Sunday, February 11, 2018

Our Lepers: A Sunday Rumination

     The LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron: “When someone has a swelling or a scab or a bright spot on the skin of his body that may become a diseased infection, he must be brought to Aaron the priest or one of his sons, the priests.... he is a diseased man. He is unclean. The priest must surely pronounce him unclean because of his infection on his head.
     “As for the diseased person who has the infection, his garments must be torn, the hair of his head must be unbound, he must cover his mustache, and he must call out ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ The whole time he has the infection he will be continually unclean. He must live in isolation, and his place of residence must be outside the camp.” [Leviticus Ch. 13]
     Now a leper came to him and fell to his knees, asking for help. “If you are willing, you can make me clean,” he said. Moved with compassion, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I am willing. Be clean!” The leprosy left him at once, and he was clean. 1:43 Immediately Jesus sent the man away with a very strong warning. He told him, “See that you do not say anything to anyone, but go, show yourself to a priest, and bring the offering that Moses commanded for your cleansing as a testimony to them.” But as the man went out he began to announce it publicly and spread the story widely, so that Jesus was no longer able to enter any town openly but stayed outside in remote places. Still they kept coming to him from everywhere. [Mark 1:40-45]

     It’s highly likely that those deemed leprous in classical Judea weren’t all suffering from Hansen’s Disease. Nevertheless, they suffered. The priests of that time would rule anyone with a disfiguring skin sore “unclean” and declare them banished from the larger community. To be judged unclean thus isolated the sufferer, endangered his survival, and – because in those days such an illness was held to be a manifestation of sin – endangered him spiritually as well. Other Judeans, who lived in great fear of such afflictions, showed the afflicted very little sympathy.

     Among Christ’s recorded miracles are several cures of the unclean. At a stroke, He rendered them acceptable to their communities once more. As word of His healing power spread, multitudes sought His mercy upon their maladies. If He ever turned a sufferer away, the event is not recorded in the Gospels.

     Today, most disfiguring conditions, including Hansen’s Disease, are curable with secular medicine. Dramatic cases still inspire revulsion from some of the more fortunate, but in the main we’re more tolerant of, and sympathetic toward, persons whose appearances have been marred by a visible malady. That’s all to the good.

     But Christ’s treatment of the “lepers” of Judea is important not for its medical implications but for its social ones. Every society known to history has ostracized some portion of its people. The reason hasn’t always been fear of contagion or esthetic revulsion.

     Who are America’s “lepers?” Who have we excluded, consciously or otherwise, from our communities, and why? And what is a Christian’s proper part in such things?

     In what I wrote just yesterday, I emphasized how important it is that charity not undermine the virtue of responsibility for oneself. I was thinking of material charity, of course, which is the sort with the greatest propensity for misuse. But there are other kinds of charity than the purely material. The sort that embraces the isolate is not to be demeaned.

     Now, just as classical Judea knew both lepers and “lepers,” Mankind knows both the willing isolate and he whose aloneness is not of his will or wish. The possession of a personality that finds groups chafing and frequent company wearying is not an affliction that can be treated by anyone. (Cue the “how many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb?” joke.) But there are surely others who are alone against their will, for reasons they might be unaware of or unable to control. Who are they?

     They’re not always obvious. Some unhappy isolates develop a habit of “asymmetric reciprocity,” whether out of fear of subsequent rejection or a perverse kind of pride. In such a case, even if ordinarily sociable Smith were to seek the companionship of isolate Jones, Jones would deflect Smith’s overtures, perhaps even without knowing he was doing so. It’s hard to do anything for someone like that.

     But there are others whose desire for connection and inclusion is undiminished. They might be shy about it, out of a desire to conceal their sorrows. In a society such as ours, which places a high value on personal self-sufficiency, keeping one’s loneliness to oneself is more often the case than not. Yet their suffering can be alleviated. They are today’s analogue to the “lepers” of classical Judea.

     It’s a Christian’s part to do what he can for such a soul.

     Tolstoy’s prescription – “Let us do what we can for those God places in our path” – applies here. To make seeking out the lonely and befriending them a career would be unwise. But if one should encounter such a person, to extend the hand of potential friendship to him is a thoroughly commendable and Christian thing. If he responds gratefully and with pleasure, all the better for both of you. If he bites off a finger, well, at least you tried.

     (It’s also a gift to be an evangelist by one’s conduct: to do as He would have done, portraying Christian convictions by example, rather than by verbal preachment. But that deserves its own separate screed. Perhaps this one.)

     We of Twenty-First Century America are alive in a place and time in which virtually every physical ailment can be cured, at least if it’s detected and treated in time. But ironically, as our medical capabilities grow, our tendency to atomize, to become unwillingly isolated from others, has grown as well. Fortunately, it’s a condition every Christian is qualified to remedy.

     May God bless and keep you all.

1 comment:

David Smith said...

I think that this may be apropos. In Matthew 22, Christ is asked which is the great commandment in the law, and He said, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself."

Seems to me that we can trust our acts of love for our fellows if we have done the work that it takes to "love the Lord our God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind." If we haven't, well...

And yes, that's a mighty tall order.