A friend and I have been trying to get together for over a month, but every week one of our toddlers is sick. And in our post-COVID world where we can practically visualize the germs spreading from one saliva-covered hand to another, getting together with another sick toddler is nearly unthinkable. When I am the one with the sick kid, it feels like I am yelling, “Unclean! Unclean!” to warn everyone else to stay away.
Directions on the CDC website (which I have googled countless times for different illnesses) really don’t sound much different than today’s first reading from chapter 13 of Leviticus. The full chapter goes on for a long time about what people need to do in order to be considered “clean” from their skin disease (when our translation of the Bible says “leprosy,” it is referring to many different types of skin diseases, not specifically leprosy as we know it today).
The footnotes of my Bible tell me that the “impurity” that is discussed in Leviticus is not referring to the contagion of the disease, but rather ritual impurity. And we now know that it takes close, sustained contact with an individual who has leprosy for it to spread, making the isolation unwarranted from a public health standpoint, and the social stigma that came with it even less deserved.
I think it is easy for us to question God’s instructions from the first reading and judge the Israelites’ practices based on what we know now, thinking surely we would never treat anyone like that. But after the past few years, I have more empathy for both the Israelites and the people who were isolated from leprosy.
When I am healthy, I want to do whatever I can to stay that way, and I have a hard time believing there was no element of public health preservation written into the ritual purity measures. They probably did not have the same understanding of the disease as we do today, and wanted to make sure it did not spread.
On the flip side, when I am sick and stuck at home for weeks, I am desperate for social reintegration. We are still seeing the negative mental health effects of the COVID quarantines, and isolation is markedly opposed to a vision of the Kingdom of God where everyone lives together in harmony. Jesus’s action of healing a man from leprosy allowed him to reintegrate into society, bringing us one small step closer to achieving the Kingdom of God “on earth as it is in Heaven”. Jesus calls us to do the same.
Often, living out the Gospel requires us to defy social scripts that have developed out of a natural desire for self-preservation. Jesus could have chosen to tell the man “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” and thus preserve his health, his social standing, and his life. But Jesus never promised us health or safety or the favor of other people.
Jesus risked his own life in today’s Gospel, not by contracting a disease, but by doing something that would draw attention to himself and his radical mission. Jesus seems to know that as soon as people found out about his healing powers, crowds would swarm.
He may have also known that the sooner the word got out, the sooner people would begin to plot his death. It was a logical fear, and we all know the end of the story. But Jesus was willing to take the risk in order to draw near to the marginalized and mend divisions in the community.
How is God calling us today to enter into the messiness of another’s life? What are we going to have to sacrifice in order to support others or restore relationships in our own communities? And what areas of our own lives do we need to ask Jesus to heal or restore?