Jesus Heals the Leper
Sermon preached by
The Reverend Charles Royden
13 February 2000
A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, "If you are willing, you can make me clean." Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. "I am willing," he said. "Be clean!" Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cured. Jesus sent him away at once with a strong warning: 44 "See that you don't tell this to anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them." 45 Instead he went out and began to talk freely, spreading the news. As a result, Jesus could no longer enter a town openly but stayed outside in lonely places. Yet the people still came to him from everywhere.
Have you ever tried shaking hands with a doctor?
You go in the surgery, you say hello and you go to shake hands and …… they will sometimes look visibly disturbed. Or you are in the bed in hospital and they come round and they stand at the bottom of the bed with all of their notes and you go to shake hands and …
There is often around the doctor some imaginary boundary which you must not cross. It is not so much their personal body space as a social exclusion zone. You try it! OK there are some human beings who are doctors, we have them in our congregation but, I am sure that you will all have come across this and know what I mean. They like to use 'power language', they use words which you don't understand, they wear funny clothes like bow ties, (even when they are not gynaecologists). It is all about setting apart from the riff raff, part of the superiority.
This is true of lots of professions, not just doctors You are going to find what I am about to say quite unbelievable probably. But! Clergy, religious professionals, can often be quite stuck up too! This sometimes increases with elevation up the ecclesiastical ladder but not always so. Sometimes even quite ordinary clergy can get a real buzz from saying things like 'I won't baptise your baby', or 'No I won't marry you', or 'Of course you can't have communion, you're not qualified.'
If we think of all the so called professions, solicitors, doctors. The phrase we might choose to use would be
'holier than thou.'
I want you to remember that phrase for later, we will come back to it!
There is a wonderful film I once saw "The Doctor." It is a movie about a somewhat conceited physician who is diagnosed with throat cancer. As a teacher in the medical school, he is used to people answering his every command; he is not used to being a patient. In addition, he is not used to having to wait his turn, not used to being silenced, he is not used to 'feeling unimportant'. In the course of his treatment, he becomes friends with a fellow patient who teaches him a great deal about living and dying. He makes a full recovery, while she does not. When he returns to his teaching position, one of the first class projects is to assign a bed to each student and to attach a hypothetical disease to each of them. Each make believe patient has to undergo all of the tests associated with that disease. The nurses, much more familiar than doctors with the day to day care of patients, seem very pleased! I would say that this doctor has been healed, as well as cured. He has undergone a conversion of sorts, and returns to his profession, both a changed man and a much better doctor. I am sure that we can all think of doctors that we would like to see in that position.!
Now at the time of Jesus the religious people, the priests,—they had combined into their role that of a doctor and a religious leader. Imagine how elevated that would have made them feel. If you had a skin disease you were taken before the priest and you could be sent into exclusion immediately. Some poor teenager with a bad case of acne risked being suddenly cast into outer darkness. And then you had to be pronounced clean by the priest before you could ever take your role in society back.
Listen to these words from Leviticus Chapter 13
The LORD said to Moses and Aaron, "When anyone has a swelling or a rash or a bright spot on his skin that may become an infectious skin disease, he must be brought to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons who is a priest. The priest is to examine the sore on his skin, and if the hair in the sore has turned white and the sore appears to be more than skin deep, it is an infectious skin disease. When the priest examines him, he shall pronounce him ceremonially unclean.
If you were unfortunate to have a bad skin infection then the consequences were severe—
"The person with such an infectious disease must wear torn clothes, let his hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of his face and cry out, 'Unclean! Unclean!' As long as he has the infection he remains unclean. He must live alone; he must live outside the camp.
One of the things which I will remember about Princess Diana was her willingness to touch people. It was that humanity which marked her apart from others, that humanity and ability to break down the dividing line. To touch people. And it was not simply a publicity exercise, it was a real gamble when she visited a hospital and touched somebody with aids, because at the time people were wondering whether you could catch it. For the sufferer from Aids or cancer, often it is touch which is so important. And so today in this story Jesus touches somebody in the same way and makes it known that he cares and is not worried about catching something.
Leprosy in the time of Jesus was not just a dreaded health problem; it was a dreaded social disease. The affliction we now call Hanson's disease was not only fearsome in itself. It was also considered to be a curse from God. The consequences were far more deadly than just being physical. Besides having to look forward to years of suffering and disfigurement, as well as an early death, lepers were ostracised by Jewish law.
