Last week we have meditated and reflected on the ‘Sign’ – Wedding at Cana. For this week we shall begin with the miracle found in Mark 1:40-45 for today where Jesus healed the person with leprosy. We shall then move on to a few questions from the Bible related to our journey in Lent. We shall begin with the Book of Genesis and explore the following six questions this week:
Did God really say? Gen 3:1
Where are you? Gen 3:9
Where is your brother? Gen 4:9
Am I my brother’s keeper? Gen 4:9
Where have you come from and where are you going? Gen 16:7
Have I really seen God and lived to tell about it? Gen 16:13
I Leprosy and Discrimination in Old Testament times
Leviticus 13:45-46 clearly spells out what a person should do once he is declared unclean due to dreaded skin diseases one of which was Leprosy as, “A person who has a dreaded skin disease must wear torn clothes, leave his hair uncombed, cover the lower part of his face, and call out, ‘unclean, unclean’. He remains unclean as long as he has the disease, and he must live outside the camp, away from the others.” This description puts our discussion in perspective. This was the law given to Moses by God and the priest has a key role to play role. Priest is the person who declared a person unclean and the priest had to declare the same person to be clean as well. Jesus fulfils this law. He makes the person clean and the person and others know he is clean or healed – it is visible but needs certification. Naturally, not all people with leprosy were healed but we have instances where Moses, Miriam and Naman are mentioned to be healed and Miriam returns to the Camp, while Moses did it as a part of a sign form God and Naman was a Syrian. Majority of the people with leprosy died outside the camp. How is leprosy dealt with today?
Few facts and figures about Leprosy today:
1. 1 in 6 do not have access to clean drinking water
2. Leprosy is closely linked with poverty
3. Every 2 minutes someone is diagnosed with leprosy.
4. Leprosy is the seventh most common cause of blindness
5. Many with leprosy suffer from discrimination and prejudice and are still regarded as outcasts.
II Jesus’ attitude towards people with Leprosy: A new mission imperative
Jesus has a deep compassion for people at the margins and especially towards those suffering from Leprosy. Jesus is seen in this event to both break the Mosaic law and also fulfil it. What adds meaning to this story is this act of breaking the law and once again bringing a new norm for people to follow – not that people become clean and then they are eligible to be touched but ‘be touched first, be healed and then be declared clean’. This is where we see the model of Jesus’ mission which is doing and reflecting which form the two steps in doing theology too!
Leprosy is a disease that hits the poor or makes the ones with this disease poor as they are cast out of the camp or community. If a leprosy patient can be well cared for where they are not allowed to hurt their skin and bone, they will never be disfigured or lose part of their limbs. This happens as they lose their sensitivity to heat and cold, to pain and pressure. My question always in this issue is ‘Who has lost the sensitivity – they or us?’ If we can become sensitive enough to care for them, they will not end up in the situations that they are forced to – as beggars in groups living on the margins of the society at least in India to be precise. This is again an issue of poverty. Unless and until we see Poverty as an issue of injustice and deal with it, we will have to see these people going through awful situations. Are we ready to act in this direction? How easy will this journey be?
Jesus is again seen outside the camp for this person with leprosy to approach. Jesus hears the cry of this person just to be healed. He touches going against the Mosaic law and brings about HEALING and CLEANING. So there are different touches in the life of a person and both touching as well as being touched brings about healing. Some can be bad touches as in the case of child abuse, molesting, raping, violence etc. Touching also brings healing and the touch extended through love, care, dignity be it social or medical.
