Hansen’s Disease, a chronic disease of humans caused by the Mycobacterium Leprae bacillus, characterized by lesions of the skin and superficial nerves; the disease may also involve the eyes, and mucous membranes of the nose and pharynx. Encyclopedia Britannica
I am not sure if the man Jesus meets after delivering the Sermon on the Mount has Hansen’s disease (more commonly known as “leprosy”) or not. But this event takes place in the First Century, and everything from psoriasis to contact dermatitis is taken to be leprosy. This is wise, of course. Hansen’s disease is hard to pass between persons. It requires long term contact with an active lesion. But until the 20th century there wasn’t an effective treatment. Today it is curable with a multi-drug therapy – but there is no known treatment, other than miracle, for the disease when Jesus meets the man, the “leper,” in Matthew 8.1-4.
The Law of Moses requires an extreme form of social distancing when someone shows symptoms of leprosy. They must remain unkempt, keep their mouth covered, self-quarantine, and shout “unclean” when someone approaches (Leviticus 13.45-46). There is also an elaborate protocol for coming off such quarantine, which involves examination by a priest, sacrifices, bathing, shaving, and washing clothes (Leviticus 14.1-32). Jesus always insists that the lepers he heals observe this protocol. Perhaps the best-known case of leprosy reported in the Old Testament is that of the Syrian General Naaman, who baptized himself in the Jordan seven times, at the direction of the prophet Elisha, and emerged clean (II Kings 5.1-14). The “leper” in Matthew 8 is seeking a similar miracle. Jesus obliges.
A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, “Lord, if you are willing you can make me clean.” Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” He said, “be clean.” Immediately he was cured of his leprosy. Matthew 8.2-3 NIV
Jesus can heal at a distance – this is made clear in the healing of the centurion’s servant (Matthew 8.5-13, Luke 7.1-10). It is not necessary for Jesus to reach out and touch this leper to make him well, but He does. I always find Matthew 8.3 one of the most moving verses in all the Gospels. What would it mean, after so much time, to experience human contact?
If this war with Covid-19 continues for many more weeks (months?), we may be able to empathize. The social distancing required of us is difficult, but wise. To act cavalierly in times like these is to violate the Golden Rule. We need to be available to help anyone in need, let’s be clear about that. But “helping” can be used as an excuse to get out of the house and into circulation – a selfish course to pursue indeed.
My old Church History professor from seminary, Dr. North, told a story about David Lipscomb and the Cholera Epidemic of 1873. It seems the good Christians of Nashville fled the city. Lipscomb stayed, and used his horse and wagon to carry Roman Catholic nuns around to nurse the sick. When the epidemic passed, Lipscomb was criticized for cooperating with “false teachers.” His answer to his critics was that if they had stayed to nurse the sick, he would have driven them around. Lipscomb’s point is well-taken. But David Lipscomb was helping, sacrificing – the way our health care workers are now – not driving around because he couldn’t bear to sit still.
There are a thousand lessons to be learned from Jesus’ healing the leper in Matthew 8, but I want to share only one – Jesus transcends social distancing.
Jesus did not hesitate to touch the leper – He was at no risk when He did. He is no less present with us now than He was before the Corona Virus invaded. In Him we are not distant from each other. We are His body – One body – together with Christ as our head (Ephesians 4.4-16). Physical separation does not part us in any lasting way (I Thessalonians 2.17-3.10). We are one family, one flock, one body and He is with us, all the way – even to the end of the age (Matthew 28.20).
- Barry Bryson