Leprosy was a terrible disease. Hansen's Disease causes terrible disfigurement and gradually attacks the nervous system so people have no sense of feeling in their hands, for example, leading to constant injuries, and finally, to loss of fingers etc. The cure is now simple, although the damage cannot be reversed. In Jesus time it was a death sentence. Incurable and terrifying, the leper was forbidden to come near Jesus or anyone else. He risked being stoned on the spot. Worse still, leprosy was not just Hansen's Disease, but referred to a number of skin diseases, some of which were probably quite benign. It meant absolute social isolation, and an early death was likely. Leprosy is the epitome of social demarcation. It resulted, and still does, in total prejudice.
When the leper came to Jesus, a minority of manuscripts have it that Jesus was moved with anger. This is not anger at the man's temerity, but at his illness. Jesus heals him. Jesus anger at human illness is a symbol of God's anger at illness. Illness is not "part of the plan" of that ultimate Reality we call God.
The majority of the texts say Jesus was moved with pity. We are beginning to see here one of the hallmarks of Jesus as he is drawn in the Gospels; he is compassionate. This is no remote, restrained person. He is angry at what people, suffer. He feels pity. A stern, pitiless, Christianity is not following Jesus.
The "Messianic Secret'' is part of this little story. Jesus tells the healed leper not to tell anyone! This is a characteristic of the gospel of Mark. No one quite understands why this motif is woven through the story.
We could perhaps contrast the attitude of Jesus with a would be Labor politician in Australia at the moment. As he seeks to gain preselection over a sitting member, a journalist has asked former Labor Minister John Button what be thinks of him.
"All I can say about Bill," said Button," is that he is very competent. I know this because he has told me himself- several times!"
A mission and a cause don't require self aggrandisement.
The key thought for me, however, remains with leprosy as a symbol of all our hatreds and exclusions. Jesus cut through them all and healed the man. The man then has to become part of society. There is no individualism, or libertine motif here; he needs to go to the priest, Jesus says. But he is free to become part of society. Wherever Jesus is taken seriously, this breaking down of prejudice begins. And wherever we treat people like lepers, it is a sign of our falling short.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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