III Touchable and untouchable in today’s context
The caste ridden Indian Society imposes this evil practise of caste system where the hierarchically divided society discriminates one group of its population as ‘Untouchable’. They are a big chunk of about 17% of the more than two billion people there. History shows that these Dalits, ‘untouchables’ as they were formerly referred to along with many other names were treated similarly to what the Leviticus 13:45-46 says and facts show that Dalits faced a worse situation. A P Nirmal, a pioneer Dalit Theologian describes this as follows: “My Dalit ancestors did not enjoy the nomadic freedom of the wandering Aramean. As an outcaste, he was also cast out of his/her village. The Dalit basitis (localities), were always and are always on the outskirts of the Indian village. When the Dalit ancester walked the dusty roads of his village, the Sa Varnas tied a tree-branch around his waist so that he would not leave any unclean foot-prints and pollute the roads. The Sa Varnas also tied an earthen pot around my Dalit ancestor’s neck to serve as a spittle. If ever my Dalit ancestor tried to learn Sanskrit or some other sophisticated language, the oppressors gagged him permanently by pouring molten lead down his throat. My Dalit mother and sisters were forbidden to wear any blouses and the Sa Varnas feasted their eyes on their bare bosoms. The Sa Varnas denied my Dalit ancestor any access to public wells and reservoirs. They denied him entry to their temples and places of worship.”
What is our responsibility in addressing this issue where many people on the margins of caste face today both in India and around the world where communities that practise it take it along with them? A person comments on this here in UK saying, “We Indians carry two things with us when we leave India – one is our pickles and the other Caste system”! How far is it true in our case even if it is to a limited extent outside India or when we apply it promptly as soon as we enter the church or Indian soil back at home? What do we need to do consciously to get this out of our system? I am sure children who grow up outside do not bother about these. However, when it comes to their marriage how do communities respond? Where do we need to change to bring about transformation?
IV Jesus as a model to address untouchability
Jesus is our Model be it related to how women, children are to be treated or many of the socio-cultural and political issues that he addressed which still exists in our world today in varied forms. Whether is the issue of untouchability in the Caste system or due to particular diseases such as leprosy or HIV and Aids, we need to apply Jesus’ mission model. He does not think twice as to how he should perform this miracle. Last week we saw that Jesus acts in such an invisible manner. He does not touch the pots or the water or do anything other than asking them to ‘Fill’ and ‘Draw out’ and take it to the steward. This case is different and Jesus knows the approach also needs to be different. Last week Jesus just reverses the order of priority from ‘Best First to Best Last’, here what he wants to show is ‘Break the law/norm first and then fulfil the law’ if you want to fulfil it totally. Jesus came to fill in the gaps in the law and to give a new commandment ‘Love one another’ and make a new covenant with his body and blood. We need to affirm this through our actions. We are called to address this issue of caste discrimination within the Church and the Society. Are we ready to log in this into our Lent metaphor GPS as one of the locations from where we need to begin to reach our common goal of ‘Theosis’?
This story of the person with leprosy being healed or made clean brings in the need for us to deal at least with two issues – address the issues of poverty and caste discrimination as issues of injustice. It gives us a new approach for a mission model, ‘Break the oppressive laws and then fulfil the true laws’, Jesus the new wine cannot be contained in the old bottles or containers. We need to break away from the oppressive norms that do not allow us to contain Jesus and fulfil his commands. Jesus’ approach is sending back the Healed or people made CLEAN to the Church, to the Priest so that the same person who declared a person unclean should also end with declaring him/her clean. Jesus calls us as individuals, families, church and communities to respond to the model that he has showed us. The movement from the periphery to the centre and from outside to the inside becomes essential in mission model to make it effective.
“The Cost of Discipleship”, The Leprosy mission: England and Wales http://www.leprosymission.org.uk/documents/studynotes/BibleStudynotes-Speakingupforthose%20without%20a%20voice.pdf.
Nirmal, Arvind P. and V. Devasahayam. A Reader in Dalit Theology. Madras, India: Gurukul Lutheran Theological College & Research Institute 1991?
 “The Cost of Discipleship”, The Leprosy mission: England and Wales http://www.leprosymission.org.uk/documents/studynotes/BibleStudynotes-Speakingupforthose%20without%20a%20voice.pdf.
 Arvind P. Nirmal and V. Devasahayam, A Reader in Dalit Theology (Madras, India: Gurukul Lutheran Theological College & Research Institute 1991?). P 61