Touched by Grace: Jesus and the Leper

Head of Christ (detail), Rembrandt van Rijn

Hansen’s disease, also known as leprosy, is a disease that gets worse over time.  It is a disfiguring condition that causes skin sores, nerve damage, and muscle weakness.  It is rare in the US, and can be treated by modern medicine.  But in the ancient Biblical world, leprosy was untreatable.  It was worse than a sentence of death.  Leprosy was painful and disfiguring, and the person who suffered with it was shunned and isolated, because the disease was so contagious. In today’s reading from Mark, Jesus healed the leper in a shocking way: he touched him.

When bad things happen to people, there is something in us that wants to believe they deserve it.  We say they shouldn’t have smoked, or driven so fast, or done something stupid–that whatever happened to them was their own fault.  In the ancient world, it was believed that bad things happened to someone because of their sinfulness (or that of their parents). Lepers were believed to be sinful, so they were judged to be at fault.  It was easy to push them away, to leave them to die.  The illness destroyed their bodies, and their humanity. Jesus didn’t judge them, or call them sinners.  People came to him for healing, and left rejoicing.

The leper in this story may have been asking for something more than healing when he asked to be made “clean.” To be clean, or pure, had a special meaning in ancient Israel–it had to do with being a part of the community, and able to worship in the Temple.  The leper may have been asking to be healed AND to be restored to the community.  That is why Jesus told him to show himself to the priest–the only one who could recognize that he was cleansed.  Otherwise, the former leper would be healed but still isolated and shunned.

Jesus did what no one else could or would do for the leper; he crossed the boundary between clean and unclean to heal him.  That was an act of grace.  Jesus told the leper not to tell people he was healed–but the newly healed man was so joyful he could not restrain himself and told everyone.  So in all the towns, people knew that Jesus had touched a leper.  That touch had the effect of making Jesus himself unclean.  Because Jesus touched a leper, he could no longer go into the towns, which is why people had to come out to him.  Nothing could prevent Jesus from doing the work of healing and reconciliation.  Jesus fearlessly transformed the life of everyone he encountered.

Questions to think about:

  • Are there illnesses today that cause the sick person to be blamed?  To be shunned?
  • Are you uncomfortable being around someone who is very sick?
  • Have you ever experienced someone reaching out to you beyond a barrier or boundary?  Have you ever done that for another?

Blessings, Mother Anne+

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