The worst thing about leprosy in the days of Jesus, was being considered unclean. To be unclean was to not be part of God’s community. You couldn’t pray in the temple, you couldn’t go to synagogue, and you couldn’t associate with the people of faith. Instead of being one of the Chosen people, you were an Unchosen person, no one wanted you, even God. Here’s what Leviticus says:
The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, “Unclean, unclean.” He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp. (Leviticus 13: 45 & 46)
This leprosy wasn’t necessarily the leprosy that we know. The word covered eczema, psoriasis, unhealed boils, and all sorts of skin diseases. The big concern wasn’t that the people were contagious, as much as that they would pollute the temple, the synagogue or the community by making others unclean if the person lived or worshiped with them. They couldn’t work, since they couldn’t associate with anyone, so the only way they could live was on the handouts of others. The lepers couldn’t protest or step out of line, because they lived on the goodwill of others. The system itself ensured that no one could challenge it.
Remember last week, after going off by himself to pray, Jesus tells his disciples that he needs to go to the neighboring towns to spread the Good News, and while he’s outside of town, in the country, this person finds him. He says, “If you want to, you can make me clean.” The Bible says, “Moved with pity,” or “moved with compassion,” and Jesus heals him.
But what I love is the next phrase. Dianne’s reading said, “Jesus sent the man away with a very strong warning,” but many scripture scholars say that that phrase, “very strong warning” should be translated as “a snort of anger.” I love that image! Jesus snorting in anger!
We know he wasn’t angry at the person with the disease. Why would he be? He did nothing wrong. So, what made Jesus angry? Scholars say it was the whole system that put people in that situation to begin with. It took them out of their community, made them fend for themselves and rely on handouts, and it told them that they weren’t a child of God.
Jesus sent the man back, with orders to show himself as a witness to the priests, so he could be rejoined to the community. And he snorted in anger, that such a thing would be even necessary.
Walter Wink is a theologian who wrote a book called “The Powers that Be.” He shows how Jesus was always fighting off institutional powers: the power of Rome, that killed and oppressed people, and kept them poor, the power of the religious officials that kept people in line and powerless, the power of the rich that lived off the backs of the poor. His point is also that real evil isn’t so much an individual sin, as communal sins. Individual sins are really just small potatoes compared to ‘societal sins.’ They are worse, and harder to fight because they make an individual feel powerless in the face of something evil that affects huge groups of people. He said, just like Jesus was aware of these powers, and fought against them at every turn, so we need to do the same thing today.
So, why would Jesus snort in anger today?
- I think of the millions of young adults that grew up here as immigrant children and who are now being sent back to their parents’ homeland, which to them, is a foreign country.
- I think of refugees around the world trying to escape to a safe, healthy place to raise their families.
- I think of the recent report coming out of St. Paul, that shows that even though black people comprise 14% of the population, 33% of all traffic stops were of black drivers.
- I think of people who are destined to be poor because they have disabilities.
Jesus might snort in anger at any of these.
The other day I was paying bills. Shauna had a dentist bill of over $300. Although she is still covered first under my insurance, since she has disability, Medicaid is supposed to pick up the rest. When I called, the book-keeper said, “We don’t take Medicaid because they don’t pay us enough.” We had already moved from one dental office in S. Mpls. to their branch in Edina for the same reason. I said, ‘When we moved from your office in S. Mpls., they directed us to this one because one of your dentists does take Medicaid.” She said, ‘Oh yes, you’re right, one does, since she’s covered first by your insurance, but next year she can’t come here since she’ll be on straight Medicaid, and we just don’t get enough money from them. We do have an office in New Hope though, for the convenience of our Minneapolis customers.” What is convenient about a disabled person in S. Minneapolis driving all the way to New Hope, especially when many people with disabilities don’t drive, or have cars?
It is very hard to find dentists or eye doctors that accept Medicaid. This makes me snort in anger for two reasons. First, why do they assume that everyone understands that you have to make a profit? You Don’t need to make a profit on every transaction. Lots of people do ‘pro bono’ work whether they call it that or not. But when I’ve spoken with eye doctors, dentists, and some physicians, they assume that it’s obvious why they can’t take patients with Medicaid.
The other reason that I snort in anger about it is that now I will need to make a decision. Do I continue going to these places where I get good service, but my daughter can’t come? Do I ask them why they need to make a profit on every patient? Or do I keep quiet, and keep going?
The lepers in Jesus’ day didn’t get the option of making a choice. They had to toe the party line, in order to get fed.
In most of the situations that are unfair in our country today, we do get to decide whether to leave it be, or to say something. People are saying something. In the last few years, we have had a groundswell of voices speaking out for immigration reform, speaking against police brutality and racial profiling, speaking about climate change, and speaking out against sexual abuse against women, and human trafficking.
People are beginning to snort in anger, and it is beginning to change the world. Amen.