A friend told me about transferring to a new location for work, same city, same job, but new location. On her first day, she was introduced to the other members of the management team and the staff that reported to her, shown where she could leave her coat and purse and then left to her own devices. Around 10:30, she noticed that the rest of the management team was having coffee together, she got one and joined them, but she wasn’t included in the conversation. The same thing happened at lunch time… and at break time in the afternoon… Excluded, ignored, rejected. She went home despondent, depressed and dejected. Fortunately, she went home to a loving family. One in which she was valued and appreciated. Now imagine that work experience was the totality of her life. And you might catch a glimpse of what life was like for someone with leprosy in Jesus’ time.
Let’s listen as the story is related in Matthew 8:
When Jesus had come down from the mountain, great crowds followed him; and there was a leper who came to him and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.”
He stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Immediately his leprosy was cleansed. Then Jesus said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.”
That evening they brought to him many who were possessed with demons; and he cast out the spirits with a word, and cured all who were sick. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah, “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.”
First of all, you need to know that in Jesus’ time, leprosy could be any number of skin afflictions, from a simple rash to something contagious like leprosy. But the common factor would be that those with leprosy would be excluded from community. They could only live with others with leprosy.
While many of us may have stories of being excluded from something, few of us, if any would have the total social, religious, cultural and familial exclusion that lepers in Jesus’s time experienced.
Cultural anthropologist Mary Douglas and her work on the book of Leviticus is highlighted in the book Healing in the Gospel of Matthew by Walter Wilson. Douglas begins by looking at the various, often implicit ways in which the individual human body can function as a model or symbol of a society’s “bounded system,” referring to the particular configuration of social rules, roles, and institutions that define and distinguish one society over against others.
Of course, both human bodies and human societies are subject to change, and, of course, change is often accompanied by anxiety. Douglas argues that one of the ways in which members of a society process their collective anxieties is by projecting them onto the human body, turning it into a symbolic focal point of common social concern. In the case of ancient Israelite society, it is evident that the people’s anxieties revolved especially around a need to protect their community from a variety of perceived threats to its social boundaries. Within what was perceived to be a menacing environment, “the threatened boundaries of their body politic would be well mirrored in their care for the integrity, unity, and purity of the physical body.”
Hence the preoccupation with skin disease: concerns about social boundaries (boundaries separating insiders from outsiders) are expressed as concerns about bodily boundaries (boundaries separating the inside of a person from the outside). In order to make such concerns culturally meaningful, they are mapped onto a ritual dichotomy of pure versus impure, the surface of the “leprous” body becoming the object of intense ritual scrutiny and elaborate purificatory practice, as the lengthy prescriptions of Leviticus 13–14 attest.
Wilson, Walter T.; Wilson, Walter T.. Healing in the Gospel of Matthew (pp. 39-40). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.
Remember that in Jesus’s time, the Jewish people were a minority living under an oppressive Roman system.
So what does all that mean for us? What anxieties are we projecting on each other? We are coming up on the one year anniversary of the beginning of the pandemic and it’s social distancing, masking and ritualized sanitizing. 😉
A year ago, many of thought we’d be back to ‘normal’ in time for Easter. But this year has been one of constant adaptation and pivoting. And anxiety. Most of us still could go out into society, at least for the essentials of life, albeit masked and cautious. But it was all of us, not just some of us.
Three major things happen in this story.
- The leper asked for healing,
- Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him,
- Jesus instructed him to go to the priest, make an offering, because it was only the priest that could restore him to community.
Whenever I’ve read or preached on this passage in the past, I’ve imagined the leper to be people who are on the margins of society and that we as the church can reach out and be Jesus, offering a healing touch and community. And that’s one way this passage can be preached or interpreted.
But what if we are the leper? What if it’s we who are in need of healing? What sores, visible and invisible are we carrying from this past year? What blemishes mar the face we show to the world? What infections of white supremacy have we been carrying for decades/centuries? Are we ready and willing to reach out to Jesus and ask for healing?
Healing for both the wounds we carry and the ones we have inflicted.
To ask for healing is to make oneself vulnerable. And for many of us that is not a comfortable place to be. Is risky and scary… but healing only becomes possible when the leper asks for it. What healing do we need to ask for?
We are broken and we are beautiful.
Jesus responds to the request.
How does the leper even know that Jesus will respond to the request? Has he asked other teachers in the past? We have no idea. This is the first healing story in the gospel of Matthew. All we know that it is the first healing story in the gospel of Matthew. Up until this time, Jesus had been teaching and preaching, but not healing. However, Jesus reaches out, crosses the boundaries of ritual uncleanliness and touches him. Jesus always crosses the boundaries we try and contain him in.
We are broken and we are beautiful.
Jesus instructed him to go to the priest and make an offering.
Because it was only the priest that could restore him to community. Jesus did not have that authority. The temple was the center of community life. It was only the priest who could conduct the rituals and liturgy that could reintegrate him to the community.
We can read our scriptures and perhaps sneer at the ignorance of excluding someone based on a disease. But the church, has done the same over the years. Excluded, especially from leadership, based on race, gender, sexual orientation, geography, ethnicity, and probably a few more than that.
The church is broken and beautiful. We are broken and beautiful. But like the leper, we can reach out to Jesus. And Jesus will touch us and heal us. We are treasured by God, broken and beautiful.
Thanks be to God, amen.
Matthew 8: 1-4; 16-17
February 21, 2021 – SMUC
Lent 1 – Holy Vessels