The ‘lepers’ in today’s society


Scripture: 2 Kings 5: 1-14 

The Biblical story of Namaan’s leprosy reminds us that there are many ‘lepers’ in today’s society.  Such people feel shame or exclusion because they are in some way ‘different’.  Like Jesus, we are called to reach out and touch the untouchable. Today’s attitudes aren’t perfect, but in Canada they are improving.  

The ancient world had a phobia about skin diseases

Skin diseases were a sign of uncleanness.  They were usually lumped together as “leprosy”, and probably included conditions like eczema and psoriasis.  Reasonably enough, people feared that they were catching. In today’s Old Testament reading, Naaman, an army commander, had a skin disease. If other people got to see it, Naaman would end up in a leper colony. He would lose his job. People would shun him. He would starve unless his family members brought him baskets of food, because he couldn’t work.

I understand something of Namaan’s dilemma. My father suffered from psoriasis, with flaky patches on his elbows and knees. The only time he dressed in shorts and short-sleeved shirts was in the garden or on vacation at the beach. The disease was unsightly, and I’m sure my father felt embarrassed – or even shame – about it.

The story of Namaan, a mighty warrior who suffered from leprosy

Naaman got a “letter of introduction” from his own king to the king of Israel. He also took a whole load of gifts to try to seal the deal. Eventually he went to the home of the prophet Elisha and begged him to cure his disease. Elisha sent a servant, who told him to go and wash seven times in the River Jordan. Namaan was highly insulted. He was an important man. Surely Elisha could at least have given him a personal audience. Besides, the River Jordan is in reality a muddy little stream that drains a semi-arid area into the Dead Sea. If his leprosy cure required bathing, there were better rivers back home for him to bathe in.

Namaan was angry! Worse still, Namaan’s servants pointed out that he was being unreasonable. If Elisha had asked him to do something more difficult, he would surely have done so. In that society it was unheard of for an important man’s servants to confront him that way. But eventually he did what Elisha told him. His skin became unblemished again. It was a miraculous cure.

The Namaan story raises several questions 

Why did Elisha send his servant to Namaan instead of going himself? Was it because he didn’t want to meet the untouchable leper in person? In other words, was this a partial revelation on Elisha’s part? “I recognize that Namaan is suffering. I think I can help. But I don’t want to risk actually getting close to him.” In a Gospel story, Jesus went further. His revelation about touching lepers was complete. He touched them and healed them. That action made Jesus ritually unclean in the eyes of the Pharisees, but he did it anyway.

Another question is whether the author of the Elisha and Namaan story wanted to use leprosy as a metaphor for “untouchable” or shameful situations in general. The healing of Namaan’s leprosy seems to me to have a parable-like quality. That made me search for a hidden message underneath the literal one. We do not meet physical lepers in 21st century Canada because leprosy is easily cured with antibiotics. But we have plenty of figurative lepers. People with AIDS in the 1980s or even those with Ebola today were or are literally untouchable because of fear of contagion. We are not so far from the fears of Elisha’s and Jesus’ worlds.

There are many ‘lepers’ in today’s society 

The ‘lepers’ in today’s society  are people who consider that their conditions are shameful. They feel “unclean” or “untouchable”.  Think of mental illnesses, or addictions, or poverty. How many of us would be able to hold our heads high if we couldn’t pay for food to feed our families and had to go to a food bank? How many of us would feel comfortable about telling an employer about our depression, or revealing our dependence on opioids to our families? Think of all the people who are ashamed of their sexual proclivities. Not just being gay, or lesbian, or trans. Would you really want to tell other people that you were into cross dressing?

All these conditions cause stigma. They often evoke a sense of shame in the individual and revulsion in their families, friends and colleagues. They can feel like ‘lepers’ in today’s society.  Friends and family frequently conspire to hide the shameful situation. Parents may collude with their gay son in keeping his sexual orientation a secret, or hide a friend’s or relative’s drinking problem. In the contemporary world of social media, people tend to post words and images that show the best aspects of their lives. Even at St. George’s, we don’t post pictures on the Sundays when the church is mostly empty, We like to think of ourselves as more open, less prudish, than people in the Victorian era. But the reality is that we self-censor so as to promote that idealized image of ourselves. We like to keep private the less attractive parts of our lives and the lives of our loved ones.

It isn’t all bad news

In Canada, we have seen a real sense of opening up against the stigma of mental illness. Mental health treatment no longer consists of being “sent to the mad house”. LBGT people have seen acceptance (sometimes grudging, but real nonetheless) from 50 years of activism, including Pride marches. These days, most food banks try to make the experience less demeaning for their clients and more like regular shopping. We now publicize the tragedy of opioid addiction, admittedly because it now hits hard among people we usually think of as “respectable”. Today, most Canadians accept same sex marriage. But it was only in the late 1960s that Pierre Trudeau famously said that the state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation. My prayer is that our General Synod this month will catch up with the majority when they vote on changes to the marriage canon.

A major theme of Luke’s Gospel is Jesus’ attitude of inclusion

Jesus showed compassion towards people that society instinctively ignored or shunned. But in many situations it is hard to put Jesus’ radical inclusiveness into practice. Intellectually, we can pray with Jesus about our fellow humanity “That they may all be one.” But the reality is that only with God’s grace can we overcome our prejudices and embrace the person who seems unclean by being different, or “other.” I’m sure that I am not the only one here who finds this hard to do. We are all probably best described as “works in progress”.

 Changes in our attitudes towards people on the margins reflect God’s continuing revelation to humanity

This is a key theological question for me. To me, and I speak only personally, it would be depressing to think that God has had nothing new to tell us since the Bible was completed. Would the one we call the ‘living God’ really remain silent for 2000 years? Throughout history, Jewish scholars have used the concept of ‘midrash’ – the continuing reinterpretation of Scripture in the light of contemporary culture. The Anglican equivalent is the ‘three-legged stool’ of theology. Scripture and Tradition must be complemented by Reason – the use of our intellect to see how, and even whether, the ancient Scriptural stories are relevant today.  But it makes sense to me.