To Heal the Afflicted

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.

Comments

  1. Beautiful stuff, Brad.

  2. MikeInWeHo says:

    Very interesting. Thanks for this, Brad. I didn’t know that leprosy in the NT actually referred to a broader range of skin problems.

    Your last paragraph makes Jesus sound like the Great Social Worker. “Psychosocial healing” !!! Love that expression.

  3. As a side note, Brad, what is source for viewing Leprosy and psoriasis as undifferentiated before 1912? That seems pretty bizarre to me.

  4. It’s not that they were totally undifferentiated, but rather that they were both considered variants of the disease “leprosy.” It was a linguistic/terminological undifferentiation.

  5. john scherer says:

    This belongs in the Ensign.

    Thank You

  6. Well said Brad

  7. or Dialogue :)

  8. Beautiful, Brad. I love the image of the pure flowing out of Christ and infiltrating the impure with his perfection. Lovely.

  9. Very nice. We read Matthew 7 tongiht as a family and this was my dessert after that feast.

  10. This was beautiful and deeply profound, Brad.

    It reminds me of your Christmas post a few years ago in which you mentioned Christ’s Kingdom of Nobodies.

  11. Brad,

    Thanks for this. I made some similar observations in a Sacrament Meeting talk just yesterday.

    The fact that Jesus Christ can and did heal those who were physically ‘unclean’, estranged from society, and in need of physical relief should give hope to all of us who are spiritually unclean, estranged from our Heavenly home, and in need of spiritual relief.

  12. Well thought, well said, Brad.

  13. Brilliant stuff Brad, but I don’t think people are getting how radically subversive this piece is. Our whole culture is bound up in the idea that we get cleaned up before we approach God. Are you suggesting that Jesus might come to us while we are yet unclean? That He still might touch us even if we are covered with festering sores?

  14. StillConfused says:

    Oh man, I have a terrible case of itchiness and scaliness around my ears right now. Maybe I have ear leprosy

  15. Thomas Parkin says:

    “That He still might touch us even if we are covered with festering sores?”

    Aye-yup. We concentrate on becoming less sinful in order to enjoy more of the companionship of the Holy Spirit. Yet, we don’t become less sinful without the Holy Spirit which sanctifies us. This puts people with sin (everyone) in quite a spot. Hence the spiritual stasis of so many Mormons. We don’t come to Christ and trust in His healing power; we spin our tires in guilt-loops.

  16. Well done, Brad. It’s probably worth mentioning that Jean Dominic Crossan writes on this subject.

  17. Yes, blt. As is often the case, Crossan’s analysis was part of my inspiration for this post. I should probably also mention Fernando Belo.

  18. Lovely and powerful. SteveP, reminds me of, “Jesus sought me when a stranger, wand’ring from the fold of God.”

  19. I agree with SteveP’s comment about how subversive this post is. Recently I have been reading a Catholic theologian named James Alison (who I hope to use for some future posts). His central idea is an attempt to help us re-think the coming of God’s kingdom as something which inclusively reaches beyond bounds of the sacred (which are often formed through mendacity rather revelation) and situates the impure within the same story that we (the pure) are enacting.

    Wonderful stuff, Brad. Where might I go to read Crossan on this topic?

  20. Absolutely lovely. This is the sort of thing my husband loves to bring up for FHE. (One of the nice things about not having kids yet is being able to spend a whole night on the tricky subjects when the mood takes us! …and without recourse to the ubiquitous Nursery lesson felt boards!) I’d love to find any sources on the subject that you drew from, Brad.

    It really reminds me of the finer point of the shepherd going out in search of the 1 lost sheep, a bit like Cynthia said. He doesn’t wait for the sheep to get closer to the fold – it’s lost! He goes out looking for the sheep (who is also looking for Him…at least in this analogy) and *then* brings it back. Nowhere nearly as eloquent, but I still had to say it. Thanks for that post!

