Historical Cultural Context
Restored to Community
In 1868, the Norwegian scientist Gerhard Hansen discovered the biomedical cause of leprosy, an extremely chronic but not very infectious disease. Spouses rarely contract it from their infected partners. Basically it causes a loss of sensation and a progressive though painless ulceration of the extremities. Facial nodules develop, but leprosy very rarely affects the scalp. It is never white in color.
On the basis of this and even more detailed scientific knowledge. scholars are quite certain that biblical leprosy such as discussed in Leviticus ch 13-14 and in today’s gospel is not modern leprosy. Even the Hebrew and Greek words used in the Bible are not the proper words for “real” leprosy.
What then is the concern? and what did Jesus do?
In Leviticus, it is quite definite that our ancestors in the faith are describing a repulsive, scaly condition. When it affected the skin, modern scientists think it may have been something like psoriasis. It was a real experience, but it was not modern leprosy.
Leviticus ch 13-14 notes that even clothes and the walls of homes can suffer from it. The significance of the descriptions baffles modern readers, but it clearly meant something serious to the ancients.
Our ancestors in the faith were mindful of the divine command to “be holy as the Lord your God is holy” (Lev 19:2). Holiness encompassed many qualities, not the least important of which was bodily wholeness and integrity. Anyone with physical imperfections was clearly not holy as the Lord is holy.
None of these can approach the Lord. Leviticus commands that the person afflicted with “biblical” leprosy must “live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp” (Lev 13:46).
It is impossible to underestimate the impact of this judgment. Mediterranean cultures are gregarious and group-oriented. They need community to live just as a fish needs water. Without community, social network, connections and relations with others, the other-directed Mediterranean person suffers and can die from seclusion.
Jesus Heals the Leper
Moved with compassion, Jesus came to the petitioner’s rescue. Notice that Jesus’ command is in the passive voice: “Be made clean.” In biblical literature this is known as the theological or divine passive, that is, it acknowledges God as the one who performs the action without having to use God’s name. Jesus willed it; God cleanses the leper.
It is impossible to say what really happened. Did the problem disappear on the spot? Was the condition “debatable,” such that Jesus could look at it and say it was not there, while the priests in the Temple might look at it and say it still was there?
What is of much greater import in Jesus’ behavior is that he touched the man. While touching is common in this culture, touching a leper is not. Remember, “modern” leprosy is minimally “catchy.” The ancients surely knew this of that scaly skin condition as well. The concern of the ancients was not that the situation was “catching,” but that it was “dirty”: not infectious, but polluting. People who had the problem did not infect the community; they polluted it. For this reason, they had to live outside the camp, apart from God’s holy people, alone, until the pollution was gone.
By touching the “leper” Jesus challenges his culture’s judgment. In Jesus’ view, the “leper’s” problem is not that he pollutes, and with his touch he restores the leper to full membership in God’s community, to solidarity in human fellowship.
The ancient distinction between an infecting and a polluting condition is worth pondering. The consequences are very different, too. Can you identify parallel or comparable situations in contemporary society? How should a Christian respond to them?
John J. Pilch
**From Saint Louis University