Tag Archives: Leper

Touch and Cleansing

“Anything that an unclean person touches becomes unclean, and anyone who touches it becomes unclean till evening.”
Numbers 19:22 (NIV)

There is an old saying that “cleanliness is next to godliness” and the saying may well be rooted in the religious rituals God gave to the ancient Hebrews in the book of Numbers. The theme of today’s chapter are the things that made one “unclean” and the rituals for making them “clean” again. While there is certainly spiritual metaphor at work here, there is also practical application for keeping a nation of nomads alive approximately 3500 years ago.

Throughout today’s chapter I got the sense of reading an ancient hygiene manual. Being around things like dead bodies (which may carry all manner of contagion) make a person “unclean.” You had to remain outside the camp for seven days (we call that quarantine), ritually wash, and then wash your clothes before you could be enter the camp once more. Through the ritual, God protects the community from that which could harm it.

By the time Jesus arrived on the scene in history 1500 years later, the “clean” and “unclean” designations of Moses’ law had morphed into systemic religious and social prejudice. Rules had been made to define the rules. Religious Hebrews weren’t using the “unclean” designation to protect the community, but to separate themselves from lower class individuals and those with whom they didn’t want to mix socially.

Read Jesus’ story and you’ll find that time and time again He was breaking the rules. He broke the rules for working on the Sabbath. He touched that which the Hebrew religious leaders said was “unclean” (e.g. a leper, a woman bleeding, a woman caught in adultery).

One of the most powerful stories is when a leper falls before Jesus and says, “If you want to, you can make me clean.”

He didn’t say “you can heal me” or “you can take my leprosy away” or “you can make me whole.” He said you can make me “clean.”

The leper was an outcast, and he was required to shout “Unclean!” wherever he went so that everyone else could avoid him. No one was to touch him. Every day the social system ensured that he repeatedly confirm his unworthiness, dishonor, and shame. All day, every day he would repeat “Unclean! Unclean! Unclean!” and watch people’s faces contort with disgust. He would watch mothers hurrying their children away from him. He watch people cross the street to walk on the other side of the road. This is why you still hear the phrase “social leper” in context of a person who has become an outcast of society.

Matthew is careful to record (Matthew 8:3) that Jesus reached out and touched the leper. This was not a casual touch. This was breaking the rules. This was supposed to mean that Jesus would be unclean, too. But Jesus’ touch healed the man’s leprosy. The touch made him clean.

This morning I’m reminded of the many times and circumstances along my life journey when I’ve felt unclean. Despite the common misperception of those who’ve never really read the story, Jesus didn’t come to perpetuate systemic uncleanliness. He didn’t come to double down on societal rules, stigmas, and shame. He didn’t come to tell me how terrible, unworthy, and unclean I am. I’m well aware of my uncleanliness without having to be reminded.

Jesus came to reach out with grace and love and compassion and power. Jesus came to touch the unclean person and make them clean. Present company included.

If you want to…

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.

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featured image by Hans Splinter via Flickr

A Lesson in Gratitude

TenLepers

One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. 16 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? 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.” Luke 17:15-19 (NIV)

On the refrigerator at our lake house you’ll find some sweet “thank you” notes left by guests. Taylor and her friends used the place for a weekend last month, and when we arrived we found that all them had signed a hand-made and artistic thank you note (and included a bottle of wine with it). My favorites are always the thank you notes left by children. You know that the child’s note was prompted by a mom or dad who was teaching the kid about manners and gratitude, but they are always so endearing.

I have learned so many spiritual lessons by having our little place at the lake. Wendy and I have always had a sense that our job was to steward the place well, and to be generous with it. God has blessed us and we’re paying it forward. What I didn’t expect was the inherent lesson it has been in generosity and gratitude. It’s been fascinating to see how people treat that which is generously given. Some show their respect and gratitude simply by the visible care with which they treat that which is not theirs. Others not only treat things with respect, but also express their gratitude in creative and tangible ways that warm our hearts. Occasionally, a guest will be neither respectful or grateful. What are you gonna do? People are people.

