The sacrament of touch
2 Kings 5.1-14
Let’s start with the Book of Leviticus (13.45-46; from The Message):
The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be dishevelled; 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.
‘Leprosy’ was not a good diagnosis to get back in biblical times. It meant you were ‘unclean’. You had to live in isolation, away from human contact. The irony is that these ‘lepers’ didn’t necessarily have what we call leprosy. Today, ‘leprosy’ is the name we give to Hansen’s Disease, an infectious condition caused by certain bacteria. But in biblical times, ‘lepers’ were a mixed bag of people: some may have had fungal infections; others weren’t even infectious, having things like psoriasis or eczema. But they were expelled from the community anyway.
Leprosy was a disease ‘of biblical proportions’. Even today we know what it means to be treated as a leper. And we don’t like it.
A leper comes to Jesus in today’s Gospel story. Whatever he had, whether we’d call it leprosy or eczema, his wasn’t an ordinary illness. His was an illness that made him ‘unclean’—
- unfit for normal human company;
- unable to approach God;
- unsuitable for the companionship of anyone—except those who were also unclean.
Despite what the Book of Leviticus says he should do, we don’t read that the leper cried ‘Unclean’, or that he covered his lip. What he did say was,
If you choose, you can make me clean.
Jesus’ response is
I do choose. Be made clean!
Be made clean.
Well of course, we’re sophisticated, we’re not like those people thousands of years ago. We understand germs and stuff. You can’t help getting sick. We can deal with Hansen’s Disease. We have quick-acting drugs with fancy names like rifampicin and dapsone. We also know that something over 95% of people are naturally immune to Hansen’s Disease. It’s hard to catch it.
We don’t call lepers ‘unclean’. Nothing and no one is unclean to us.
If that’s what you think, stop now! Don’t you believe it.