The reading from Leviticus and the Gospel of Mark convey how leprosy was viewed in antiquity. The condition is known today as Hansen’s Disease and refers to a specific situation in which progress of the disease leads to eventual loss of extremities – fingers, toes, and even limbs. But the words tsara’ath in Hebrew and lepra in Greek refer to many generic skin conditions, unscientifically grouped together. For example, Miriam in The Book of Numbers (12) probably had Hansen’s Disease, but Naaman in 2 Kings chapter 5 probably did not.
In today’s gospel, the leprosy is not described. In fact, the sufferer was more concerned about being “unclean” than the symptoms. The Jewish community in the first century were probably more concerned about pollution, i.e. being unclean, than the physical disease itself. As God is holy, so God’s community must be holy, i.e. reflecting the completeness, perfection, and purity of God.
John J. Pilch in the New Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible explains: “Members of this holy community are collectivist personalities, in contrast to individualistic personalities of modern societies. Collectivist personalities derive their identity from the group rather than from individual status and achievements. Their primary responsibility is to the other members of the group. They are committed to the development of the group and willingly subordinate personal preferences to the will of the group. The skin condition constitutes uncleanness or impurity that threatens the purity or holiness of the community.”
Removal or ostracism of the individual from the community was traumatic for that individual; hence the leper’s desire to be ‘cleansed.’
Mary Douglas gives a further explanation: “God put everything in its proper place at creation. Deviations from God’s primal ordering are considered anomalies. God set boundaries at creation in putting order into chaos.” When foods, animals, sexual practices or diseases cross boundaries, ending up where they do not belong, the result is uncleanliness, in the same way that dirt, which properly belongs in a garden, does not belong in a house. In Leviticus, even clothes and houses become polluted by leprosy and must be destroyed in order to protect the community.
When Jesus touched the leper in Mark’s gospel, he crossed those boundaries and accepted ‘unclean’ people into the community. When messengers from John the Baptist came to question Jesus, he replied, “Tell John what you have seen and heard. The blind see again, the deaf hear, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is proclaimed to the Poor. Happy is the man who does not lose faith in me.” Jesus directly confronted the Holiness Code of the Old Testament that ostracized many members of the community. Jesus incorporated outcasts, sinners, and the unclean in his new community.
Perhaps this example applies to the current controversy about the extent to which homosexual people in modern society can be fully admitted to the Church community. African Bishops have strongly reacted to the Vatican’s recent document “Fiducia Supplicans,” which allows priests the possibility to offer pastoral blessings on couples in irregular situations, including same-sex couples. Some Bishops claim that homosexuality has never existed in sub-Saharan Africa, although they do not have evidence to back up this assertion, and on the contrary, one Bishop from Ghana said that there were always some men in society who had feminine behavioral traits.
Societies in sub-Saharan Africa can be collectivist – the group or nation often takes precedence over the individual. The African saying, “We are, therefore I am,” points to this disposition. Another indicator is the Swahili word Uhuru for Independence, which can also be translated to “freedom,” but in fact refers to national independence from colonial powers. Within newly independent nations, the word does not refer to personal freedom, as understood in western societies. East African countries do not have a Bill of Rights in which basic freedoms are enshrined. Furthermore, leaders, who are usually patriarchal leaders, help to enforce cultural norms from which individuals should not deviate. The Bishops of sub-Saharan Africa may be operating as much out of this collectivist mentality as from opposition to sexual practices, as African societies do not oppose polygamy nor levirate marriage. Many Catholic Church leaders may also secretly doubt that celibacy within the priesthood is a virtue, or merely a counter-cultural requirement of dubious value.
Just as many people of Galilee could not accept Jesus’ practice of welcoming outcasts and even touching lepers, likewise today’s churches are deeply divided regarding the full inclusion of LGBTQ members in the community, and even moreso whether those in homosexual unions can be leaders in the church.
Pope Francis’ directive shows that he believes that seeking the full inclusion of all people in the church should be our ideal and our goal.
Painting 'Ten Lepers' by Bill Hoover, 2013, published with the artist's permission.