Sunday 7th February – Breaking of the Word (Ken)
I would like to offer some reflections on leprosy, both as a disease that needs healing and as a symbol of a condition of the human heart that needs healing. I speak both from my experience of having spent the best part of ten years as a doctor involved in the treatment of leprosy parents in the South of Thailand, and from trying to understand what the theme of leprosy represents in sacred scripture.
I am aware of the fact that the word translated leper and leprosy in the bible refers to a wide range of skin conditions which would include any blemishes in the skin, and the fact that when we talk of leprosy today we are referring to Hansen’s disease, a specific disease caused by the leprosy bacillus.
Having, said that, the regulations surrounding leprosy in the Old Testament, make very sound sense from a public health point of view. Just as with COVID, when there is no known treatment, and you want to stop the spread of the disease, the only course of action open to you is to isolate those who are sick. Whilst, that is essential in order to protect society, it has a devastating impact on the sense of well being of those who have to be isolated from family and loved ones and from the community to which they belong, as our experience in dealing with the COVID pandemic, has demonstrated.
Actually, Hansen’s disease is not, strictly speaking, a skin disease, a fact that often surprises people. The leprosy bacillus, which is transmitted in much the way as the COVID virus is, by droplets from our saliva or by touching something that is contaminated by the bacillus. Having said that, unlike COVID, it is quite difficult to catch leprosy. You have to be in prolonged contact with someone who has the disease to catch it.
And, what is more, the people who transmit the disease are not those who have these dreadful deformities associated with leprosy, but those who, to the untrained eye, look perfectly normal. Because the deformities are caused by the fact that they have lost the sensation of pain. And the reason they feel no pain is because their nerves have been destroyed by an inflammatory reaction to the bacillus in the nerves. Those who transmit the disease don’t have the inflammatory reaction, so you don’t have the same degree of deformity.
So, leprosy can function as a metaphor for the fact that what is dangerous is not what can be seen but what is hidden and unseen. So, for example, anger that is expressed appropriately is not dangerous, but anger that is repressed and unconscious can come out in ways that are very destructive. It is what is hidden in our unconscious minds that causes us problems. Which is why we so need to bring the stuff hidden in the shadows of our personality out in order to heal them.
But back to scripture and how the leprosy that it talks about functions as a symbol of that which is unclean, and by unclean, I mean that which separates us from Life, from Love and from God, that which destroys us from within.
Leprosy, in the wider sense as used in Scripture, became a useful metaphor for sin, that which pollutes the heart, that which cuts us of from each other and from God.
The prophet Isaiah told the nation amongst whom he lived that, “Your head is all covered with sores, your whole body is bruised, from head to foot there is not a sound spot in you—nothing but weals and welts and sore wounds” … He diagnosed the sickness of society, the malaise of injustice, in his day in terms that are best understood as leprosy.
But Isaiah’s call to speak out came from an experience he had of the presence of God in the temple in a vision recorded in chapter 6. It took place in the year when king Uzziah died. In 2 Chronicles 26 we read that king Uzziah was a leper until the day he died. On seeing this vision of God’s glory filling the temple Isaiah cries out “Woe is me! I am doomed, for my own eyes have seen the Lord of Hosts, I, a man of unclean lips, I who dwell among a people of unclean lips.” This is not a reference to unclean speech, but to being a leper, condemned by the disease to cover his lips wherever he was out and about and cry, “Unclean, unclean.” so people would avoid them. It was exactly the same for the lepers in Jesus’ day. So, in the light of God’s glory, Isaiah had seen that he, too, was like a leper, as were the people he dwelt amongst.
And it is best to interpret the story of Naaman, which comes from the same period in Israel’s history, in that light. It is about far more than merely a miraculous healing. It serves as a lesson for the nation of Israel, as something that can also teach us about healing in a deeper sense for us and for our society.
Naaman’s healing was far more than physical. He experiences a profound change of heart. So, healing from leprosy represents a healing of that which keeps us separate from God, not the skin condition, but the malaise of which the skin condition is merely a symbol. And what he underwent was a kind of baptism, a washing away of that which is unclean in the heart, that which does not accord with who we really are in our true self. It was a change from the arrogance of assuming my way is right, my nation is better than yours etc.
And his healing was offered without any precondition of faith in Israel’s God. His recognition of Israel’s God as the One God, was a consequence of his healing, not the cause of his healing. Nevertheless, the one thing that was necessary was to humble himself and go and do something that was so simple as to seem, at first, ridiculous, namely go and wash himself in the river Jordan, not a grand river like the Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus.
Later, in the part we did not read today, he asks for forgiveness for the fact he will still have to worship the god that was the representation of divinity in his home territory because he has to take part in the civil ceremonies of his homeland. Elijah does not prohibit that, he simply says, go in peace. This is a far cry from the rather exclusive demands of religion.
This is a remarkable story of how God accepts and forgives a foreigner who is an enemy of Israel, who has come to faith through the unconditional love of God first shown him by a servant slave girl, probably captured on a previous raid into Israel.
And turning to the gospel story about the healing of the leper, and this is the same for other times when Jesus healed lepers, there is far more going on the merely the healing of whatever the disease was that was healed. The healing enabled him to rejoin and participate in family life and in the life of the community. What is happening today during the COVID pandemic will need more than just physical healing as well.
Then there is the stigma attached to having leprosy. This is much the same as the stigma that was attached to AIDS when that first was discovered due, in part, to ignorance of the nature of the disease.
I well recall the reaction of locals when I told them that the item of clothing that they were handling as they were thinking of purchasing it was made by a leper. They dropped the article immediately, thinking that they would catch the disease. And deformed individuals were sent away because they mistakenly believed that the ulcers and deformity were infectious, when, as I have explained, that is not the case.
One of the most moving incidents I recall from my time in Saiburi hospital, where I worked, was when a Chinese pastor from Singapore visited the leprosy unit we had in our hospital. I had met him when he and his wife hosted us during a conference Carol and I were attending in Singapore in 1984. He had struck me as someone who was full of the love of Christ. When he went into the ward where some of the most deformed patients were being treated he went round an hugged each one. It was a simple gesture, but it conveyed the love of God in ways that a sermon could not. I am sure that this was as healing to their hearts as the medication and surgery was to their bodies. I could tell, because there was not a dry eye in the ward.
But what is the source this deep healing love? In the well known passage about the suffering servant of the Lord in Isaiah 52 and 53, the nations recoil at the sight of him, and kings curls their lips in disgust. His form is so disfigured.
I well remember one patient brought in to see me by a relative . His head was covered by a dirty cloth. When he removed the cloth I could see why he had covered his face. For in place of a mouth and nose there was one vast gaping hole. The disease, in this case yaws not leprosy, had destroyed much of the structure of his face. But people in those days would have called it leprosy.
But, like this man, the suffering servant of the Lord, the subject of Isaiah’s prophecy, was despised, shunned by all, pain-racked and afflicted by disease; we despised him, we held him of no account, an object from which people turn away their eyes. I believe that what Isaiah is describing here is the ‘leprous’ messiah. It is the fact that Jesus so identified with the poor and outcast, including the lepers, and with all of us as ‘leprous’ human beings, in the sense that Isaiah talked of sin, that brings us healing today. Though the Jesus that healed that leper in our gospel story is risen and is now united with the Cosmic Christ in glory, the scars of the leprosy, as it were are still there, the suffering he experienced in identifying with leprous humanity mean that we too can be healed.