For Lepers Outside the Camp

For Lepers Outside the Camp February 12, 2018

The readings yesterday were profoundly moving to me. As you may or may not know, the Church typically chooses the Sunday readings in order to highlight the point Jesus made to the disciples on the first Easter:

Then he said to them, “These are my words which I spoke to you, while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you; but stay in the city, until you are clothed with power from on high.” (Lk 24:44–49).

The book of Revelation, in its own weird imagery, makes the same point:

And I saw in the right hand of him who was seated on the throne a scroll written within and on the back, sealed with seven seals; and I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, and I wept much that no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. Then one of the elders said to me, “Weep not; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.”
And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders, I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth; and he went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne. And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and with golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints; and they sang a new song, saying,
“Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals,
for you were slain and by your blood you ransomed men for God
from every tribe and tongue and people and nation,
and have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
and they shall reign on earth.” (Re 5:1–10).

Exactly the same idea is being expressed in both passages: what Paul calls the “oracles” of the Old Testament are only fully revealed when read in the light of Christ’s revelation:

But their minds were hardened; for to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their minds; but when a man turns to the Lord the veil is removed. (2 Co 3:14–16).

Another way of putting the same thing is in Augustine’s remark that the New Testament is hidden in the Old and the Old Testament is only fully revealed in the New.

Yesterday’s readings illustrate that.  Here they are:

The Lord said to Moses and Aaron,
“If someone has on his skin a scab or pustule or blotch
which appears to be the sore of leprosy,
he shall be brought to Aaron, the priest,
or to one of the priests among his descendants.
If the man is leprous and unclean,
the priest shall declare him unclean
by reason of the sore on his head.

“The one who bears the sore of leprosy
shall keep his garments rent and his head bare,
and shall muffle his beard;
he shall cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean!’
As long as the sore is on him he shall declare himself unclean,
since he is in fact unclean.
He shall dwell apart, making his abode outside the camp.” (Leviticus 13:1-2, 44-46)

And then the gospel of Mark:

A leper came to Jesus and kneeling down begged him and said,
“If you wish, you can make me clean.”
Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand,
touched him, and said to him,
“I do will it. Be made clean.”
The leprosy left him immediately, and he was made clean.
Then, warning him sternly, he dismissed him at once.

He said to him, “See that you tell no one anything,
but go, show yourself to the priest
and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed;
that will be proof for them.”

The man went away and began to publicize the whole matter.
He spread the report abroad
so that it was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly.
He remained outside in deserted places,
and people kept coming to him from everywhere.

The reading from Leviticus is one of the purity codes from the Old Testament dealing with the fear of a Bronze Age people concerning a wide variety of skin maladies all lumped under the term “leprosy”.  Having no medical knowledge, the tribe dealt with it the only way available: with expulsion of the affected person from the camp.  It was a brutal, isolating practice and, in a culture that did not make hard and fast distinctions between ritual impurity and moral impurity, tended to attach a stigma to the sick person not unlike the stigma some people these days attach to AIDS victims. (The book of Job likewise illustrates–and rebukes–this evil habit of mind which assumes suffering must be punishment for some sin.)

Now it’s not hard to see that there is obviously a connection between the OT reading and the gospel given that both are about leprosy.  But what a friend of mind pointed out yesterday, which I had never noticed before, was this.  Jesus does not merely cure the leper, he changes places with him and thereby joins all the lepers who have ever suffered this exile from the community.  As a result of working his cure on the leper, “it was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly. He remained outside in deserted places”.

I find this consoling for two reasons.  The first is that I often feel exiled from the camp as well (an experience many people have, I reckon) and Jesus has joined all us lepers there.  Hebrews remarks on this:

For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the sanctuary by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go forth to him outside the camp, bearing abuse for him. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come. Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. (Heb 13:11–15).

It is encouraging to learn that Jesus is not on the city wall, looking down in disgust on losers outside the city.  He is hanging on the cross with all the rejected, the lepers, the exiles.  Every time the righteous gloat over some deported vet or DACA kid, every time they sneer at somebody who is driven out of the in group, it is Jesus they are mocking, and it is Jesus who is going with the exile and staying close to the rejected one, because “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no flesh might boast in the presence of God.” (1 Co 1:27–29).

The other thing that is consoling is that Jesus in exile from the Righteous and Pure in his community ends up drawing people to himself: “and people kept coming to him from everywhere.”  As is always the case, the gospel winds up turning lemons into lemonade and winning even when it loses.

Thanks be to God through our Lord Jesus Christ!


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