Most of us didn’t realize, until very recently, what a remarkable stain is put upon a person (or whole people) said to be diseased. Even people who have had the coronavirus and recovered (as 99% do) are right now regarded as suspect and treated as we imagine lepers were in the old days.
The biases have been unreal, and the policies based on those actions extreme. It began with banning flights from China, and then Europe, UK, and Australia, forcing chaos and social closening in airports all over the country. Then the separationism came home. State borders closed. Then it got even closer to home. Next town? Stay out. Next block? Stay away. Next door in my apartment complex? Stay away from my front door. Not even spouses and children are safe. Everyone stay away from everyone else and douse yourself constantly with a cleansing agent.
Observers are warning that all borders, not just national ones, are hardening, just as they did during and following World War II – at great cost to liberty and prosperity.
When you look at the incredible fear, paranoia, and loathing that the coronavirus has unleashed, you get a glimpse of what must have been a long-time human habit of suspecting others of passing on diseases. There is a remarkable power in that, especially if it only amounts to suspicion, rumor, bias, and smear, and it would naturally affect people who are different in other ways: foreign, different language, different social class, a different income group.
J. Duncan M. Derrett wrote in 1987 (“No Stone Upon Another: Leprosy and the Temple”), the disease called leprosy in the Bible was associated the revelation of hidden sin. Anyone suspected of carrying it was banned from the temple, not just for reasons of disease control but even more for maintaining the moral purity of the space. It was common for anyone deemed a sinner to be tagged with the label leper rightly or wrongly. He or she would be forced to seek some kind of healing in order to be gain access again and not forever be socially distanced. Until then, anyone who came near him was also considered unclean. They were forced into isolation, which could mean emotional and physical death.
Then as now, the appearance of pandemic is a perfect mechanism for turning people against each other, and for power to grow, with shocking results. It will forever be etched in the annals of history that in 2020 Christians themselves were banned from their churches all over the world – on Easter Sunday – for fear of disease.
Thinking about this brings to mind this passage from St. Mark, Chapter 1, verses 40-45.
And there came a leper to him, beseeching him, and kneeling down to him, and saying unto him, If thou wilt, thou canst make me clean.
41 And Jesus, moved with compassion, put forth his hand, and touched him, and saith unto him, I will; be thou clean.
42 And as soon as he had spoken, immediately the leprosy departed from him, and he was cleansed.
43 And he straitly charged him, and forthwith sent him away;
44 And saith unto him, See thou say nothing to any man: but go thy way, shew thyself to the priest, and offer for thy cleansing those things which Moses commanded, for a testimony unto them.
45 But he went out, and began to publish it much, and to blaze abroad the matter, insomuch that Jesus could no more openly enter into the city, but was without in desert places: and they came to him from every quarter.
There is another problem with the designation leper. Scholars who study this stuff find no evidence of anything we call leprosy at that time at that place. Since the 1950s, medical historians have been explaining this, as summed up by E.V Hulse in 1975:
From the medical, historical, and paleopathological evidence it is clear that biblical ‘leprosy” is not modern leprosy. There are no indications whatsoever that the disease we now know as leprosy was not present in the Near East in Old Testament times and descriptions of ‘sara’ are not accepted by experienced leprologists as having any relationship to modern leprosy.
Same with the New Testament: “Not only are there no clinical descriptions of ‘lepra’ in the New Testament,” he writes, “but the use of the word lepra is, in itself, strong evidence that the New Testament ‘leprosy’ was not modern leprosy.” It might have been a scaly skin rash, or it might have been something one just says about another who is different.
Once there is a rumor of disease, everyone is a suspect. If the suspicion falls upon any person, it was difficult to escape. People talk. People fear. They want that person out of sight and out of mind. Then as now. Especially without testing!
All of which is to say that the man Jesus confronted might not have had any real disease at all, but he was still banned from the temple as generally unclean. So when Jesus the Rabbi pronounced him clean, he might have been pronouncing him so as an act of compassion and love.
But Jesus was also a practical man. He suggested that the now-clean man go through ritual cleansing. He also pleaded with the man: please don’t tell anyone that Jesus touched him. The guy did it anyway. Whoops!
Next thing you know, “Jesus could no more openly enter into the city, but was without in desert places.” Yes, you know how this works. You got near a corona person who is probably that because he was near a corona person, and then that person got near you and now you are suddenly suspected. To the 14-day quarantine for you buddy!
The good news is that despite the quarantine Jesus’ ministry endured, “They came to him from every quarter.”
This is fully consistent with everything we know about Jesus’s ministry. The parables and his life narrative are full of stories of breaking down biases, barriers, myths, and artificial walls of tribes, religion, class, gender, and political loyalty. He told of the good Samaritan who helped a stranger. He washed the feet of the poor. He defended a prostitute against stoning. He told his followers to pray for the imprisoned and saved the soul even of a tax collector. So too did he use his influence to remove the stigma of presence or rumor of disease.
Our times have reminded us that being called diseased is like other forms of social division that drive people apart and make them more dependent on power. It leads people to fear, hate, and separate. Jesus too not only addressed that topic; he lived it, even at the penalty of personal quarantine.
He healed the “lepers” simply by declaring them clean, which is to say that he gave them a pass to re-enter society. It was a similar situation with Simon the Leper with whom Jesus ate (Mark 14:3-9). As it turns out, Simon didn’t actually have leprosy (well, no one did but he might once have been sick thus earning him the lifetime moniker, poor guy), so even getting well doesn’t give a person once sick a free pass. Jesus, however, didn’t care: his job was to ennoble not vilify.
We are learning so much in our times. We thought we had seen every conceivable excuse for liberty to decline and power to rise. Financial crisis, terrorism, inequality, injustice, discrimination, microaggression, cultural appropriation, globalism; you name it, we’ve lived it.
Every time there is a crisis, we are told the same thing: you can’t be free; instead you must obey. What we’ve not seen and lived through until now is the ancient tendency to wreck social cooperation through the rumor and reality of disease.
Jesus, however, did see that. He dealt with it with compassion, moral courage, and patience. May we all live and learn.