Two weeks ago I joined the ranks of people succumbed to a bug going around. I’m not sure why we call getting sick “a bug” but it did feel like an infestation. My skin got hot and prickly, my muscles began to ache as if I had been working hard, wrestling with an attacker. It was like I had a miniature ant colony or a hornet’s nest taking residence in my chest, infesting my vocal chords.
I must admit it made me mad, because I confess that I had been feeling a bit self-righteous since I generally survive the flu season unscathed. I was taking pride in the fact that other people were succumbing all around me with their coughing, runny noses and going home sick, while I moved among them untouched, above it all! I credited it to the fact that I work out, eat a very healthy diet and deal with stress, so that I am not susceptible to the plagues of other mortals. So when I got sick, it felt like a failure. I was human again.
After three days in bed, I reintegrated gradually into society, getting a haircut on Saturday afternoon. I was careful not to shake anyone’s hand, and watched carefully the coughers and sneezers in the waiting area before choosing a seat. I have joined the Purell crowd, regularly performing ritual purification to avoid further uncleanness to my body. The most difficult part was going to dance class, thinking about touching everyone, with 20 people there. Someone was bound to be a leper. One moment, I had to sneeze, and I suppressed it while I tried to figure out what I should cover my mouth with, because you hold people in the dance position and the instructor has us rotate through partners, thus assuring complete cross-contamination. If I dared sneeze, everyone would look at me as the leper in the group, coming to make them all unclean. So I have now lost my excessive pride as one of the healthy few who never succumbs to the bugs of winter.
I can have greater sympathy now for the leper who approached Jesus. In doing some research this week on leprosy, it was commonly understood that a variety of skin ailments, known in Hebrew as tzaraat (pronounced sara’at), were caused by immoral behavior. Skin rashes, bald spots and boils were classified in Leviticus as “spiritual diseases.” The Talmud regarded tzaraat as a punishment for several possible sins, chiefly for an uncontrolled tongue or malicious gossip, but possibly for a vain oath, illicit sex, excessive pride, miserly ways, or even murder. The cure for these various skin diseases was to see the priest for proper repentance and ritual cleansing. One practice was to sacrifice a bird, drip its blood in water, and then the afflicted but repentant person would be sprinkled seven times to be made clean again. So lepers were not just shunned because they might be contagious, they also deserved their ostracism, because they may have been seen as unrepentant sinners who refused to come to terms with God.
Notice that the leper who comes to Jesus says to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” (Mark 1:40) Being made clean is not just about sickness to health, it is a ritual word. It is being made whole to God and reconciled to community. You may also perceive that Jesus does not talk with the man about repentance, but has pity and touches the man saying, “I do choose. Be made clean!” (Mk. 1:41) Jesus has no conversation at all until after the man is healed. Then he asks the man to go make the traditional offering with the priests, in gratitude to God; and he asks, in futility, that the man say nothing so that Jesus does not get swamped with crowds.
If we compare other encounters Jesus had with people who wanted something from him, Jesus often engages, challenges, forgives or even argues with them. He doesn’t just heal all comers without comment. He forgave a man with a withered hand before healing him. When the Canaanite woman asks for healing for her daughter, he at first rejects her because she is not of the same faith. . He tells a lame man to pick up his bed and walk, asking him to take action on his faith, and in one of my favorite healing stories, he says to a lame man by the pool of Bethsaida, “Do you want to be well?” When the rich young ruler asks to be a disciple, he challenges him to sell all he has and give it to the poor. He tells another man “let the dead bury their own dead.” To the woman caught in adultery, he takes on her accusers and when they leave, he says she is free to go, but commands her to sin no more Jesus does not respond to every person in the same way, so what can we discern in this story?
I venture that Jesus simply didn’t see anything unclean, sinful or deficient in this man with leprosy. Unlike Leviticus, and the prevailing attitude of his day, Jesus did not see illness as punishment from God. Some things are simply misfortune, not judgment. Bad things happen to good people. The rain falls on the just and the unjust alike. We wish that Jesus was around to reverse every misfortune, but God loves us in the midst of all things. Paul often prayed that his “thorn in the flesh” be removed and healed, but when it wasn’t he did not doubt whether God loved him. Some things you just have to live with.
The attitude that misfortune is the result of sin or punishment from God still prevails today. In the rhetoric of presidential primaries, those who are poor are talked about much like lepers. Rick Santorum said, “I don’t to make black people’s live better by giving them someone else’s money, I want to help them earn their money, so they can go out and provide for themselves and their families.” Newt Gingrich has echoed the same sentiment, calling President Obama the “food stamp” president. I would love to hold just one of the seemingly hundreds of presidential debates in a housing program like Hillcrest House, where I work, where every single person gets food stamps. I would like them to see some of the 40 percent of Americans who have jobs and still collect food stamps, because work does not guarantee a decent living in our new low wage environment. I would introduce them to a man named Nick, who has been looking for work for six months, and recently did a free brake job at Midas to show his skills off and try to get a job. We do not have over 8% unemployment and hunger in America because people are lazy, but because there are not enough decent jobs.
- 49% of all participants are children (17 or younger), and 49% of them live in single-parent households.
- 15% of all participants are elderly (age 60 or over).
- 20% of all participants are non-elderly disabled people.
- The average gross monthly income per food stamp household is $731; The average net income is $336.
- 35% of participants are White; 22% are African-American, not Hispanic; 10% are Hispanic; 2% are Asian, 4% are Native American, and 19% are of unknown race or ethnicity.
It is true that some people are scamming the system and making money off food stamps, and I think this kind of fraud should be stopped. JP Morgan, one of the largest banks in America, distributes the debit cards used by food stamp recipients, and reports a profit of over $5 billion last year from the program. Where is Newt when you need him to stop this kind of excessive welfare give-away?
The Jesus we see in Mark’s Gospel was not focused on finding ways to blame people for their circumstances, but rather the one who offered healing. His words, “Be made clean!” is both the hope of the suffering, and a direct challenge to those who stand above others in judgment to also clean up their act.