Clinical Seminars with Luke the Physician: 2. The healing of a leper

How can we be the literal hands of Christ as we care for the suffering, dying and ostracised?

While Jesus was in one of the towns, a man came along who was covered with leprosy.  When he saw Jesus he fell to with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.”  Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” And immediately the leprosy left him.  Then Jesus ordered him, “Don’t tell anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them.”  Yet the news about him spread all the more, so that crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses.

Luke 5:12-15

It’s hardly surprising that Luke chose to record this incident. Leprosy was a common condition in the Middle East, known to all practising physicians at the time. The disease was especially significant in Israel as there were a series of regulations which every physician and priest had to comply with. The detailed regulations concerning the control of leprosy had been laid down a thousand years previously, in the Torah, in the book of Leviticus (chapters 13 and 14). Immediately a suspicious skin lesion was noted, the sufferer had to present to the priest who would examine him closely. If the lesion matched the correct description, the sufferer was put in isolation for a period of 7 days and then re-examined. Evidence of spread or ulceration would confirm the diagnosis and the Levitical law was quite precise on what measures should be taken. “The person … must wear torn clothes, let his hair be unkempt. Cover the lower part of his face and cry out, Unclean! Unclean!  As long as he has the infection he remains unclean. He must live alone; he must live outside the camp.” The Levitical regulations were apparently still being observed in Israel at the time of Christ, and the leper, forced to live as a social outcast, must have been a common sight. 

It is clear that “leprosy” in the Bible was not the same condition as modern day leprosy or Hansen’s disease caused by a specific mycobacteria. The Biblical disease was apparently highly contagious and prone to exacerbations or remission over a few days, unlike Hansen’s disease which is a chronic and slowly changing condition of generally low infectivity. The clinical description in Leviticus is much more suggestive of a bacterial skin infection such as impetigo, a common and serious scourge of closely-knit communities in the pre-antibiotic era. Isolation of the infected individual was an important means of preventing rapid spread throughout the community, and the public health value of the Levitical regulations is obvious. However the social ostracism and the disruption of all normal relationships must have been a devastating experience for the sufferer. Being ritually unclean the individual was cut-off from the religious as well as the social life of the community. Mis-diagnosis was probably common, and many “lepers” were likely to have been suffering from a chronic non-infective skin condition such as eczema or psoriasis, leading to a lifetime of misery in isolation and exclusion from human society.

Luke records this chance encounter with a leprosy sufferer at an early stage of Jesus’s public ministry. From his professional background Luke is careful to record the severity of his skin condition. This was not a mild case; the man was, in literal translation, “full of leprosy”. He was probably grossly disfigured by extensive chronic infections and in addition chronic discharging ulceration and bacterial overgrowth was likely to cause an offensive smell. He must have been a pitiable sight. The man had obviously heard about Jesus, for as soon as he saw him, he fell (literally) “onto his face” and started begging – not for money, which would have been the normal routine, but for healing. He knew that Jesus had the power to heal him; this was perhaps the one opportunity he would ever have to be restored to health. He must try and persuade this strange and powerful rabbi to help. One can hear the desperation in his words. “Lord, if only you were willing…”

Jesus’ instinctive response was totally unpredictable. He didn’t say anything. Instead he reached out and touched him! We should stop and notice how remarkable and unexpected this was. In the same position, many of us would have launched into a careful explanation of the nature of the illness and the necessary preconditions that must be understood before healing could take place. But Jesus doesn’t start with words. Deliberately and lovingly he reaches out, oblivious to the risk and the ritual defilement which he would suffer. The powerful symbolism of the action is obvious. It was the first physical human contact that the man had known, perhaps for years. When Jesus does speak, the words are almost superfluous. By the physical act Jesus had already revealed his heart. It is only after he has touched the leper that he speaks, “I am willing. Be clean!” 

The miracle performed, Jesus might have walked away, but instead he carefully instructs the man to fulfil the formal Levitical regulations so that his healing can be recognised officially. The physical healing dealt with only one element of the man’s disability; the social aspect of healing was just as important. Jesus knew that in reality the social stigma was more significant than the physical lesions on the skin. Jesus had touched him but the man must be made touchable in the eyes of society. His relationships must be healed as well as his skin. 

