Every society always has individuals and groups on the fringes. In ancient times, it was the lepers that were considered one of the most stigmatized groups. Who cares about lepers—especially during Lent
Leviticus 13-14 offers a painfully long discourse about how to identify leprosy and the procedures for cleansing lepers and the objects associated with them. What’s striking is that there are only two verses of instructions to the lepers themselves. They must dress in torn clothes, leave their hair disheveled, cover their faces, and cry out, “Unclean! Unclean!” (Lev 13:45-46). Lepers had to behave a lot like mourners (e.g., Gen 37:29, 37:34, Lev 10:6, 21:10, 2 Sam 1:11, Job 1:20, Esther 4:1; Ezek 24:17, 22)? The cry, “Unclean! Unclean!” could easily have been a lament as it was a warning. In contrast to mourners, lepers “must live in isolation in their place outside the camp” (Lev 13:46; cf. Num 5:2). There was no welcome mat at the door for them.
Until Jesus showed up. Isn’t it odd that it was only after his fame of cleansing lepers spread that Jesus could no longer enter a town? Ironically, “he had to stay out in the secluded places” (Mark 1:45)—like a leper! But of course, that didn’t stop people from coming to him.
Josephus, a Jewish historian from the first century, wrote that lepers could not live in Jerusalem. When Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem for the last time, he was very much focused on his date with destiny (Luke 17:11; cf. 9:31, 44, 51; 12:49-53; 13:31-35; 18:31-33). And yet, Jesus paused to alleviate the illness and social isolation of ten lepers who had the audacity to appeal for mercy (Luke 17:11-14). Only the unnamed Samaritan discerned that something had happened to him that went far deeper than healing his skin. “Get up” meant full-blown “resurrection.” For this reason, he returned to thank Jesus, once again calling out loudly, but this time to give glory to God!
Josephus also wrote that lepers could not participate in the feast of Passover. So, two days before his final Passover, and where was Jesus? Having dinner at Simon the leper’s house (Mark 14:1-3)! Of course, he was! A couple more days and Jesus would hang on a Roman cross outside the city where the unclean hung out (Lev 14:33-45). “Jesus suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood” (Heb 13:12). They even tore his clothes, covered his face in spit and blood, and placed a crown of thorns on his disheveled hair—as if he were a leper.
Although we don’t deal with physical leprosy today, perhaps our post-truth, post-trust world has created a lonely social leprosy of sorts. On our journey to the cross this season of Lent, “let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured” and reach out to the isolated of our day (Heb 13:13). Who knows? Our social leper friends may invite us over for dinner.