The gospel for today’s readings is a familiar encounter with a leper at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. The identification of the man who came to Jesus as “a leper” is not as precise as at first glance it may seem. Medical researchers who have examined the biblical data in Lev. 13–14 feel certain that the biblical term “leprosy” is a collective noun designating a wide variety of chronic skin diseases, not necessarily just Hansen’s disease. Regardless, anyone who was identified as a leper – from Hansen’s disease to a simple skin rash – was reduced to a lowest state of social existence, separated from family, friends, and society at large. It didn’t take much to be designated to the bottom of life.
The Book of Leviticus describes the burden placed upon them: “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 without the camp” (Lev. 13:45 ff). Other translation have “outside the camp” – but either way, the leper is socially isolated from the personal relationships that give life part of its meaning. Leviticus also cautioned that even a chance encounter between the leper and the non-leper could render the latter unclean.
Lepers were allowed to live unhampered wherever they chose, except in Jerusalem and cities which had been walled from antiquity. They could even attend the synagogue services if a screen was provided to isolate them from the rest of the congregation.
It is against this background that the significance of the cleansing of a leper by Jesus can be appreciated, whether the man in Luke’s account had true leprosy or some other skin disease:
Jesus stretched out his hand, touched him, and said, “I do will it. Be made clean.” And the leprosy left him immediately. (Luke 5:13)
The touch of Jesus was significant from two points of view. From the perspective of the leper, it was an unheard-of act of compassion which must have moved him deeply and strengthened him in his conviction he had not asked for help in vain. The actions of Jesus let us know that compassion and mercy demand some boundaries be crossed.
There are lots of people in our lives we allow to live unhampered as long as they do not enter our personal Jerusalem or are screened from us. Often never possessing some obvious disease, but perceived as being somehow threatening to our well being. And between them and us is a boundary we may have never thought about – what it really is, why it is there, how did it get there, and does it really need to be in place?
Leviticus’ dictates about skin conditions from rashes to Hansen’s disease might have well served it time, but not ours. The challenge in our time is to understand the Levitical boundaries that are prudent, but also which ones need to come down.