How can we apply the example of Christ to our own experience? Skin disease no longer carries the social stigma that it used to, but human communities have always had their lepers, and our modern society is no different. One of the clearest modern analogues of leprosy is HIV infection. I was working as a junior doctor in the 1980s when the AIDS epidemic was front page news and I can remember the abuse, prejudice and, sometimes, naked hatred to which those contemporary lepers were exposed. Tragically it has sometimes been Christians who, wittingly or unwittingly contributed to the hatred and the social ostracism, just as it was the religious leaders in Jesus’ time who enforced and reinforced the social isolation of the first century lepers. 

Jesus touched the leper

I am struck by the fact that Jesus’ first instinctive reaction was not to speak but to touch. His actions communicated more powerfully than words alone could ever do. The natural human reaction to leprosy was revulsion, and undoubtedly the sufferer had frequently experienced revulsion in others. The natural reaction of religious people was also revulsion. Leprosy made an individual ceremonially unclean, and religious people naturally wanted to keep themselves holy and separated from uncleanness in any form. Christ’s touch breached the gulf that both society and religion had erected. It emphasised the common humanity of healer and sufferer, and the false idea of holiness based on externals.

So physical contact is enormously important as a means of communicating our compassion to patients, especially with those who suffer from the social stigma of conditions such as HIV infection. I can remember a label on a traumatised and abandoned child on a paediatric ward which said “I have AIDS. Please cuddle me!”. It is our privilege as Christian health professionals to be the hands of Christ. Others, such as preachers or communicators, may be called to be the lips of Christ, to speak his words, to proclaim the truth in verbal form. Our high calling is to be the means by which Christ’s love is made physical, tangible. We are called to be the physical and practical hands of Christ as he touches and cares for the suffering, the dying and the ostracised.

In contemporary English culture there is a deep anxiety about physical touch, which is constrained by many taboos. We are not used to touching strangers. To touch someone is an infringement of their body space, closely guarded, and it may easily regarded as abusive.  But the amazing privilege of being a health professional is that we are given permission to touch. And as followers of Christ we are called to touch the untouchables. I have discovered in my own clinical practice how powerful a simple and wordless touch can be. It can be a symbolic “laying on of hands”. In the right context, and when used with respect and sensitivity, compassionate touch can communicate more than a thousand words. 

Jesus healed the leper

However profound the symbolism, touch by itself was not enough. Jesus brought physical healing to a physical disease. We do not have the same power to bring an instantaneous cure but we are called to demonstrate practical, physical caring. Although we must be emotionally involved with those who suffer from HIV infection or other socially undesirable conditions, an authentically Christian response must go beyond the emotional to the practical and the physical. Even if no cure is available, we need a down-to-earth and realistic commitment to symptom relief, the minimisation of disability and the preservation of human dignity. Christian caring is never unworldly and purely idealistic. It engages practically at the point of need. 

Jesus took care that the leper was reintegrated into his society

There is a profound lesson for Christian carers in this final aspect of Jesus’ action. Too often we have been preoccupied with providing physical relief and cure without considering the social aspects of disease. Yet the disruption of families, the isolation and the terrible loneliness of diseases like AIDS, are often the greatest source of suffering, greater even than the physical pain or disability. Christian compassion must therefore be concerned with the social and family reintegration of the modern-day victims of leprosy. This will include the provision of social support within the community, work to bring reconciliation within families, and the education of the wider community. Unless we are working to reduce the stigma of socially unacceptable infections, including HIV, our compassion is less than authentically Christian.

Questions for discussion

  1. Jesus was prepared to run the risk of contracting an infection by touching the leper. To what extent should we be prepared to risk our own health in caring for others?
  2. Is it true that religious people have sometimes contributed to the social isolation of HIV sufferers? Why is this? Should HIV or other infections which can be transmitted sexually be seen as the judgement of God on sin?
  3. What other modern diseases can be thought of as analogous to first century leprosy?
  4. Revulsion is a natural human reaction to conditions that are disgusting or offensive. In what situations are we likely to experience this reaction and what steps can we take to overcome it, in order to display the compassion of Christ?

Click here to read the next Bible study, on the healing of a paralysed man (Luke 5:17-26), or find all the studies here.

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