Jesus: Cleansing the Leper
How could Jesus break the law and touch a leper, even though he would have to remain separated from his people for days, perhaps years? Why would he take such a risk?
Watch or listen to the teaching at this link. Or read the text below the link.
While Jesus was in one of the towns, a man came along who was covered with leprosy.[a] When he saw Jesus, he fell with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” And immediately the leprosy left him. Then Jesus ordered him, “Don’t tell anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them.” Yet the news about him spread all the more, so that crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses. But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.
Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!” When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed. One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan. Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine?18 Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”
Today we get to read Leviticus! “Is this the kind of preacher that reads Leviticus to us?” No, I am the kind of preacher that reads Leviticus for you so you don’t have to! (Sometimes— I guess today is your lucky day!)
Leprosy: The True Story
Leprosy was a series of ailments. What used to be called leprosy in the Middle Ages and Renaissance and often today has nothing to do with the ancient ailments called leprosy. What we used to call “leprosy” is now called Hanson’s Disease, but that is not what the Bible talks about. Perhaps leprosy was a long term infection, or eczema or even mold or fungus (because it could be seen on clothes and walls). Today, if a doctor saw the specific and detailed symptoms in Leviticus 13 and 14, he would label the various symptoms as different ailments or not an ailment at all, just something that looked bad.
Leprosy was not a disease. It was an indication of impurity. And impurity had nothing to do with sin, or with evil, it was an uncleanness. And what is uncleanness mean? It is something that disgusts a community.
Many lepers had nothing that would infect anyone else. They just gave the impression to the community that they did, and so they were rejected. They were separated from their family, from their society, from their friends, from their God, because, through no fault of their own, they were suddenly declared to be a target of disgust to the community.
Did you know that disgust has to be learned? When we are infants, we have no problem eating our poop. Someone had to teach us that poop wasn’t okay to play with or to taste. Seems hard to believe, at this point. We have to learn that Tellytubbies is really, really weird. We have to learn that we can’t trust a person with a darker shade of skin than we. (This is sarcasm. My sarcasm font is out of comission, otherwise you’d know that I wasn’t saying that a person of a darker shade of skin isn’t less trustworthy. Unless they use a tanning bed too often. Can’t trust those people. This is also humor.)
Well, it’s a good thing that we are past that. (Note: Sarcasm button is still not working.) We don’t have anyone in our communities that we consider disgusting just because of an opinion they hold or because they belong to a certain group. We don’t have any trouble with someone because they said they voted for Trump or because they belong to Antifa. Of course, that’s not true. We are disgusted and separate from people just the same as the ancients did. Some things never change.
So if I brought a Nazi flag here, who is ready to hold it up for everyone to see? Who wants to have a picture taken with it? Why not? There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s just a piece of cloth. It doesn’t mean anything. If I brought you a coat that was worn by Hitler, who would be willing to try it on for size? That study has been done and found that very few people would wear Hitler’s coat, because there is something inherently wrong with it. It’s disgusting.
Even so, we see certain people as inherently disgusting, through no fault of their own. Dr. Susan Fiske-- one of those nasty sociologists (I actually secretly adore her)-- tested people’s instinctive reactions to different social groups. She put people in a noisy MRI machine and told them to look at people while she examined their brains. Sociologists like things like that. She found that certain groups were considered automatically disgusting, horrible, ready to reject with a strong rejection. Undocumented immigrants. Women supported by welfare. Felons. Addicts.
But one group, she found, far in a way had a stronger reaction than any other. So much, she said, that she couldn’t put the measure of disgust on the chart she made up, because the data was so extreme compared to others. That was the homeless. Dr. Fiske said that when the average American saw a homeless person, they saw a pile of garbage. Which makes sense, considering how we treat them. As something to dispose of. To move along. To get out of our sight. This shouldn’t be.
That is how lepers were treated. People who weren’t really infectious, but who were so offensive to the community that they were driven out. Not just unwelcome, but given bus tickets to the next town over. Their children were separated from them so they would know that they weren’t acceptable. Kinda like how immigrants are (mis)treated.
