I am silvery, scaly. Puddles of flakes form wherever I rest my flesh. Each morning, I vacuum my bed. My torture is skin deep; there is no pain, not even itching. We lepers live a long time, and are ironically healthy in other respects. Lusty, though we are loathsome to love. Keen-sighted, though we hate to look upon ourselves. The name of the disease, spiritually speaking, is ‘Humiliation.’
—John Updike, “From the Journal of a Leper”
Generally speaking, the miracles of Jesus’ ministry fall in to four categories: healings, exorcisms, nature miracles, and post-resurrection appearances. This post will focus primarily on healings, and take Jesus’ healing of lepers as paradigmatic of this important aspect of His earthly ministry.
First, a brief lesson in linguistic change and medical terminology. The term which our English NT translates as “leprosy” did not denote, in first century Palestine, the set of physical, dermatological symptoms we now refer to with the term. Leprosy and psoriasis were not distinguished medically in Europe and America until 1912. Before that, both fell under the semantic rubric of “leprosy.” The incidence rate for leprosy is roughly 1/200,000, while for psoriasis it’s more like 1/50. Biblical “leprosy” denoted not only leprosy and psoriasis, but virtually any chronic ailment which resulted in sores on the skin, including eczema and serious acne. This explains both the otherwise strange prevalence of leprosy in the Gospels as well as the psychosocial elements entailed by the disease.
In the case of psoriasis, the psychosocial elements are acknowledged in both its diagnosis and treatment. Among its causes are both genetic and emotional-/stress-related triggers. Often, embarrassment is cited by those who suffer as its most painful consequence. They describe a constant expectation of rejection; feeling flawed or unlovable; guilt and shame; depression and anxiety; secretiveness. Stress, depression, anxiety, etc., both causes and consequences—a devastating, self-reinforcing cycle that makes an otherwise fairly harmless, if inconvenient, ailment into a source of powerful emotional suffering. In his memoir, cited in the epigraph, Updike writes: “psoriasis compels narcissism, if we suppose a Narcissus who did not like what he saw. An over valuation of the normal went with my ailment, a certain idealization of everyone who was not, as I felt myself to be, a monster.” Today the disease is not just treated medically but psychologically—group therapy, support groups, hypnosis, relaxation, meditation.
The Jewish peasantry of turn-of-the-Era Palestine was beset by malnutrition and exploitation, the constant, unremitting stress of life as an overworked class amidst a defeated, subjugated, repressed people. It was among such that Jesus exercised His power to heal.
Another distinction: disease is not the same as illness, and curing is not the same as healing. Patients suffer illnesses; doctors diagnose and treat diseases. Treatment for illness has been around for far longer than modern medicine or germ theory. Disease refers to a malfunctioning of biological or psychological processes; illness refers to the psychosocial experience and cultural meaning associated with the disease. Diseases are treated and eradicated by physicians. People are liberated through the healing of illness.
The Gospels never speak of merely curing anything, but rather of healing. Of course Jesus had the power to cure. But healing means far more (not less) than merely relieving sores or lesions. To make physical contact with a leper was not only to risk acquiring the disease but to violate the powerful social and ritual norms, rooted in the Levitical law, that kept the clean from the unclean, the pure from the impure. By touching a leper (Mark 1:40-44) Jesus not only cured a disease by intervening in the physical/biological world but, more significantly, healed an affliction by intervening in the social world. With one gesture He unburdened the poor man from the stigma of his condition by refusing to accept the disease’s ritual uncleanness and enforced social ostracization. He thereby forced His growing community of disciples to choose: abandon their discipleship or fellowship the leper within their ranks. Jesus acts as an alternative boundary keeper by subverting the traditional procedures of society and establishing a new social order based upon equality, acceptance, and fellowship of even the most shunned and outcast. He heals by refusing to accept traditional and official sanctions against diseased persons and, in this case, finishes by sending the healed man to the temple “as a testimony to them,” in the confrontational sense: “as a witness against them.”
This flagrant violation of the Levitical purity code was a common pattern in Jesus’ ministry as a healer. Take, for example, the story of the hemorrhaging woman (Mark 7:24-30). If the female readers, living in a society with relatively little stigma placed on menstruation, can imagine what it might have been like to live in a social world where a menstruating woman was universally viewed as unclean, where she was expected to keep herself separate from contact with the socially undefiled, where women internalized such logic and viewed themselves as corrupted by their condition, as unclean and repulsive. Now imagine that you live in such a world, and have been in, basically, a state of perpetual menstruation for more than a decade. Can you imagine the self-objectification, and self-loathing, the neverending sense of one’s own social displacement, one’s disgusting, reviled position? The unclean woman self-consciously violates the laws regarding social purity by pressing into the crowd (an act which Jesus describes as great faith), in order to access the healing power of Jesus’ body. She achieves this goal (remember, the logic of the purity code extends the status of the body to the clothing), touching His raiment, and the virtue goes out of Him and into her.
This story illustrates with explicit clarity the subversive character of Jesus’ healing. Here, as in all other healing encounters (where Jesus comes in contact with not only lepers and bleeding women but corpses), we see a perfect inversion of the logic which underlies the whole of the purity code and its boundary making rules: that of contagion. The regulations governing social and ritual purity and cleanliness are designed to protect the pure and clean from the contaminating power of the unclean and impure. Jesus’ actions both violate and subvert the rules and their underlying logic. Instead of His becoming impure through contact with the unclean, the contagion flows in the opposite direction. His cleanliness, as it were, infects them. Virtue goes out of His clean body and takes over the impurity that ostensibly defines hers. Every time He transgresses the boundaries which separate the pure from the impure, the contaminating influence flows outwardly from His body and cleanses/purifies others. The code is nullified because the principles upon which it is based are shown to be vacuous and false.
There is much, much more to be said about the miracles Jesus performed during His mortal life. For now, let us remember that the healing miracles are about more than the ability to medically cure. They are about psychosocial healing, about breaking down social barriers, about creating a community of the formerly dispossessed, about service and fellowship, about the personal intimacy of human affection and acceptance. They show us the full measure of the nature and power of faith in our lives as individuals, as families, as a community, and as a Kingdom.