When you ask someone for their favorite bible verse, people will often have widely varying answers. Some especially love the Psalms, some the Gospels, some the prophets, etc. But rarely will someone rattle off a passage from Leviticus. A book of the Law, Leviticus covers the extensive regulations that governed the Israelites and its pages can often seem irrelevant and overly judicial. And the passages on disease can sometimes be… well, gross. Yet it was one of these passages that the Church had has read this past Sunday, the Sunday before the beginning of Lent:
Then the Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying, “When a man has on the skin of his body a swelling or a scab or a bright spot, and it becomes an infection of leprosy on the skin of his body, then he shall be brought to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons the priests. he is a leprous man, he is unclean. The priest shall surely pronounce him unclean; his infection is on his head.
“As for the leper who has the infection, his clothes shall be torn, and the hair of his head shall be uncovered, and he shall cover his mustache and cry, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ He shall remain unclean all the days during which he has the infection; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.
Leviticus 13:1-2, 44-45
You might notice that the reading was verses 1-2 and then 44-45. In between, there is lots of graphic discussion of various kinds of skin diseases. Why is this in Scripture? Because, practically speaking, it was important to the ancient Israelites! Skin diseases are bad! Fun fact: I used to get terrible poison ivy rashes. The first time it happened, I woke up with my eyes swollen and sealed shut with pus. When I finally got my eyes opened, I could only see in shades of green for weeks. Poison ivy isn’t contagious. But other skin diseases are! So, to control their spread, infected people needed to be quarantined. So, literally, a skin disease made you unclean and forced your separation from the community.
For the Israelites, this separation was especially grievous because it meant they couldn’t participate in community worship. Having this skin disease cut the person off from God. So it’s easy to see how the Israelites connected this physical disease with spiritual problems. Of course, we know they were wrong to assume that physical ailments were the result of spiritual missteps. But there IS an analogy here the Church wants us to see.
Our sin is like a skin disease. Not just because it’s gross. Not just because it makes us unclean. But because it forces us to be separate from the community. Sin isolates us. Not necessarily in ways as obvious as leprosy. But still in a very real way.
The Gospel writers never missed this connection between physical cleanliness, spiritual cleanliness, and its effect on the community. When the leper comes to Jesus in this past Sunday’s Gospel, he says, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” Interestingly, he doesn’t ask to be healed. He asks to be made clean. What he desired was not just relief from a terrible disease, he desired to be ritually clean so he could be a part of the community again. And so, just as the law required a leper to go to a priest, this leper goes to Jesus, our High Priest. But, whereas the priest Aaron only had the authority to pronounce someone unclean (effectively banishing him from the community) or clean (bringing him back into the community), Jesus actually has the authority to make clean. His word is not just proclamation, it is power.
Jesus has the power to heal us physically and spiritually. He has the power to restore our right relationship with God and to restore our relationship with each other, with our community.
I often overlook this aspect of sin; as something that hurts the community. It’s easy to think of sin as law-breaking or disobedience. But I forget that my sin also keeps me from sharing in full communion with my family, friends, and community. Fortunately, Christ came to heal and restore that communion. This Lent, I’m going to focus on that aspect of our High Priest.