  21. This reminds me of the oft-repeated observation in the psychiatric literature that schizophrenia is much less morbid/disabling in the developing world where kinship networks are intact and attitudes toward work and disability differ than in the industrialized West. Nabokov has written beautifully about psoriasis as well.

  22. Wow, Brad. Between this and Karen’s post today I have been thoroughly fed. These are beautiful thoughts to consider in my relationships with others as well as the Savior. Thank you.

  23. Brad, I’m very excited about this post for a number of reasons. Most of all, this point about Jesus healing in the psychosocial sense (in addition to curing diseases) really resonates with me and is very intuitive. When the woman touches him and is cleansed/healed, for example, this is because he did not show revulsion that she should approach him or mix with the crowd of people despite being considered “unclean” according to the purity code then in effect among the people. When it speaks of virtue flowing out of him and into her/healing her, this can very much be understood on a socio-cultural level of erasing that stigma.

    This point can actually dovetail nicely into some of the things that Margaret Barker is writing in searching for the Melchizedek Priesthood in the Old Testament. If the Melchizedek Priesthood was essentially written out of the Old Testament by the priestly scribes seeking to bolster their authority in the temple, and if elements of this purity code stem from that effort, then Jesus’ acts of healing as recorded in the New Testament, many of which exhibit this psychosocial healing of which you have written, can be understood to explicitly overturn aspects of the purity code that were perhaps not quite right to begin with and to set the social order straight again at the same time that he brings the Melchizedek Priesthood back into view.

  24. Another lovely thing this points to, Brad, is that Christ’s healing heals the community, not just the individual who seems to be sick at the moment. There’s that beautiful moment in “A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief,” where, after supplying wine, oil, and refreshment to the beaten wayfarer, the narrator confesses, “I had myself a wound concealed, but from that hour forgot the smart, and peace bound up my broken heart.” Most of us carry around wounds and sins, sometimes for so long we forget they’re there and need healing–in asking, teaching the crowd to welcome the sick, Jesus opens that space of wholeness and help to everyone, even ones who are too ashamed to reveal their own sickness.

  25. Aaron R.
    Check Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography.

    Kristine,
    Great point. It reminds me of this idea of Gandhi’s:
    “Our aim is not merely to arouse the best in the Englishman but to do so whilst we are prosecuting our cause. If we cease to pursue our course, we do not evoke the best in him. The best must not be confounded with good temper. When we are dealing with any evil, we may have to ruffle the evil-doer. We have to run the risk, if we are to bring the best out of him. I have likened nonviolence to aseptic and violence to antiseptic treatment. Both are intended to ward off the evil, and therefore cause a kind of disturbance which is often inevitable. The first never harms the evil-doer.”

  26. I agree with Kristin and with what seems to be the over all message in Brad’s post–though there is a lot to think about in Brad’s post. Helping people, in the right way, is contagious. This makes sense to me. For (1) any individual shouldn’t be responsible for all the world’s problems, nor can any individual solve all of the world’s problems by his or her self. For (2) Nothing is more irritating than being helped by somebody who just wants to score personal karma points rather than learn something directly related to my problem, and thereby, possibly help themselves and others. (To be fair, such help may keep me alive, but, in my opinion, it will not cure or heal the root of my problem.)

    It is no small thing to alleviate illness in one’s self, community or the world at large. The more people who honestly want to help, the better.

    A.B.

  27. I would contend that Christ healed people based on their faith. I appreciate your description of the social challenges that constituted a firm aspect of their disease or illnesses. They had to transcend the social morays of the day to even seek the healing from Him. He was certainly above that fray. I am sure as you indicate it was a major soul cramp for those of limited faith to get over the ideas their societies promoted. We have so many of those in our time as well. One of which you described when you said, “Diseases are treated and eradicated by physicians.” They really only manage symptoms and at times alter physiological expression. I believe belief system we have developed has become as much a psycho-social element of our suffering today as leprosy was in the days gone by.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 9,831 other followers