A man was walking through the desert. The poor bastard had not eaten for days. He prayed for help. Soon, he came across a church. He went in. He kneeled at the altar and prayed, "God… God, give me some food" and a lump of meat dropped at his feet. Overjoyed, he ate the food, and came back every day with the same request. Every day, he was rewarded. But one day, after asking God for food, a hand dropped at his feet. He locked up and there was a leper painting the ceiling.
How great is that? It isn’t everyday you get to make a religious joke AND a leprosy joke in a blog about religion all on the same day! Leprosy has tormented humans throughout recorded history. The earliest possible account of a disease that many scholars believe is leprosy appears in an Egyptian Papyrus document written around 1550 BCE Around 600 BCE Indian writings describe a disease that resembles leprosy. In Europe, leprosy first appeared in the records of ancient Greece after the army of Alexander the Great came back from India and then in Rome in 62 BCE coinciding with the return of Pompeii's troops from Asia Minor.
Throughout its history, leprosy has been feared and misunderstood. For a long time leprosy was thought to be a hereditary disease, a curse, or a punishment from God. Before, and even after the discovery of its biological cause, leprosy patients were stigmatized and shunned. For example, in Europe during the Middle Ages, leprosy sufferers had to wear special clothing, ring bells to warn others that they were close, and even walk on a particular side of the road, depending on the direction of the wind.
Even in modern times, leprosy treatment has often occurred in separate hospitals and live-in colonies called leprosariums because of the stigma of the disease. Leprosy has been so prevalent in various areas as certain times throughout history that is has inspired artwork and influenced other cultural practices.
In ancient Palestine, lepers were considered unclean, their malady a punishment from God. Here is what Moses had to say about leprosy:
“The LORD said to Moses and Aaron, "When anyone has a swelling or a rash or a bright spot on his skin that may become an infectious skin disease, he must be brought to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons who is a priest. The priest is to examine the sore on his skin, and if the hair in the sore has turned white and the sore appears to be more than skin deep, it is an infectious skin disease. When the priest examines him, he shall pronounce him ceremonially unclean.” (Leviticus)
If you were unfortunate to have a bad skin infection then the consequences were severe…
“The person with such an infectious disease must wear torn clothes, let his hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of his face and cry out, 'Unclean! Unclean!' As long as he has the infection he remains unclean. He must live alone; he must live outside the camp.”
Leprosy was far worse than a terrible health disorder; it was also a social disease. The consequences meant much more than pain and disfigurement. They also included being ostracized by the Jewish law and the community. Those afflicted could look forward to no mercy, no comfort. They would die, in pain, alone and despised.
Today, Leprosy, or Hansen’s Disease can be successfully treated. We now know that it is caused by bacteria, that it is not hereditary, nor is it a punishment from God. We now know that Anne Coulture and Bill O’Reilly are the only punishments from God. We no longer ship our lepers off to leper colonies. And yet, we still have our lepers.
We still have those whom we cast out, those suffering from AIDS, the homeless, those unable to control their addictions, those living in poverty, and now, republicans. You don’t believe we still have our lepers? Just look at O.J. Simpson and Michael Jackson. Look at what the press does with Brittney Spears and Lindsey Lohan. Let’s face it, we are not really a very compassionate society. Although the Old Testament tells of only two instances in which lepers were cured of their disease, Jesus was constantly giving them a helping hand, as it were.
A leper came to Jesus and kneeling down begged him and said,
"If you wish, you can make me clean."
Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand,
touched him, and said to him,
"I do will it. Be made clean." The leprosy left him immediately, and he was made clean.
Then, warning him sternly, he dismissed him at once.
He said to him, "See that you tell no one anything,
but go, show yourself to the priest
and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed;
that will be proof for them."
The man went away and began to publicize the whole matter.
He spread the report abroad
so that it was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly.
He remained outside in deserted places,
and people kept coming to him from everywhere. (Mark Chapter One, 40-45)
Now throughout the story of Jesus the Christ, he heals many people. Some of them touch him. With most, he merely tells the “unclean spirits” to leave. For many, he simply tells them they are healed. Others, he even heals from a distance. But this guy, this leper, he reaches out and TOUCHES, the one thing that the law says he is not supposed to do, the one thing that would make Jesus himself unclean. Jesus understood that it wasn’t touching lepers that made you unclean, it was NOT touching them (all in a metaphorical sense, of course). By his example, Jesus shows us that we have to reach out to our “lepers”.
And each one of us has our own lepers. For some of us, it is republicans, or democrats. For others, the lepers are people from other ethnicities. For many people, the lepers are the homosexuals. Right now, it seems our lepers are immigrants and Muslims. Instead of pushing people away, we need to draw them in closer to us.
I once had no patience for anyone who was racist. Then, I made a good friend. He and I were close. Along the way, I discovered he was very racist. I mean, not burning crosses on the front lawn racist, but he did hold many simply ridiculous simply untrue ideas about people of color. And I discovered over time that this guy was a good guy. I didn’t like his ideas, but he was a good guy. He never hurt anybody. He was kind to everybody, even people of color. I did not then, nor do I now, agree with his ideas on race, but I do consider him my friend. I guess I learned that the bottom line is that people are more than a label.
This is something that the religious right needs to learn. Jesus didn’t bring God to the people by standing in a pulpit pointing out their imperfections, warning them to change their lives or suffer the consequences. He reached out to people in compassion. He condemned no one. You don’t need to show me my imperfections. I am only all too aware of my imperfections. Just reach out to me. If I am in the wrong, your love will show me.
On another level, we are all lepers ourselves, to ourselves. We all have parts of us that we consider “unclean”, those dark secrets we keep hidden, those parts of ourselves that we admit to no one. We all have those parts of ourselves that we just don’t like. Sometimes they are aspects of our personalities, our inability to commit, or to develop intimacy. Sometimes they are our fears. Sometimes, they are our failures. We all have them. And we all wear those masks because we know deep down that if anybody ever knew all there was to know about us, they would drop us faster than a sub-prime mortgage.
And all we have to do to get rid of that excess baggage is to call out to that divine spirit and ask to be made clean. Sometimes it is easier to be compassionate with others than to be compassionate with one’s self. It can be easy to forgive others. It is so hard for me to forgive myself. I still wince when I think of the things I’ve done that have caused others sorrow or pain, the terrible mistakes I’ve made, the poor decisions. Jesus showed us that we have to eat with sinners. We do. We have to live with all our failures, and still love ourselves.
As always, it doesn’t matter if this story of Jesus and the leper is true, whether or not this man really had Hansen’s disease or not, the truth contained in the story is valid. I know if I can seek to feel that universal spirit, if I reach out in compassion to those around me, those feelings I have about my own failures will fall away, and I can live, truly live more abundantly. When I discover my own true divine nature, I will be free of those chains, and will “be clean.”