Who are the lepers?

I am participating in a community group currently studying the book of Leviticus. Much of Leviticus deals with the question, “What does it mean to come as a people, as a community, into the presence of the Almighty God?” The Hebrew words used to make the distinction between those who can and cannot come have often been translated as “clean” and “unclean.” Yet those terms can be misleading. Leviticus it not talking about getting the food off our face or the dirt out from under our fingernails. Rather, what is at stake is probably better translated as being “fit” or “unfit.” 

What does it mean to be unclean or unfit in Leviticus? Two things stand out. The first is disobedience. One cannot enter into God’s presence while in active disobedience against God. The second is anything associated with death or decay. God is the source of life; anything separated from him eventually dies. So, in Leviticus, for example, anyone who touches a dead person is unfit until following a ritual of cleansing. Blood from an animal was to be fully drained and never drunk, because it represented the life gone out of that animal, that is, death. 

The Biblical term often translated “leprosy” also represents something that leads to decay or death. Whether that “leprosy” was on your skin or in your house (what we would likely call mold or mildew), the key factor was whether it was spreading. Spreading led to bad things, ultimately to death. 

This was the reason that “lepers” were quarantined. They were made to live outside of the “camp” or community so that their condition would not spread and ultimately lead to the death of the community. Lepers were not only seen as unfit to come to the tabernacle which represented the presence of God in a place, but were to be separated from Israel as a holy, “fit” people, representing God to the world. 

All the quarantine, and then the ritual cleanings, and the thanksgiving sacrifices were seen as a way to keep fit to come before God. Since all people live in a world of sin and death, the routine was constant, always struggling to do the things that made you clean or fit. The priests were the ones to oversee the process. 

Today, we use quarantine to avoid death from disease. Typically, it is only the sick or “unfit” person who is quarantined. In our current situation, with an invisible virus transmitted even before symptoms appear, quarantine of those with disease becomes difficult. So, perhaps it is fitting for all of us to be quarantined. Spiritually speaking, we are all unclean, unfit to come into the presence of a Holy God, to be a part of a holy community. We participate in a fallen, sinful world, subject to death. 

Most of us don’t like to be subjected to quarantine. We like to believe that we are unaffected, not infected, that we are clean and pure. We are the “normal” folks; we don’t carry within us the signs of death. Why should we not have the freedom to go where we want, do what we want, and act “normal”? It is much easier to shift the uncleanness onto particular people and groups of people who are not like us, who are “dirty” and “infected.” We like to have a scapegoat on whom we can lay all of the sins and the disease, and the death in the community and then chase out into a desert exile. Then, we don’t have to deal with our own sin. Yet, we are among those quarantined. 

Indeed, our human situation is one of despair and perpetual spiritual quarantine–if it were not for Jesus who became the scapegoat or the “Lamb of God” for the world. None of us are fit to come before a Holy God or represent such a God to the world–except for the fact that we trust that our sin that Jesus absorbed on the cross is truly taken away. 

Jesus comes to say it is not so much the individual people themselves who are unclean and unfit. Jesus had no problem touching lepers and blind people and those who were bleeding. Jesus was particularly well known for touching and healing lepers. According to Old Testament law that would have made him unclean, ritually unfit to come to the temple. Yet he singled out those that the society scapegoated as unclean and made them a focus of his healing mission. In making the “most unclean” fit again to come into God’s presence, Jesus demonstrated the power of God at work in the whole community. 

Christians are not people who pretend they are pure and clean, the ones who have done all the right rituals to be worthy to come into God’s presence. Rather, Christians are the ones who enter into a messy, sinful, unclean society to walk with the rest of the world into God’s presence. Christian are willing to give themselves like Jesus did, even unto death, if necessary, so that the whole human community might have life. Christians are “little Christs” who represent Christ in bringing folks back to God. Christians are folks who have come to God in the first place because they have experienced the power of the resurrection that overcomes this death cycle. 

So let us allow our own COVID-19 quarantined status (which really is very mild by comparison to what the ancient lepers faced) to remind us that this is where Jesus wants us, identifying with the sick, the poor and the lepers (that society sees as unfit) so that the power of God can be revealed in the newness of resurrection life.

About this post

This article was originally written as a devotional for Agape Fellowship of the Mennonite Church in Williamsport, Pennsylvania during the COVID-19 Pandemic. 

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