- Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7 & Psalm 66:1-12
- 2 Timothy 2:8-15
- Luke 17:11-19
First Reading: xxx
Second Reading: xxx
Gospel: Jesus and the lepers
In the NT Gospels we have two stories about Jesus healing people suffering from some kind of feared skin disease, commonly called leprosy (but more likely Hansen's Disease). Mark 1:40-45 (and its parallels in Matthew 8 and Luke 5) tell of a single person being healed by Jesus. In Luke 17 we have another story, not preserved in either Mark or Matthew, about Jesus healing a group of ten persons.
As it happens, a fragmentary Christian text (Papyrus Egerton 2) with a mere 87 lines of text surviving on three pieces of papyrus provides a possible additional witness to the history of this tradition. This is the second oldest surviving Christian document, being dated on paleographical grounds to the first half of the second century. Only the John Rylands fragment (p52) with its precious snippet of John's Gospel is likely to be older than this document.
Helmut Koester and John Dominic Crossan have argued that GEger is not dependent on the NT Gospels. If so, then it would provide independent attestation for at least a few of the stories now known to us from the NT Gospels. It may also give us some insight into the way that the miracle tradition developed between the time of Jesus and the writing of the Gospels.
The introduction to GEger in The Complete Gospels outlines the issues:
On the one hand, some scholars have maintained that Egerton's unknown author composed by borrowing from the canonical gospels. This solution has not proved satisfactory for several reasons: The Egerton Gospel's parallels to the synoptic gospels lack editorial language peculiar to the synoptic authors, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. They also lack features that are common to the synoptic gospels, a difficult fact to explain if those gospels were Egerton's source. The Egerton Gospel does have very close parallels to John, but because Egerton's versions of these parallels show less development than John's, Egerton may preserve earlier forms of the tradition.
On the other hand, suggestions that the Egerton Gospel served as a souce for the authors of Mark and/or John also lack conclusive evidence. The most likely explanation for the Egerton Gospel's similarities and differences from the canonical gospels is that Egerton's author made independent use of traditional sayings and stories of Jesus that also were used by the other gospel writers.
The various stories of Jesus healing lepers may be listed as follows:
Crossan [Historical Jesus, 322] notes the significance of the unusual formulation of the request for a healing: “if you will/I will ...”
It seems to underline a striking ambiguity between "declared clean" and "made (healed) clean." This sets Jesus' power and authority on a par with, or even above that of the Temple itself. It is not just a simple request for and granting of a cure. Jesus can, if he wants, both cure and declare cured. Although the story of Jesus healing a leper seems to affirm the authority and power of Jesus to heal and declare clean, there is also the detail that has Jesus instructing the healed leper(s) to go and seek certification from the traditional priestly authorities.
Jesus, accordingly, is carefully obedient to the purity regulations on leprosy, as in Deuteronomy 24:8-9. Those two points [Jesus as authoritative healer and Jesus seeking certification of the healing by the priest] must derive from the common source available to the Egerton Gospel as well as to Mark, but they seem in flat contradiction with one another. How is that to be explained? Crossan then outlines a four-step process as the tradition develooped from an original story (that did not include the referral to the priests) came under two very different influences:
The common source version had already reversed and rectified the image of Jesus as an alternative to or negation of Mosaic purity regulations by that terminally appended injunction to legal fidelity. The twin texts now available to us move that common source in opposite directions. The Egerton Gospel continues and intensifies the vision of Jesus as law-observant teacher. The leper's opening autobiographical admission shows him as one either ignorant of or disobedient to legal purity regulations. And Jesus’ final admonition, "sin no more," a phrase found also in John 5:14 and 8:11, indicate that Jesus does not agree with such "sinning." Mark, on the other hand, continues and intensifies the thrust of the original story over and against that of the common source. He has the leper deeply reverential to Jesus, has Jesus actually touch the leper, and qualifies the fulfillment of the purity regulations with the confrontational challenge "as a witness (against) them," namely, the priests. Do it, in other words, to show them who I am and what I can do. For Mark, then, Jesus is precisely not a law-observant Jew.
Leprosy and the purity code
The book of Leviticus devotes two chapters to the diagnosis and control of such skin diseases: see chs 13-14. The aim was not to cure the disease, but to control its possible dissemination within the community:
Leviticus 13:2-17 /2/ When a person has on the skin of his body a swelling or an eruption or a spot, and it turns into a leprous disease on the skin of his body, he shall be brought to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons the priests. /3/ The priest shall examine the disease on the skin of his body, and if it is a leprous disease; after the priest has examined him he shall pronounce him ceremonially unclean. ... /17/ the priest shall examine him, and if the disease has turned white, the priest shall pronounce the diseased person clean. He is clean. Deuteronomy. 24:8-9 /8/ Guard against an outbreak of a leprous skin disease by being very careful; you shall carefully observe whatever the levitical priests instruct you, just as I have commanded them. /9/ Remember what the LORD your God did to Miriam on your journey out of Egypt. See also Numbers 12:1-15 (Miriam's leprosy) The victim of such a public health policy was the person with the skin disease, as they were excluded from the community and banned from any contact with their family. Interestingly, in this miracle story the leper does not ask to be healed, but to be made clean!
Jesus, and the Compassionate Holiness of God
The fact that Jesus was remembered as "healing lepers" is significant for our knowledge of his historical focus on the poor and the marginalized.
Marcus Borg cites the healing of a leper as an example of Jesus’ radical view of holiness as a contagious and transforming power, rather than as a static condition requiring protection from pollution:
In the healing of the leper in Mark 1:40-45, Mark reports that Jesus "stretched out his hand and touched him and said, 'Be clean.'" Leprosy excluded one from human community because it rendered one unclean and everything touched by a leper became unclean. For Jesus to touch a leper ought to have involved defilement, just as in touching a corpse. Yet the narrative reverses this: it was not Jesus who was made unclean by touching the leper. Rather, the leper was made clean. The viewpoint of the Jesus movement in Palestine is clear: holiness was understood to overpower uncleanness rather than the converse. (Conflict, Holiness and Politics in the Teachings of Jesus,1998:147f) As the story goes, the "leper" seems already to know about Jesus' reputation for compassion, since the man approaches Jesus and kneels down to implore his intervention. In return, Jesus touches the leper. Another barrier falls.
Jesus, Francis and the lepers
Franciscan communities around the world celebrate the feast day of St Francis of Assisi (October 4), and Proper 28C sometimes coincides with those observances.
One of the turning points in the journey of St Francis seems to have been an encounter with a leper; just as much an outcast in 12C (Christian) Italy as in 1C Palestine.
St Francis meets the Leper A Meditation on Francis and the Leper
There is also a suggestion that Francis himself may have contracted tuberculoid leprosy, and that this may be the explanation for the stigmata (or signs of Christ's Passion) that appeared on his body:
Poem about St Francis as a Leper
- 110 A Leper Cured - (1) Eger. Gos. 2b [35-47]; (2a) Mark 1:40-45 = Matt 8:1-4 = Luke 5:12-16; (2b) Luke 17:11-19
Liturgies and Prayers
For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt's web site
Other recommended sites include:
- God of Day and God of Darkness - GA541
- Ubi Caritas - GA324
- Lord of Creation - GA423
- Now thank we all our God - GA425
See David MacGregor's Together to Celebrate site for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre.