Lepers, unclean and untouchable


Scripture: 2 Kings 5: 1-14; Mark 1: 40-45 Nigel Bunce


Leprosy links today’s readings. In the ancient world, “leprosy” meant any skin disease, including eczema and psoriasis. The word ‘leper” shouted, “You are unclean and untouchable; shame on you.” It still does today. 

Namaan’s story

In today’s Old Testament reading, an army commander called Naaman had leprosy. He risked losing his job. People would shun him. He’d end up in a leper colony. Unless his family brought food, he’d starve.

I can understand a little of Namaan’s dilemma. My father had psoriasis. His elbows and knees had unsightly, flaky skin. He only wore shorts and short-sleeved shirts in the garden or to swim at the beach. He must have felt embarrassed, or even ashamed.

Why Namaan was angry

The heart of our Bible story is that Namaan went to the prophet Elisha’s house to seek a cure for his leprosy. Elisha sent a servant, who told him to go and wash seven times in the River Jordan. That insulted Namaan. Surely Elisha could have spoken to him personally.

Besides, if Namaan needed to bathe to cure his leprosy, there were better rivers back home. No wonder he was angry! Worse still, Namaan’s servants (yes, his servants!) told him that he was unreasonable. If Elisha had asked him to do something difficult, he would surely have done so.  Eventually, Namaan did what Elisha said. His skin became clear again. It was a miracle! 

The risk of contagion; unclean and untouchable: Elisha versus Jesus

But I have questions about this story. Why did Elisha send his servant to Namaan instead of going himself? Maybe he thought, “I want to help. But I don’t want to risk getting too close.” Sounds familiar to today – masks and social distancing with COVID19.

Today, antibiotics cure leprosy easily. But there are plenty of figurative lepers in Canada. People we consider untouchable, unclean. We are not so far from the fears of Elisha’s and Jesus’ worlds. Right now, it’s COVID. In the 1980’s it was AIDS. A decade ago, Ebola.

Notice the difference with our Gospel story. Jesus touched the leper who asked him for help. It made Jesus ritually unclean in the eyes of the Pharisees. But that’s what he did to heal the leper.

Is Namaan’s story a kind of parable?

Another question. Did the author of the Elisha and Namaan story use leprosy as a metaphor for “untouchable” or shameful situations in general? 

Because society finds many other people “unclean, untouchable” or consider their conditions shameful. It’s not just about skin disease. Think of mental illnesses, or addictions, or poverty. We point fingers, even if not literally. “You are unclean and untouchable.”

Could we hold our heads high if we had to use a food bank because we couldn’t afford to feed our families? Would we be ashamed to tell an employer about our depression, or telling our families about opioid dependence? “You are unclean and untouchable.”

Hiding the unclean and untouchable aspects of life

We like to think that we are more open, less prudish, than people in Victorian times. But are we? Or do we make people feel ashamed, unclean just because they are “different”? What about sexual behaviour? Many people still hide being gay, or lesbian, or trans.

Friends and family often conspire to hide the less attractive parts of our lives and those of our loved ones. Parents may collude with their gay son in keeping his sexual orientation a secret. People hide a friend’s or relative’s drinking problem.

Would you really want the world to know that you were into cross dressing? That causes stigma. It evokes shame in the individual, or revulsion in families, friends and colleagues. “You are unclean and untouchable.”

Promoting the ideal image

In reality, we self censor so as to promote an idealized image of ourselves. It’s especially prevalent today, with social media. We post words and images to show our lives at their best [Harris and Bardey, 2019]. Even at St. George’s, we don’t post pictures of the Sundays when the church is mostly empty,

Most recently, we have found ourselves jolted into confronting issues of race. Discrimination and systemic racism. As just one example, COVID is not an “equal opportunity” epidemic. We aren’t really “all in this together.” The disease strikes hardest in poor and racialized communities.

However, the news isn’t all bad

In Canada, mental illness is less a source of stigma than previously. Fifty years of activism have seen acceptance of LGBT people, sometimes grudging, but real nonetheless. Today, most Canadians accept same sex marriage.

We now publicize the tragedy of opioid addiction. Though I admit because it now hits hard among people we usually think of as “respectable”. Today’s food banks try to make the experience less demeaning for their clients and more like regular shopping.

Christians too often lag behind society

To our shame, Christian churches have rarely been in the forefront of these changes. It’s why many people have negative attitudes about Christians. Yet repeatedly, the Gospels show Jesus being inclusive towards people that his society shunned. Not just literal lepers.

But, let’s face it, it’s hard to put Jesus’ radical inclusiveness into practice. Intellectually, we can pray with Jesus about our fellow humanity, “That they may all be one” [John 17: 21]. But in reality, we all carry prejudices from our upbringing. Only God’s grace can help us embrace the lepers whose uncleanness is only that they are different, or “other.”

I’m sure that I am not the only one who finds this hard to do.

To sum up

So I end with this thought. I believe that the changes in our society’s attitudes towards people on the margins are part of God’s continuing revelation to humanity. We are all probably “works in progress”.

I like the Jewish concept of ‘midrash’. Continuing reinterpretation of Scripture for contemporary culture. The Anglican equivalent is its emphasis on the use of Reason (our intellect), along with Scripture and Tradition to see how, or even whether, ancient Scriptural stories are relevant today.

Personally, I’d find it depressing to think that God has told us nothing new since the Bible was completed. Would the ‘living God’ really remain silent for 2000 years? Time makes ancient good uncouth, as I remarked two weeks ago.