The last several weeks, the lectionary has focused on lepers and the response of Jesus to them. Why so much emphasis on lepers? There have always been lepers and lepers will always be among us. Jesus wanted us to know how lepers are created and how his followers are supposed to respond to them.
Mark 1:40-45 A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’ Moved with pity,* Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’ Immediately the leprosy* left him, and he was made clean. After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.’ But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus* could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.
The Bible Jesus read was clear. This man, this leper was unclean and unwelcome by Biblical rules…he was violating the scriptural. Jesus was not unaware of that…he knew the rules, he had read the book…he could quote line and verse as well as the next rabbi.
In the 5th Chapter of Numbers Jesus read that “The LORD said to Moses, "Command the people of Israel that they put out of the camp every leper, and every one having a discharge, and every one that is unclean through contact with the dead; you shall put out both male and female, putting them outside the camp, that they may not defile their camp, in the midst of which I dwell." And the people of Israel did so, and drove them outside the camp; as the LORD said to Moses, so the people of Israel did.”
In the 13th Chapter of Leviticus Jesus read the rules, “Then the priest shall examine him, and if the diseased swelling is reddish-white on his bald head or on his bald forehead, like the appearance of leprosy in the skin of the body, he is a leprous man, he is unclean; the priest must pronounce him unclean; his disease is on his head. "The leper who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry “Unclean, unclean.” He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean; he shall dwell alone in a habitation outside the camp.”
Lepers were unclean and unwelcome. They were not permitted to come into houses of worship, could not get work, and were ostracized by family and friends.
Put yourself in the leper’s shoes. You are one-day enjoying life as a member of the community and then you see it. Actually your wife or husband sees it first. There was a small red patch on your skin. And then another. You began to feel soreness. It became more and more painful, the number of spots grew. You prayed and prayed it would go away; you covered the spots when you went into public.
But eventually, you could no longer hide who you had become. It was not your fault. You did nothing to bring this on, but the spots had become too many and too large to hide. Everyone could see that by the rules of the church, you had become unclean…and unwelcome.
You are now taking great risk in walking these streets. The scripture has taught everyone that you are not clean, the Bible and men of God all agree…you are to be ostracized.
But here he is…taking the risk of death by stoning, in his despair…approaching a rabbi. And this rabbi, Jesus, is also violating the clear and certain words of the Bible. God had commanded the people of Israel to marginalize lepers, to exile them and not to touch them.
The luck of the draw is a term we use to describe the force that seems to operate for good or ill in a person's life, events that seem random in shaping our circumstances and opportunities. It’s the luck of the draw that made this man a leper. Through no fault of his own, he acquired this loathsome disease. He didn’t ask for it, didn’t want it, but here he was a leper. The luck of the draw works two ways, for good and for ill.
It’s the luck of the draw that determined I would be a white heterosexual male American Christian living in a world that gives great benefits to white heterosexual male American Christians. Nothing I did, nothing I earned or deserved. Just the luck of the draw.
Isn’t the luck of the draw a precarious, unfair way to determine opportunities and outcomes in life? Actually…it is an unchristian way to determine a person’s value. And that is what this story is all about. It was not the luck of the draw that put that leper in the path of that rabbi on that morning. It was a God who wanted to make clear that a strict reading od the Bible should never lead to hate and marginalization of any of God’s people.
Consider this for a moment. How much does my life change if any one, just one of those descriptors change?
If instead of being a white heterosexual male American Christian…let’s say I drew a different card and was instead a Native American heterosexual male Christian. One change in the cards produces a life so different from the one I was given. Suddenly I find myself on a Reservation like Wind River. I am likely unemployed, living in a shack with no running water, a part of a violent culture where a teenage male is may be more likely to become an addict or be murdered than to graduate from high school.
Again…what if any one of those other descriptors of my life was different? …If instead of being a white heterosexual male American Christian…I was a white homosexual male American Christian…what would the rabbis or priests or preachers say about me then? Or a white heterosexual female American Christian…or a white heterosexual male American Muslim? Or a gay Christian searching for a faith community in which to worship the God of his creation?
The odds that day were that any leper looking for help from a religious leader would find one who would have him stoned. He was lucky…he ran into the only one who would not! It was the luck of the draw that brought this leper into the path of this special rabbi. Other lepers were on the streets that day looking for help. Other lepers encountered other rabbis. For each it was the luck of the draw.
Imagine this story differently. What if instead of Jesus, the leper had met someone else, a person from the Temple, a person well read in the Scripture, someone who knew the law, knew what was called “the word of God? What if the leper had met a priest or a scribe instead of Jesus?
But…that darned Jesus is always getting in our way. What are we to do with Jesus? He is just fine when he stays on that cross or ascends into heaven but he won’t stay there…here he is walking our streets, violating the law, the scripture some want enforced. Doggone it Jesus, the Bible says what it means and it means what it says.
And here Jesus is…setting a fine example. Here he is talking to one the Bible says God says is unclean. Worse yet, Jesus touches him. Why? He must know better. The Bible prohibits it. What ever are we going to do with this Jesus?
What if…we followed him?
What if…we followed him?
You see, that’s why they call this “the Gospel” or “the Good News.” Jesus changed the conversation. 2000 years later there weren’t supposed to be lepers and others rendered unclean by people of God. When Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life, no one come to God but by me” he was not saying you have to be a Christian to be saved. Jesus was saying that like him, we must reach out and touch those the community deems untouchable. We cannot claim to be followers of Jesus unless the lepers of our time are comfortable coming to be among us.
With Jesus, it’s not supposed to be the luck of the draw. It’s not supposed to depend on the color of your skin, your sexual orientation, income level, gender or how you come to understand God. It’s not supposed to depend on whether you happen to run into the right rabbi or preacher on the day you need God the most.
This week, I want to ask you as brothers and sisters in Christ to go out of your own circle, go on a leper hunt, find a leper and touch them, speak to them kindly as people of God and followers of Jesus. That is the way, the truth and the life. AMEN