Touching the leper

I know a priest who was called to the beside of a man who was dying of AIDS, in one of the first cases of AIDS in a western state. The man was the son of parishioners, and he had come home from New York to die. This was during the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, and little was known about the transmission of AIDS. She gave him communion, and last rites, and then the man died. She didn’t think much about the fact that there was such tremendous fear and stigma about AIDS at the time, until at her parish the following Sunday, she said mass, and invited the people to communion, and no one came forward to receive. They were afraid. She had been in contact with a man who had died from a new, little understood disease, and there was incredible fear about taking bread and wine from a priest who had been that close to HIV/AIDS. She had to do a great amount of teaching to convince her parishioners that AIDS didn’t spread by the chalice, or touch.

I always think of that fear and stigma when I read the stories about leprosy in the Gospels. Leprosy was the equivalent in the ancient near east. No one had contact with a leper. They were, instantly, removed from every social sphere. They couldn’t worship in the synagogue, they couldn’t live with other people, they couldn’t participate in the economic system of the time; who would take money from a leper?

As so often happens, when we read the stories of the Gospels, we need to be reminded that a great part of their power and shock-value comes from the fact that Jesus is in these settings at all: that he speaks and teaches women, Gentiles, tax collectors, sinners, and yes, lepers.

So listen once again to the story of Jesus and the leper.

The man begging, full of desperation and fear is down on his knees in supplication. “If you choose,” which is a way of saying “If you aren’t a charlatan, or a fraud; if you aren’t like the couple of quacks who would actually consent to talk to me, if you are who you say you are,” you can heal me.

How many times had he been down on his knees, or hoping against hope that this doctor, or that teacher would actually speak to him, this dip into the Dead Sea or the miracle cure would restore him?

The man wasn’t simply ill or in physical distress. His condition was a sentence of social death, of complete isolation and humiliation, of complete stigma and total dehumanization. To have leprosy was to be unclean, to be the living walking equivalent of a dead body, to make anyone who came into contact with you unclean for days. It meant being excluded from the village, from all human touch and conversation, to be utterly and permanently alienated from family, town and tribe.

Indeed, this man had nothing to lose. He’d lost everything already. A friendless corpse, orphaned; permanently having to announce his own demise to those who otherwise might come into contact with him: “Unclean! I am unclean!”

In hopeless and utter desperation, from the edge of insanity and a place of rash and pyrrhic despair, he approaches the new teacher that has been shaking up the countryside. And there are such strange rumors about him, that people are made well, those distressed are made whole, and that his words are words of strange comfort and peace.

“Probably,” the man says to himself, “probably he won’t do anything. Probably his face will just twist with disgust and fear, like everyone else does. Probably nothing can be done and I will go on my way, alone again.”

The Gospel records Jesus’ pity. But the Greek here can also be translated as “anger,” which gives a greater nuance to the story.Jesus is angry, not with the man for approaching him, but at the situation: angry that the man is sick, angry that he is so completely cut off from his friends and family, angry that the man is driven to such desperate straits.

Jesus then does an amazing, stunning act. Not only does he allow the man to approach him, to speak to him, to make him ritually unclean, which might be enough for this poor lonely man, but Jesus doesn’t stop there. He reaches out his hand, in pity and anger, and touches him.

He sets all the cultural fear, horror and revulsion on its ear (and Jesus must have felt some of that horror himself) and not only does his touch bring physical healing to the man, but it is the first human contact that he has had in God knows how long.

I imagine him, kneeling there, the tears creeping out beneath his closed eyelids, completely and utterly stunned at that first touch in so long – not even thinking momentarily about the years of loneliness and desperation.

Is it any wonder then, that the man disregards Jesus? That, instead of finally fulfilling the process that would lead to his restoration into the social fabric of his time, instead of that, he goes out to speak with passion and amazement about this rabbi who not only healed him, but touched him, who not only spoke to him and allowed his approach, but flashed in anger at his plight.

The stories in the Gospels are flashes, brief flashes on our retina of the Incarnation; of what it means that God shares our life with us. The reason that we read the Scriptures ever week is to have these glimpses of God’s work, and to make the narrative of God’s coming into the world part of our own story and narrative, to graft our stories into the story of God’s love and action.

This is the icon that we are given, the image of God-come-down-to-earth that the generations who went before us have handed on to us. God made flesh looks not just to the powerful, wealthy and saintly but to the outcast, the pariah, the sinner. And the icon of Jesus points continually to the shocking ways in which God works.Jesus speaks to foreigners, touches lepers and teaches women. St. Francis, following his God, takes a page from that book and kisses the leper on the mouth.

It isn’t just the leper or the outcast whom Jesus heals, but everyone, children, the aged, all those who come to him in faith, or attempting to have faith, he teaches, touches, welcomes and heals.

Even so, in our own day, Jesus comes into our lives and the lives of the disposed with healing, and his coming is not preconditioned on our getting ourselves together but on his love and mercy, and the flash of anger because of our suffering. And how he heals us: he heals our sadnesses and our hurts, our longings and the woundedness that is at the heart of us. He comes down into our midst every week, scattering his presence like wafers and his compassion like drops of wine.

This story from the Gospel this morning is also a story about what our response to that unbelieveable, luminous touch of the divine in our lives should be. We will want to shout it from the rooftops; we, feeling the glory of our own healing and redemption will be more and more compelled to tell the story of the amazing rabbi, who allowed us to approach, and even spoke with us, and in his compassion and mercy touched us and made us well.

We will want people to know that he has come down to our midst, our God and King, our Savior and Messiah. He works here still, speaking into our hearts and minds, grafting us into the great story of salvation, healing our wounds and whispering to us of the sadnesses and hurts around us. That we may share with those around us the wonder of the teacher who stretches out his hand in compassion and heals.

Preached by Fr. Andrew Ashcroft

St. Mark's Church, Philadelphia

15 February 2009


Posted on February 17, 2009 .