by Robert Brow
Here we have the first healing of a leper in Jesus' ministry. And our Old Testament reading describes how Naaman the Commander in Chief of the Syrian army came to be healed from leprosy. To get the force of this astonishing event, imagine Saddam Hussain coming to Israel and meekly asking if he could bathe in the Jordan! (2 Kings 5:1-14. The Syrians were also known as Arameans. In passing, we note that the wars between the land of Israel and the Syria have now gone on for 3,000 years, see 2 Samuel 8:6).
Being a leper was the most terrifying condition of the ancient world. Mollie and I were married in India in 1953. At that time lepers were a horrible sight, and there was no cure for them. Two or three of them would wander around begging. And because they had no feeling their hands and feet, and faces would get hurt or burned and deformed. The early missionaries established leper colonies where they could be protected from further damage. It was a wonderful sight to see a church full of lepers coming up to take communion. The cost was that in those days one heard of Christian workers who cared for the lepers themselves contracting leprosy. Now there are drugs that can arrest the disease, and missionaries like Dr. Paul Brand of Vellore have developed reconstructive surgery to restore the damaged hands and feet.
Two days ago I went to a dermatologist for a pre-cancerous spot from sunburn on my face. She sprayed it with her nitrogen gun, and the skin should be restored to normal in a week or two. In Bible times I might have been considered a leper, and put out of my home. That is why people lived in terror of any skin condition that would end their normal life. Among the Jews anyone who got an eruption in their skin was required to go to the priests. They had to decide if the person's condition was leprous (see the rules in Leviticus 13 & 14). If leprosy was diagnosed, the person would immediately be isolated from their family. They would have to live by the gehenna garbage dump outside the wall of Jerusalem where they might find scraps of food to keep them alive. If they moved anywhere to beg they were required to cry "unclean, unclean" to warn people to keep well away from them. Often they were told it was their fault, and God's judgment was upon them.
You may be saying "How interesting," but you wonder how this information about lepers has any relevance to your life? The fact is there are many individuals in our modern world who secretly feel like a leper. Some of you remember feeling excluded as a teenager. You did not belong because you were different. When schools were first integrated in the southern states of America I remember the story of a black girl who felt excluded in a previously all-white school. In India we sent our own daughter Rachel to a school where she was the only white girl. They used to call her "goldylocks" and pinch her cheeks. Eventually we could see it was too upsetting, and we had to send her at the age of six 2,000 miles away to a boarding school in the Nilgiri Hills.
Some children, and older persons, sense they are unattractive. A girl feels like a leper because no boy wants to date her, and she has to sit out the school dances. At St. James' Church Mollie and I were often asked to attend a wedding reception. On one occasion I had danced with the two mothers, and the bride and bridesmaids, and I then noticed a rather plain looking, overweight girl who was sitting out alone. So I went over to invite her, and she turned out to be by far the best dancer I had ever known. I can't remember enjoying a dance so much, but I was horrified that she was so cruelly excluded from what she did so well.
In their teens many young people discover that they are not attracted to the opposite sex. That is bad enough, but it is even worse if their parents cannot deal with the situation. People quote the Bible at them, and in some cases they are physically excluded from home. They inevitably feel like social lepers. Incidentally I believe there are fifteen genetic steps that need to occur between conception and birth for sexual feelings for the opposite sex to develop later in our teens. Any of these steps can be prevented by physical or mental trauma such as drugs, alcoholism, and shocks of one kind or another. Through no fault of their own the person, who will later be called gay or lesbian, feels excluded from the normal. Hopefully these attitudes are slowly changing.
Some of you remember the days when a girl who got pregnant before marriage was sent away secretly to have the baby elsewhere, and get it adopted out. We have a friend here in Kingston whose daughter got pregnant, and she was at once told she was no longer welcome in church. "A bad apple spoils the whole basket." The young couple got married and had a happy family, but for many years she remained a leper.
The sense of being dumped and divorced by one's partner is also a very painful experience. "What's wrong with me? Have I got leprosy?" And until very recently divorced persons were viewed as bad Christians unfit to be missionaries or to be ordained for service in the church. I suspect half of you will have had experiences of feeling excluded, and all of you know people who secretly feel like lepers because they lack the educational, psychological, and social skills to be accepted as normal.
What can we do if we feel excluded? The first thing to remember is that Jesus not only cared about lepers but deliberately ignored the law and went up and touched them. 'Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said "Be made clean!" Immediately the leprosy left him and he was made clean' (Mark 1:41).
Then we read the Gospels and find that most of the people Jesus viewed as friends were social lepers. Mary Magdalene had seven devils, which meant that she engaged in seven different kinds of totally unacceptable behavior. Though she was viewed as a bad bad woman Jesus welcomed her to his circle of disciples, and in our lectionary every year on July 22 we keep the feast of Saint Mary Magdalene.
Levi was a hated taxed collector. He worked on contract for the Romans, paid them a fixed sum, and collected as much above that as he could demand by ruthless extortion. If he lived on your street, nobody would greet him - mostly they hissed. But Jesus came to the place where he was collecting the money, and invited him to become one of his disciples. He later wrote the Gospel of Matthew. The woman of Samaria had lived with five different men, and was currently having an adulterous affair with a married man. She felt so excluded that she did not join the other women to draw water at the well early in the morning, but came alone at midday. The Jews hated the Samaritans and never talked to them, but Jesus sat down to chat with her at the well, and she became the first missionary to Samaria and many came to faith through her (John 4:39-42).
If Jesus was so intent on welcoming the excluded of his day, there is not one of us that he will not accept as a friend and disciple. He himself was treated as a dangerous leper by the Pharisees and Sadducees and theologians of Jerusalem, and they eventually had him crucified. We read that "he was despised and rejected, as one from whom others hide their faces", and he took our dis-eases upon himself (Isaiah 53:3-4). So he understands how we feel, and he wants you to know he welcomes you in particular.
The Christian church has often failed, and we took a long time to welcome slaves and others who felt like lepers in our society. But at our best we welcome all that Jesus would welcome. Don't be surprised if Jesus is very angry if you suggest that someone has no business coming to our church.
In India not only were lepers welcomed but people who had been
treated as untouchables for three thousand years were baptized and
sat at the Lord's table with us. Previously if even their shadow passed
over a high caste person's food, they would not eat it. In our modern world
people still feel excluded in all sorts of ways. But, the good news is
that all the excluded are welcome to our Christian family table.
Please let them know this.