of convenience.  Because purity/holiness codes had to be kept (“Be Holy as I am Holy” – Lev.19:2), and because skin ailments andtheir degree of contagion was poorly understood, all those who looked like lepers became – for all practical purposes – lepers.  And lepers became outcasts.   As a result, the very people who were suffering the most and were in need of spiritual community the most were shut out of it and scorned by it.  It is also important to note that the Temple was the center of religious, political and economic life in Biblical times.  Anyone who was shut out of the Temple as unclean for a lengthy period of time would also likely become destitute, as the political and economic networks that formed around the Temple would be unavailable to him/her.  “Leper” would effectively become a class/caste designation as a result.

William James Webb, "Sending out the Scapegoat," 1830-1902

Finally, shame comes into play in the creation of “lepers”.  Because “lepers” were isolated from the community, they become labeled as outsiders, and thus become magnets for all the community’s negative projections.  G. Richard Wheatcroft says ” … the effect of the purity system was to create a world with sharp social boundaries: between pure and impure, Jew and Gentile, righteous and sinner, whole and not whole, rich and poor, male and female” (“Building Community with our Differences“).  The whole practice of communal scapegoating comes from a desire not to end up on the wrong side of the purity system.  In order to prove how pure we are, we take ordinary medical conditions and make them into signs of impurity.  We isolate the sufferers, we shame them, and we make them the subject of all the community’s speculations about their sinful condition.

Jesus frequently spoke out against the purity system.  In Matthew 15, where Jesus criticizes purity laws regarding food, He said “it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person,

Ron DiCianni, "The Leper," Contemporary

but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles” (vv.11).  Consequently, Jesus placed more emphasis on goodness of the soul, rather than exclusively on purity of the body (although He was certainly a devout Jew).  In the Gospel reading for this week, Jesus heals a “leper” who comes to Him, begging “If you choose, you can make me clean” (Mark 1:40).  Jesus’ actions fly in the face of the purity codes of the day – He does not immediately order the leper to back off or to go to a priest for examination.  Instead, “Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose.  Be made clean!’” (vv.41).  The Greek verb katharizo has also been translated (King James Version) as “Be Thou Clean”.

At a recent conference in Belfast, Ireland called “The Lepers Among Us,”  California preacher Jim Reynolds compared Gay people to lepers, in that he alleged that they could be “healed” of their sexual preference and “re-oriented” to a heterosexual preference:: “Heterosexual preference is the goal of gender-affirming therapy and this may lead to marriage” (“The Lepers Among Us“).  I would argue, however, that in His “cure” of the “leper” in Mark, Jesus did not cure the man of a disease, but merely demonstrated – by touching him – that he was not, in fact, a leper.  Because “lepers” were a social creation of the purity code, all it took to “de-leprify” someone was to demonstrate that their touch was not contagious.  In other words, it was the rigid interpretation of the purity code that was leprous (obsessed with leprosy) not the “leper”!  Gay people likewise suffer from the purity-obsessed attitudes of others who wish to make their natural orientation “leprous”.  Gay people should not be treated as lepers (and neither should “lepers”, for that matter)!

A much better example of the healing that comes from extending God’s chesed (Covenant-backed love) lies in the example of the friendship between a nun and a transgendered woman (Leane) recently covered in the Los Angeles Times.  The nun, Sister Margaret, works at a homeless shelter where a disproportionate number of residents are abandoned, destitute  Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Transgendered (LGBT) people: “I always tell them Jesus said ‘Do not judge and you shall not be judged,’ so I’m not going to judge anybody” (“Compassion Creates a Family“).  In this audio slideshow (click on link here: An Unlikely Friendship), you can see how Sister Margaret’s refusal to treate Leane as a “leper” has emotionally healed her.  May we extend God’s chesed to those around us who have been leprified by society – including ourselves, if need be.

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