The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, “Unclean, unclean.” He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.
Leviticus 13:45-46 (NRSV)
“I have a nasty cold. You don’t want to shake my hand.”
It’s not uncommon to hear that phrase when greeting someone during cold and flu season. With all we know about germs, bacteria, and viruses, it’s considered courteous and a socially appropriate way to show concern for, and protect the health of, another person. We don’t even think that much about it.
Today’s lengthy chapter is fascinating when I consider what scant medical knowledge must have existed when these laws about visible infections were given thousands of years ago. The prescribed actions in today’s chapter describe a systematic diagnosis of symptoms, the quarantine of infected individuals, the destruction of infected clothing, and the public communication of such infections so as to protect the larger community from transmittal.
What was considered necessary for the health and welfare of the society could also be incredibly shaming for the infected person. You were expected to make yourself look sick and disheveled so others could spot you and would want to avoid you. You were to proclaim loudly and repeatedly “Unclean!” so that others could stay away. How awful for those who lived their entire lives in such a way. I can’t imagine what it would do to my soul to live life always on the periphery of “normal” society, continually repelling people with my appearance and forever announcing to people who I was “unclean.” Talk about tragic.
It brings to mind this morning one of my favorite stories about Jesus. It happens so quickly that it is often forgotten among the wondrous things Jesus did on his miraculous mystery tour:
Then a leper appeared and went to his knees before Jesus, praying, “Master, if you want to, you can heal my body.”
Jesus reached out and touched him, saying, “I want to. Be clean.”
I think about this leper in terms of today’s chapter with its rigid legal and religious societal prescription. This is a person who has been alienated from family and society, perhaps their whole lives. This is a person who has had people perpetually avoid them, look at them in disgust, and treat them with contempt. This is a person who may very well have not felt the touch of another human being for as long as they could remember. No warm hugs, no human intimacy, no loving caress of a mother or spouse. This is a person who, in word and action, has been repeatedly fed a message by society: “I don’t want to see you. I don’t want to touch you. I don’t want you near me or my loved ones.”
Imagine this wounded soul coming to Jesus at the height of Jesus’ popularity. The crowds were enormous.
“Unclean!” the person shouts hoarsely as the crowds part. Mothers protect their children and hurry them away. People look away in disgust. Shouts and insults erupt as the “normal” people urge this person to leave and get away from them. Perhaps a few even picked up stones to throw in order to physically drive the leper away from them.
But Jesus watches quietly as the leper kneels and proclaims a simple statement of faith. “If you want to, you can make me clean.”
Then Jesus reaches out and touches the leper. “I want to,” Jesus says.
This morning I am thinking about my leprous soul that no one sees. I am thinking about the many ways I am “unclean” and infected with envy, hatred, prejudice, and pride. I am thinking of the ways I secretly identify with the leper, and all the ways I don’t have a flipping’ clue.
Jesus, If you want to, you can make me clean.
featured image by Hans Splinter via Flickr