Those of you who’ve seen me over the past week have probably noticed this bandaid on top of my forehead. After all, my (bald) hairstyle doesn’t do very much to cover it. So just to be clear: no, it’s not some kind of fashion statement, nor do I wish to have a beauty mark in that location. No, this bandaid is just one more sign that I’m getting older. I celebrated a birthday last week and I rang in the new year with my first skin biopsy. It’s nothing to fear. But given my fair complexion my dermatologist should have plenty of work to keep her busy in coming years. Thankfully this little blemish hasn’t made my life more difficult. The only inconvenience has been going to Boston for a doctor’s appointment. Otherwise, I haven’t missed a beat. I’m healthy and happy. I’m also thankful that none of you have avoided me or given me the cold shoulder because of this blemish. No one has looked at my bandaid and run screaming in the other direction. As far as I know, none of you have even refused Communion or stayed away from church because you’re afraid I’m contagious. I guess I’ll really find out today if you all stay in your seats...
But that would be surprising. Because it’s only a basal cell. It’s not contagious, and it’s not even that big of a deal. It’s a simple procedure and it’s done. There’s nothing to fear. But, as we heard from today’s Gospel reading (Mark 1.40-45) life hasn’t always been that way. In a world where people knew much less about some kinds of disease, and they knew nothing at all about some kinds of cures; sickness, illness, and disease were always a threat. Any kind of visible blemish, big or small, could be a big deal. How’d it get there? Was it going to spread? And how on earth could it be contained? We may not always fear what we don’t understand, but we certainly fear outbreaks that we can’t contain.
So, then as now, if you’re afraid of an outbreak sometimes the only thing to do is to keep people away. Keep them separate from everybody else unless and until the danger is gone. And if there’s no easy way to contain the people, then you get rid of them. You send them away as far as you possibly can. You create plenty of “safe distance” between you and whatever uncontrollable affliction there might be.
Ancient Israel, like any other people, had a pretty detailed set of instructions for investigating and containing these kinds of outbreaks. So this week, now that I’ve got my first real trophy, I thought I’d go back and read them again to see how I fared. Now that I’ve got a genuine skin blemish, how would I stack up in the ancient world? Here’s what I found:
“If anyone loses the hair from his head, he is bald but he is clean (that’s me). If he loses the hair from his forehead and temples (we call that male-pattern baldness these days), he has baldness of the forehead but he is clean (so far, so good!). But if there is on the bald head or the bald forehead a reddish-white spot, it is a leprous disease breaking out on his bald head... The priest shall examine him; if the swelling is reddish-white (mine is) ... he is leprous, he is unclean… the disease is on his head. (Lev. 13:40-44)
That’s right, I stand before you today as a leper in the ancient world. Banish the thought of rotting flesh that’s falling from people’s bones. There may have been some extreme, flesh-eating conditions but many lepers could have looked much more like me: healthy, active, highly-functioning people. People like Naaman, who we hear about in our Old Testament reading.
When we hear the word “leprosy”, if all we can picture are zombies, like The Walking Dead, then it’s confusing to read about a guy like Naaman. This guy is commander of the Aramean army, one of Israel’s enemies. “The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy” (2Kgs. 5). He’s a warrior. He leads men in battle. His leprosy is probably a pretty small condition. He’s got all kinds of health and energy - and anger. When Naaman goes to Elisha for healing he “became angry and went away, saying, ‘I thought that for me [the prophet] would surely come out… and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy!” (2Kgs. 5).
Leprosy in the ancient world was as much of a social issue as a medical issue. Just imagine it. If somebody’s got it out for you, they might just start telling people they’ve noticed some “irregular” spots on your skin. Of course, they’d say they’re concerned. Of course, they’d say it’s really for the safety of everyone else. And even if the priest is officially responsible for a clean bill of health - we all know how that kind of a system works: it all depends on the priest. When you get right down to it, it wouldn’t be all that difficult to make someone a leper with a few well-placed rumors. Welcome to the world of ancient leprosy.
We don’t know what kind of leprosy this man was suffering in today’s Gospel but, no matter what, the social consequences would have been devastating. Whether his leprosy was something big or something as simple as my little blemish, the rules were the same. It made no difference. And to be fair, these rules were intended for the safety and protection of everyone. The rules made sense, even if some people abused them. Here they are:
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 shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.” (Lev 13)
It’s harsh. It’s tragic. And sometimes, then and now, it seems like the only safe alternative. Containment. Get rid of people to control the danger. And so, the first thing to say about this Gospel story is that Jesus broke through those barriers that separated lepers from everybody else. Some of our manuscripts don’t just say that Jesus was “moved with pity” at the sight of this leper; they say that Jesus was “moved with anger” (which may suggest that it was actually a pretty minor condition). Jesus was angry at the rules we use and abuse to banish other people.
There are all kinds of good sermons to be preached about that part of the story; about our tendency to isolate people we don’t understand (or like), about the power of human connection, the healing touch of human fellowship, and the vital importance of community in people’s lives. Jesus restored this man to physical and social well-being. Physically and socially, this healed leper was no longer one of the walking dead. Those are all good and important parts of the story.
But, the Gospels don’t spend very much time on those parts of the story. We don’t hear any kind of tale about this man’s joyful reunion with his family and friends; we don’t hear about any “lessons learned” from those mean villagers who banished him. We’re sentimental and we might like to hear those kinds of stories but the Gospels don’t work that way. The Gospels care less about teaching us moral lessons. They care more about telling us how God heals brokenness. They care more about telling us how God creates new life. That’s what it’s about.
How does the story work? Learn more in Part 2...