- Introit: Arise, why sleepest Thou, O Lord? arise, and cast us not off to the end. Why turnest Thou Thy face away, and forgettest our trouble? our belly hath cleaved to the earth: arise, O Lord, help us and deliver us. -- (Ps. 43. 2). We have heard, O God, with our ears: our fathers have declared to us.
“O how I love Jesus, O how I love Jesus, O how I love Jesus … Because he first loved me.”
These words from Hymn 95 in our Life Every Voice and Sing hymnal come to mind as we think about the amazing miracles of Christ. Today’s story, about the healing of a leper, reminds us of why we love Jesus, why we’re so moved by who he was and what he did – why his story is the focus around which we have built our religious and spiritual lives. Jesus must have been an incredible person – courageous, compassionate, committed. And we love him because he loved us first.
To understand what this story really says about not only how great Jesus is, but about how much he loves us, we have to talk about leprosy and about the cultural norms of those times. The term “leprosy” in the Bible was used to name a number of different skin diseases. And according to the religious law of the Jewish people, a person with any one of these so-called leprous diseases was considered unclean, untouchable, unwanted.
Here’s how the code of Leviticus puts it:
“The person with 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 place shall be outside the community.”
Leviticus also tells us that anyone who touched a person with leprosy was considered unclean. Being unclean meant being removed from the community, barred from the Temple, and an elaborate and potentially expensive series of rituals and sacrifices was required to be made clean again.
Now, not only was the person with leprosy considered unclean, but the disease was also seen as a sign of God’s punishment. Moses conveys these words to the people in Deuteronomy 28:
“If you will not obey the Lord your God then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you: the Lord will afflict you with boils, scurvy and itch, of which you cannot be healed; the Lord will strike you with grievous boils from the sole of your foot to the crown of your head.”
People with skin diseases were society’s rejects – shunned and cast out, stigmatized with the mark of God’s punishment, abnormal, unacceptable, unclean. From the “festering boils” of the sixth plague in Egypt to the “loathsome sores” endured by Job, burning itch and open lesions were taken as signs that an angry God wasn’t kidding around.
In our reading from the second book of Kings this morning, we hear the story of the great warrior, Naaman, who suffered from leprosy. And in the story, Elisha, the legendary prophet and holy man, heals Naaman. We should note that immediately prior to this healing, in the previous chapter of the second book of Kings, Elisha restores to life a young boy who has died. And he does so by lying on top of the boy, putting his lips on the boy’s lips and his hands on the boys hands. But following the religious law of the day, Elisha wants no part of Naaman’s leprosy, no physical contact with the afflicted hero. Instead, he sends him to wash himself in the river, preferring to let the water do the dangerous work of healing.
We must keep these social mores in mind as background for what Jesus does when he encounters the leper. “If you choose,” the man says in the Gospel of Mark, “you can make me clean.”
This unclean man, cast out, probably rejected from healing by the priest, comes to Jesus in faith, asking to be healed. And Jesus, we are told by the evangelist, is moved with pity. So moved, in fact, that he stretches out his hand and touches the man, proclaiming, “I do choose. Be made clean!”
Only by understanding the place of leprosy in the minds of the people can we grasp what a courageous and compassionate action this is. Jesus, moved with pity, stretches out his hand and touches the leper. In doing so, he ignores an entire category of religious law and social acceptability. He overthrows generations of commonly held beliefs about people who’d been rejected and cast out. He touches the man, and instead of becoming unclean himself, he heals the leper. Jesus, in an act of mercy and grace, takes away the leprosy and thereby restores the man physically, socially, and religiously to the community.
That’s why we love Jesus – because of the breadth of his love for us. Jesus did this amazing thing at great personal risk. He knew, from the start, that his message of repentance and of love as the underpinning for all the commandments would invite a lot of enemies, would invite a lot of resistance. Healing a leper by touching him, declaring him clean, which only the priest was supposed to do, could get Jesus into a lot of trouble. In fact, Jesus instructed the healed man not to tell anyone. And when the man disobeyed, Jesus had to go into hiding, at least for a little while. But here in the first chapter of the first gospel, at the very beginning of his public ministry, we see that Jesus had come to challenge the customs of the day with his boundless love for humanity.
Now, the story of the healing of the leper is wonderful not only for what we learn about Jesus, but also for the example set by the man who is healed. His openness to Christ’s healing touch, his desire and confidence, provide a model for us. Because we all have leprosy. Some people suffer from modern-day equivalents – AIDS, drug addiction, homelessness, mental illness – conditions that put them on the margins of society. But we all have something; we all have those places in our lives where we feel disconnected, rejected, alone. We all may have those times when we feel ashamed or unclean, perhaps even as though we are being punished by God. We don’t necessarily have outward signs of it, such as boils and scurvy, but we carry around those boils and open wounds in our souls: old hurts, private fears, anxiety, anger, loneliness. These are the leprous tumors disfiguring the tender flesh of our inner being.
Can we be made well? Can we let Jesus stretch out his courageous and compassionate hand to touch us, even in those secret places we don’t want God to see?
Our healing, our cleansing, begins in our life of prayer, where we must be willing to try to show God everything. The leper in the story is our example. Outwardly bearing a shameful disease, he nonetheless goes to Jesus in faith, begging him and keeling down before him, saying, “If you choose, you can make me clean.”
Like the man, we have nothing to hide from God. When we present ourselves to Jesus in faith, the Lord will also respond to the leprosy of our souls with the same grace and generosity which he shows to the man in the story. We can pray for mercy, showing those open wounds and allowing ourselves to accept God’s forgiveness. We can pray for strength, exposing our boils and our itch and allowing ourselves to receive Jesus’ healing touch.
If we can approach God in that open, humble, yet confident and faithful way, the Lord will help us to know that we are clean, restored, forgiven and beloved. Then we may recognize in our hearts the joy of today’s psalmist: “You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may praise you and not be silent.”
From the sense of healing and trust in God’s presence that we find in our spiritual lives, we move out to the community – to the world around us. And there, we reach across the leprous barriers of our modern world, the dislocation of our daily lives, putting aside fear and prejudice to reach out with courage and compassion to touch our sisters and brothers. In other words, we have to be Christ for each other, and we have to pray for the grace to let others be Christ for us.
Forgiveness. Compassion. Love. It begins in our hearts, in our own spiritual lives, and moves out to the world around us. We love Jesus because he first loved us – boils and all. And in loving us, he gives us power to do the work. He taught us what we need to know to be his disciples, giving us the example of his limitless love.
As Hymn 95 says of his holy name: “It tells of one whose loving heart can feel my deepest woe, who in each sorrow bears a part, that none can bear below. O how I love Jesus, because he first loved me.”
Praise be to God for both inviting us to come forward and show our true selves, and for healing us and sending us out to our sisters and brothers with the power of his Spirit.