2. Jesus teaches us how to clean up our act
So along comes Jesus into our society, filled with disgust for people who did nothing wrong. A man approaches him who has been labeled and isolated, rejected by society. He comes up to Jesus and says, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.”
What was he saying? “Jesus, I know I’m disgusting. Frankly, you shouldn’t even look at me. I am a horrible piece of work. But I come to you to stand at a reasonable distance from you in order to beg you for help. Because if there is anyone who can take this horrible mark off of me, it is you. You can make me a person acceptable to others again.
And so Jesus touches him. And cleanses him. His mark is removed. And Jesus tells him to follow the law and go to the priest and get officially diagnosed as clean.
But Jesus is a hypocrite in this passage. I know, I shouldn’t be saying things like “Jesus is a hypocrite”, but he commanded the man to follow the law. And Jesus just broke the law:
He, on purpose, touched an unclean human.
According to Leviticus 5, if you accidentally touch an unclean human and realize it after, then you have to make an offering to the Lord because you have just sinned and you need the guilt cleansed from you. But there is no sacrifice for intentional sin. And Jesus intentionally sinned. He touched an unclean, disgusting person. On purpose.
In fact, Jesus action was so radical that a gospel that didn’t make it into our canon, declared that Jesus didn’t touch the leper. But the leper touched a bunch of other lepers, which is how he became sick. And Jesus conclusion to the matter was to tell him to sin no more. Some Christians aren’t comfortable when Jesus sins.
At the time, there was an argument between the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Suppose there was a dead animal and a trickle of water passed under the animal and then into the street. If a person accidentally stepped in it, would they be required to make a sacrifice or not? This was a huge argument.
We have no record of Jesus making a comment on this argument. But I think that Jesus would have a completely different point of view on the matter. “It is not” Jesus says in Mark 7, “what goes in you, or what touches you that makes you unclean. It is what comes out of you-- your words, your evil actions.”
Even so, when Jesus touched this leper, he showed that he didn’t expect to be made unclean. Because love can’t be made impure.
Jesus did an act of love by touching a man who hasn’t been touched in years. He loved him and that pure act of love, without selfishness-- in fact, an act that could have got him in a lot of trouble-- did not make Jesus unclean. Jesus did not become disgusting because of love. Instead, love cleans. Love makes the disgusting person acceptable, whole, even wonderful. This leper was no longer an object of scorn, but of amazement and admiration. Just because Jesus loved him.
Jesus is teaching us the same thing. If we love the “disgusting” people around us, we can transform them. Perhaps we can’t change them. Perhaps they don’t need to change. But we can transform who they are in the eyes of society. Love makes “disgusting” people lovable.
That is how we deal with uncleanness. We battle it with open, clear acceptance and love. Not just from afar. But by touching, and treating the disgusting person like family.
JUST TO MAKE SURE EVERYONE KNOWS:
There is no such thing as disgusting people. Disgust is learned and it is awful if we learn that some people are “disgusting”. But almost all of us have learned that habit. We can unlearn it. In the meantime the disgust that is applied to people can be erased if we love. That’s the point. It’s a good point, I think. Of course I think it. It’s important enough for me to write it. Anyway, perhaps we should move on to the next point.
3. Generosity is a Lonely Business
One last thing I want to point out from Jesus’ interactions with lepers
Jesus told this leper to not tell anyone what happened to him. What did he do? Tell everyone.
Jesus told the ten lepers to go to the priest. Did they? We don’t know.
However, only one out of ten came back to even say “Thank you.”
Look, helping people is a thankless business. Literally.
Occasionally we get a thank you. Sometimes years later. And almost no one takes the good counsel we give them and straightens up their lives and lives happily ever after. They will often have to come back to be healed and helped again and again. And sometimes they will even attack us for not giving them more than what we did.
When you sacrifice for others, don’t expect them to do the same for you. They might, but more likely they won’t. Giving is, more often than not, a one way street. That’s part of the task.
That’s a depressing way to end the sermon. So let’s leave it on this note: Love transforms the world. If we show welcome and mercy and family intimacy with the people that others find disgusting, then the world will see them differently.
May the Lord bless this reading of his word.