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.
Listen for a moment and think carefully about whether you have had an experience parallel to any of the following:
The experience of a social worker as she counsels an opioid addict struggling to extricate himself from a destructive network of peer relationships;
The experience of a teacher giving hours of help after class to a student with special learning needs or a toxic home environment, neither of which the school system seems concerned about;
The experience of a doctor or nurse spending the time necessary to really listen to a patient’s needs, whilst attempting to navigate a broken medical insurance system;
The experience of a psychologist working with a transgender prison inmate who is verbally and physically abused by fellow inmates and guards, but whose gender identity is unrecognized by the prison system.
Mark 1: 40-45
There are a number of these healing miracles in the gospels, variations on a theme. Sometimes Jesus touches the person—Jesus takes Peter’s mother-in-law by the hand and she gets up, fever free, and gets a meal on. Once he made mud out of saliva and put it on the eyes of a blind man. Sometimes he heals from a distance—the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter. Sometimes he uses his voice—“Lazarus, come out!” Variations on a theme.