I don't know if you have ever seen the Michael Jackson Music Video 'Thriller' where all the dancers come out of the graves and they are wearing grave clothes. They are meant to the living dead. Lepers would have looked a lot like that, the living dead. The Jews believed that God himself had laid down the harsh conditions of a leper's lot. They had to wear tattered clothes and let their hair go uncombed or cut. When meeting any "sound" person they had to cover their mouths with a hand and shout out a warning of their own "unclean" condition. In the event that a person was cured and they experienced a remission of the disease, they still had to submit to a ritual cleansing and purging of sin before they would be re-admitted to society. Lepers were not only considered physically loathsome, they spiritually loathsome too, they were physically the living dead, but they were the spiritually dead also. Because so few went into remission or were cured, they were all considered particularly dreadful and persistent sinners.
No wonder when this poor man with a skin problem came to Jesus, he was angry. With this background, I think it is possible to accept the fact that Jesus really was, in fact, angry on a number of grounds. He was probably angry at the circumstances in which such a person had been forced to live. It is hard for us to imagine the psychological state of such people—wives, mothers, children, snatched from their families and forced to fend for themselves among the rocks of the ravine and amidst all the human and non-human terrors that lurked there. Husbands, fathers, young lovers, would suddenly become pariahs because the religious mentality of the time said that only terrible sinners would be afflicted with such a disease. The point is that a leper had no right to expect either medical care or the embrace of a loving community. Such sinners were beyond God's embrace. Jesus must have been revolted by the whole notion. But he acts, characteristically, in a way that subverts the prevailing mentality. Rather than being disgusted and even terrified at the request of the leper for assistance, he does not hesitate, indeed, even stresses his determination to do what no one else would have believed possible—to pronounce not only a physical cure for the man when he touches him, but a spiritual cure as well. In touching the man, Jesus is breaking the moral and religious taboos about lepers and openly, publicly welcoming the man back into human community. So, when he finally orders the man to go and show himself to the priest, it is highly unlikely that Jesus is doing this in order to observe the sanctioned ritual that was required for such persons. It is more likely that Jesus is challenging the religious authorities and his peers to see that God's healing grace is available to anyone who asks.
The point is: we are forgiven—every last one of us. God's love is there, waiting for us, at all times in our life. It doesn't matter how bad we are, how many mistakes we've made, how horrendously we have fouled up our lives, or the mess we have made of our relationships. The forgiveness is there. We don't have to persuade God to forgive us. We don't have to go through some elaborate ritual or religious exercise to get God to forgive us. The healing which Jesus represents is pure gift. That means not earned, not merited, not won by petition, sacrifice or a good life. According to Jesus, what we need most is available just as quickly, as easily, as devastatingly as Jesus decisive response to a leper:—reaching out and making him clean.
There are lessons here for us
1. Not to think so much of ourselves.
We began with a humorous look at how easy it is to fall into the trap of being 'holier than thou.' Do you know where the phrase 'holier than thou' comes from?
It is actually biblical. In Isaiah 65:5 God is
chastising those who say
'Keep away from me don't come near me for I am holier than thou'
'such people are smoke in my nostrils a fire that keeps burning all day.'
If you have ever been burning a bonfire and then smelled your clothes you will know that you can't get rid of it. You have to take off your clothes and wash them and wash yourself too. You need a complete shower before you get rid of the smell. The words show that God wants total cleansing from that attitude. Religious people can so easily attempt to limit people's access to God's grace. The truth is that each one of us can be aloof and superior, 'holier than thou.' The response of Jesus was a defiant reaching out in order to include the excluded. How defiantly inclusive have you been lately?
2. Never imagine that others are somehow better in the eyes of God than you are.
Imagine what kind of faith the leper must have had to approach Jesus. Think of how Jesus just transcended all the taboos of his society and transcended social custom. Our social customs throughout time have often categorised certain people as being less human than others. Jesus says no. The man recognised in Jesus the essence of the welcome of God. Jesus made himself ritually unclean in order that the man might himself become clean. And so in that healing comes the essence of the Gospel. That Jesus takes upon himself our weakness and restores us to life.