There are many words in Scripture that, as it were, set my teeth on edge. True, some words or concepts in the pages of scripture are supposed to make us uncomfortable, meant to make us squirm in our seat, posed to turn us from our self-regard. Yet there is one word, which never ceases to clasp at the throat of my soul with heavy hands of sterile ice. The word is clean.
This morning we hear Jesus encounter a character for whom this word doubtless signified a need as urgent ad life and death. If you choose, said the leper to Jesus, you can make me clean.
Of all the vocabulary of the spiritual life, the notion of ‘cleanliness’ or ‘purity’ is the most difficult for me. It is all too easy to use it to reify or protect the power or privilege of a select group. Yet it is not clear that our leper had any of that kind of analysis in mind. To be sure, the symbolic resonances of ‘cleanliness’ or ‘purity’ language are not in themselves suspicious or bad. There are spiritual truths to which this language points, and much of what might scandalize us about ancient Israelite liturgical prohibitions probably served more as a teaching tool—a way of unlearning deeply engrained residues of idolatrous worship inherited from ambient Canaanite religion.
Yet it is nonetheless difficult to ignore the kinds of people and bodies Levitical purity laws necessarily prohibited from full fellowship with the people of God, and the ways we have generally used this like of language to judge the sick, the chronically ill, or the differently abled. For no one who has a blemish, reads the 21st chapter of Leviticus, shall draw near, one who is blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, or one who has a broken foot or a broken hand, or a hunchback, or a dwarf, or a man with a blemish in his eyes or an itching disease or scabs or. . . . Or, or, or…
In January of 2011, I received news that would change my life forever: I had contracted the HIV virus. More than ever could I feel the chill of cleanliness language, the horror of realizing the world and those I loved might no longer necessarily read my body—or my soul—as ‘clean.’ For the first time in my life, words like ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’ ceased to be mere adjectives: they swelled and oozed the moral and spiritual bile of judgement and rejection.
And yet God moved mountains in my soul in those days following the diagnosis. I discovered very quickly, by the unqualified choice of love and charity shown me by my friends, church, and family that despite the world’s categories ‘unclean’ or ‘dirty,’ God had already looked at me and said I do choose. Perhaps this is why our leper comes to Jesus and asks him, plainly, to choose.
No matter how uncomfortable we are made by language of cleanliness or purity, the choice of God in Christ speaks a Love that knows and companions us no matter how ‘dirty’ or ‘unclean’ the world may tell us we are; no matter how dirty or unclean we tell ourselves we are. Our cleanliness or purity is of concern, in the end, to but one person. A person who asked us once, who told you that you were naked? Who told you that you were dirty? He has already chosen us, sisters and brothers; and choosing us, he invited us to lay these categories aside and rest in His words, I do choose.
 See the chapters on Mark in New Jerome Biblical Commentary
 Leviticus 21:18-20
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