A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’ Moved with pity,(or other authorities read anger) Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’ Immediately the leprosy* left him, and he was made clean. After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.’ But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.
A cursory reading of the footnotes for this text in any bible reveals the need for some “translation of the translation” if we are going to access the text in our 2012 contexts.
We know nothing about lepers.
Truth be told, it is unlikely that the disease we associate with leprosy is the disease refered to in the biblical text. The leprosy we know probably only came to the middle east from India after bible times. In Bible times “leprosy” which literally means scaly or rough refered to any skin disease like psoriasis, acne, or boils. In a pre-scientific time, the fear of contagion would have made people reluctant to have contact with anything which may have caused them to suffer or even be excluded for society.
It may be useful in our context to return to the literal words of rough and scaly as referring to the people we cast out from our circles of acceptance and avoid contact with. I am sure most of us have rough and scaly relatives, right inside our families we would want to avoid contact with.
I will leave you to make your own two lists…
1. Rough and Scaly people I personally choose to avoid.
2. Rough and Scaly people that the church should avoid.
The texts show Jesus moved with emotion (the majority say pity but others say anger). I quite like the choice. In fact I can even picture Jesus feeling pity for the rough and scaly outcast and anger at the society that marginalised him.
It would be a good balance for modern day Christ followers to keep, don’t you think? Can we be prophetically angry at the structural violence that crushes people and groups, whilst keeping our hearts open with compassion for the sufferers?
Another aspect of the passage that bears explaining is this continual demand for secrecy by Jesus. There are many theories since the first advanced by William Wrede in 1901. You can read them here. For sake of simple proclamation this Sunday, it seems most likely that Jesus wanted to avoid celebrity so as to move about freely.
We should never forget that he was in the North because he couldn’t be in the South. The gruesome death of John the Baptizer at the hands of Herod down South was the reason for Jesus being in Galilee. So some secrecy might have been a matter of security
Despite the above, I also affirm the theory that in the understanding of Jesus, the notion of Messiah had become distorted by the political expectations and yearnings of oppressed people. Jesus didn’t want to become a Messiah of the Popular Mould. He needed time to show who the Suffering Servant was. That would only be completed when he showed the depths of his love in death.
Again a modern context question arises. Do I trust Jesus to be himself as I follow him or do I want hime to fit my preconceived mould I have cast for him?
Finally, I love how effective the attempt at silencing the healed leper is!
For all the best reasons for secrecy which we have considered above, there is something Jesus has underestimated.
He hasn’t reckoned in the power of effervescent witness from those who have been touched by God! There is just no silencing the babble of blessed ones. As Don Fransciso made famous in his song, “I gotta tell somebody, what Jesus did for me!”
Could it be that the church is dying today as it is, because we have protected ourselves from the possibility of the healing encounters that might happen if some rough and scaly people got close enough to Jesus?
Our sanctuaries and our sacraments are sanitised and leprosy free.
Rough and scaly people are just not welcome.
So instead of effervescent witness there is sterile silence.