God’s People, part 184: Lepers

Read Mark 1:40-45

“Suddenly, a man with leprosy approached him and knelt before him. ‘Lord,’ the man said, ‘if you are willing, you can heal me and make me clean.’ Jesus reached out and touched him. ‘I am willing,’ he said. ‘Be healed!’ And instantly the leprosy disappeared.”  (Matthew 8:2-3, NLT)

When we think of God’s people, we tend to think one of two things. We might think of the Israelites who were God’s “chosen people”, or we might think of specific characters in the Bible. Either way, we tend to idealize the people we are thinking about. For instance, we may think that God’s people are super faithful, holy, perform miracles and live wholly devout and righteous lives. Unfortunately, this idealism enables us to distance ourselves from being God’s people, because we feel that we fall short of those ideals. As such, I have decided to write a devotion series on specific characters in the Bible in order to show you how much these Biblical people are truly like us, and how much we are truly called to be God’s people.

Leper-HealingPart 184: Lepers. When we hear the word Leprosy or  Lepers, we think of people who have what is also known as Hansen’s Disease. According to the United States Center for Disease Control (CDC), leprosy is a bacterial infection that attacks the nerves, skin, eyes, and the inner lining of the nose. When attacking the nerves, the bacterial infection causes swelling and discoloration of the skin, which can also get flaky.

If left untreated, permanent nerve damage can be done leading also to paralysis of the hands and feet. A slow growing bacteria, it can take up to 20 years before one even shows symptoms of having it. This disease was once considered to be highly contagious; however, researchers have come to realize that it is not so easily spread, especially when it is treatable. People with leprosy, if properly treated, can go on to live normal and productive lives.

In the Bible, we read the word leprosy a number of times. Namaan, the Aramean General in 2 Kings 5, had leprosy. Leprosy is also mentioned a number of times in the Gospels, where Jesus lays hands on them and heals them. There’s a lot we don’t know about the disease that these lepers had; however, what we do know is that those afflicted with leprosy in Biblical times did not have what we know now as Hansen’s disease which was described above. The Hebrew word for leprosy is tzara’ath (צָרַעַת, pronounced tzaw-rah’-ath). This word was used for those who had a dermatological condition that caused the skin to scale.

Psoriasis, which can also lead to crippling psoriatic arthritis, seborrheic dermatitis, scabies, crusted scabies, syphilis, impetigo, scarlet fever, and other such diseases could be classified in the ancient world as tzara’ath or leprosy. In other words, any number of dermatological diseases could have been considered leprosy and anyone with that disease would be viewed as a leper.

Leprosy was viewed as a defiling disease, meaning that anyone with it would be deemed ritually and physically unclean. Such people were shunned and avoided at all costs. They were not allowed to live within the community, nor were they allowed to participate in the community’s religious life. They often lived in “colonies” of others with the disease.

According to the annotations found in The Jewish Study Bible, “The Bible does not view disease per se as defiling. Only those having “tzara’at” or abnormal genital fluxes are considered to be impure…Tzara’at, seen as a gradual erosion of the skin, was thought to culminate, unless the patient recovered, in the ultimate disintegration of the flesh, which was taken as a manifestation of the gradual escape of life. The person afflicted with it was looked upon as potentially dead, death itself having begun to consume his body.”[1]

If one even so much as came in contact with or touched a leper, they too would be seen as defiled. Thus, people avoided lepers like the plague. What’s more, many believed that leprosy was a divine punishment for the act of slander. Thus, those who had leprosy were not only shunned, but judged by society. Thus, we can see how scandalous it was for Jesus to lay hands on and heal lepers. Not only did he risk defiling himself, but he was also showing his power over sin.

When dealing with the healings that Jesus performed, I want us to focus more on society and on us as “the people of God”, for it is there that we see the true sin and missed opportunities in living up to being God’s people. The stories of Jesus healing the lepers ought to challenge us that God loves people equally, no matter what may or may not be afflicting them. When we shun such people because they are “gross”, or “disgusting”, or “we might catch what they have”, we are actually shunning God. When we refuse to help people because “they brought it upon themselves” we are actually putting ourselves above God.

While we should take precautions so as to not infect ourselves or spread infectious diseases, we should approach all people as children of God who deserve to be treated with love, compassion and diginty. We should work toward bringing healing to folks, rather than more harm through shunning and judging them. Let us open ourselves up to being God’s people rather than being people of the world.

We are blessed that we might be a blessing to others. Shunning people is not blessing them.

Lord, help us to be compassionate to all who suffer no matter the cause, and steer us away from judgment. Amen.

[1] Schwartz, Baruch J. “Annotations for Leviticus 13.1-14.57” in The Jewish Study Bible, Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, eds. (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1999), 234.

Leave a Reply