My joy at receiving simple expressions of thanks has really prompted a lot of personal soul searching in recent years. I look back on my journey and realize that, more often than not, I have been like the nine lepers who accepted Jesus’ generous healing but never thought to go back and simply say, “Thank you.” God’s blessing has been so abundant and I have to admit that I’ve been guilty of being neither respectful nor grateful. I now have a greater sense of what Jesus felt when He asked the thankful cleansed leper, “Where are the other nine?” I get it. I don’t ever want to counted among the nine again.

Today, I’m expressing my gratitude for all the ways God has abundantly blessed me and my family.

Chapter-a-Day Leviticus 13

“Any person with a serious skin disease must wear torn clothes, leave his hair loose and unbrushed, cover his upper lip, and cry out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ As long as anyone has the sores, that one continues to be ritually unclean. That person must live alone; he or she must live outside the camp.” Leviticus 13:45-46 (MSG)

The reason for all of the designations of sores, rashes, boils and fungus in today’s chapter is pretty clear. The people of Israel, millions of them, were wandering through the desert, pitching their tents as they went. They had no formal system of government or organization. Anyone who has watched the aftermath of disasters on television knows that large groups of people in precarious situations are in need of provision and health considerations. By setting out some basic health regulations around infectious disease, the law of Leviticus was protecting the people from getting killed off in a preventable epidemic.

But, consider the poor individuals with an infection. No penicillin. No anti-biotics. They were cast from the society to live on their own. Not only scarred by their physical ailments, they now had the scarring of their souls which came from being cursed and separated from family and friends. No more warm embraces from loved ones. No more intimacy with a spouse. Wherever they went they had to scream “UNCLEAN!” Imagine the psychological effect of having to scream that word all day, declaring to the world your own curse and shame.

I can’t read Leviticus 13 without thinking about the time a man with leprosy came to Jesus. Imagine the outcast described in today’s chapter: torn clothes, face covered, body covered with the ugly white scars of leprosy. Imagine the man who has cried “unlean” for years and watched people, including his own loved ones, flee from him in horror. Imagine the man who can’t remember feeling the touch of another human being.

A leper came to [Jesus], begging on his knees, “If you want to, you can cleanse me.”

Deeply moved, Jesus put out his hand, touched him, and said, “I want to. Be clean.” Then and there the leprosy was gone, his skin smooth and healthy.

And that’s the whole of God’s message in a nutshell. We are all unclean, separated from God and made outcast by this infectious spiritual condition of sin. But Jesus comes to us, and we fall on our knees before him uttering “If you want to, you can make me clean.”

And he touches us. In that touch is healing. In that touch is life.

“I want to,” he says. “Be clean.”

Creative Commons photo courtesy of Flickr and archeon

Chapter-a-Day 2 Kings 7

Muchado1lr It happened that four lepers were sitting just outside the city gate. They said to one another, "What are we doing sitting here at death's door? If we enter the famine-struck city we'll die; if we stay here we'll die. So let's take our chances in the camp of Aram and throw ourselves on their mercy. If they receive us we'll live, if they kill us we'll die. We've got nothing to lose."  2 Kings 7:3-4 (MSG)

My wife and I are theatre people, and we have a love for the works of Shakespeare. We've been in productions of his works and have seen them produced in various settings. One of the things that makes the famous Bard's plays so timeless is the way he grasps the human condition and turns very common themes into both comedic and tragic plots and characters.

One of the themes we have noticed in Shakespeare's works is the way the archetype character of "the fool" ends up being the one who sees things to which the strongest heroes are blind. In Shakespeare's world, the fool often speaks with the greatest wisdom.

I have seen a similar theme throughout God's message. God delights in using the weakest, smallest, least important people to do great things. In today's chapter, it was four lepers who lived in the no man's land between the city wall (which they could not enter because of their disease) and the seiging Aramean army who surrounded the town. The lepers, in their desperation, had wisdom to see their only hope and grasp at it. They were rewarded with provision of the choicest plunder. Had the king or his guards discovered the empty Aramean camp themselves, the poor lepers would have been lucky to get some of the left-over scraps tossed to them from the city wall.

God delights in using the least important, weakest, most unlikely characters to do His will. Perhaps, like the lepers, it is because they have the least to lose in worldly standing.

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