“Anyone with such a defiling disease must wear torn clothes, let their hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of their face and cry out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ As long as they have the disease they remain unclean. They must live alone; they must live outside the camp.”Leviticus 13:45-46
The Law of Moses laid down ground rules for what it meant to be clean or unclean, or in other words, pure and worthy to be in God’s presence, or impure, an outcast, a sinner. This shame/honor culture affected everything from relationships, to food and ceremonial washing, and places such as the temple or the wilderness.
This would have been a very harsh environment for anyone living with a disease or illness. Just as lambs sacrificed to God had to be without blemish, so too, people with any sort of defect could not freely interact with the community or enter into God’s presence. Not only did these people suffer with their illness or disease, but they also had to dress and act in such a way so as to warn everyone about them that they were unclean—impure—shamed. It would have been impossible for them to pretend that there was nothing wrong; it was evident to everyone who saw them.
Their sickness did not only affect them physically then, but also in a deeply emotional and spiritual way. They had to isolate themselves from the community, and a suffering person’s own family would even keep their distance. Tied to this was the deep belief that this person’s illness was brought on because of their own sin. They had no hope of entering into the temple to worship God. The rejection was real.
The reason the ill had to isolate themselves was so that the rest of the community could remain pure. If a diseased person were to accidentally touch an unaffected person, that person would become unclean as well. That’s how powerful the idea of uncleanliness was—it contaminated.
Today people suffer from different types of isolating illnesses: depression, anxiety, the effects of childhood trauma and abuse, and other mental illnesses and behaviors. They feel deeply alone, rejected and misunderstood. Just as in biblical times, the belief still continues that they are suffering because of their own sin, or because they don’t love God enough, or because they aren’t trying hard enough. It’s difficult, if not impossible, for someone struggling in this way to fully integrate into society; to feel the closeness of Jesus. The feelings of shame and self-blame are deeply interconnected with these symptoms. One feels impure, unworthy, an outcast.
“While Jesus was in one of the towns, a man came along who was covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he fell 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.” Luke 5:12-13Luke 5:12-13
Jesus came to offer hope. Throughout the Gospels we see Jesus accepting all who come to him. We see him reaching out and touching the sick, the demon-possessed, the afflicted. Instead of the disease making Jesus unclean, his purity made them clean, pure, whole again! Their uncleanliness was nothing compared to Jesus’ power to heal and restore.
This was not only a physical healing, but an emotional and spiritual one as well. The suffering person was seen by Jesus, was touched by Jesus, was known by Jesus. He healed the sick so that they might be reunited with their families and community. He healed them so that they might have communion with God once again. Jesus honored them and completely removed their shame; he restored their dignity.
Jesus does the same for us today. He sees your pain, your tears, your wounds. He does not discredit your experience or blame you for what has happened to you. Jesus says to you, “I see it all. I am just as sad and angry about these things as you are. I want to make you well, to make you completely whole.”
Emotional healing is rarely immediate. It requires a lot of work. But the first step is to recognize: “I am not well and I need help.” The leper had nothing to lose, so he risked coming into town to come face to face with Jesus to ask for his help. He risked being seen, but by doing so, he was fully known, accepted, and healed by Jesus. What do you need to do, and what do you need from others?