Two thousand years ago leprosy was the MOST dreaded of all diseases. The skin often lost feeling, but other times, it could be extremely painful. Rashes and sores, particularly around the face, nose, hands, elbows, knees, buttocks and feet were common. The disease often attacked the sinuses causing difficulty breathing, and as it advanced, could collapse sinus cavities, and even the nose itself.
The lymph nodes, particularly under the arms and reproductive organs, became swollen and painful. Males often experienced physical distortion of breast enlargement due to swelling. In some places the skin was dry and brittle, while open, oozing sores would be in other areas. A simple scratch could lead to a severe, lifetime wound. The joints of the fingers, elbows and knees were often open and fingers could literally fall off. It was horrible!
As the disease progressed, severe pain, extreme muscle weakness, respiratory complications, and blindness set in. Death, usually from secondary medical issues, was the final verdict, yet it was almost always welcomed by the suffering person.
Today a multi-drug treatment can cure leprosy in 6 to 12 months, but then, there was no cure, no treatment, no hope.
A leper was immediately kicked out of his community and forced to live alone or in a leper colony. Lepers were required to yell, “Unclean, unclean”, any time they saw a “healthy” person.
Just the words struck fear deep in the heart of a healthy person, so much so that even a healthy person who developed a skin rash, psoriasis, eczema, even athlete’s foot, may be banished from the community. From then on, he too must cry out “unclean”.
Chronic laryngitis, another common symptom, made it difficult to speak, so to call out “unclean” was, in and of itself, exhausting and painful. Internally, however, it had to be just as painful. Unclean meant desperation, loneliness, hopelessness, abandonment. The word meant being shunned, avoided, feared, hated. They were social outcasts, the walking dead, considered forever lost to family and friends the day they were banished.
I wonder if as horrible and painful as the disease was, if the social rejection, isolation and loneliness wasn’t the most difficult of all pains? A leper’s only friends were other lepers; the sick helping the sick; the hurting helping the hurting.
On the other hand, there is a list of more, many more, who are lepers in today’s society.
Chances are we saw a number of lepers today, but just didn’t think about it…..the homeless — drug addicts — alcohol dependent — the broken hearted — nursing home residents — mentally challenged — lonely people — those caught in the slavery of human trafficking — inmates in jails — restaurants where people eat alone — parks where someone sits alone staring off in the distance — the widow who puts items back at the grocery because she can’t afford it, even with her coupons.
There are lepers who are children playing in the street because no one really cares — the stringy haired teenage girl with braces who feels ugly — the insecure teenage guy who is horribly cruel because he has been so deeply hurt himself — the anxious person whose best is never good enough — the man who hangs his head outside the homeless shelter because of life’s mistakes.
There are lepers who stand at the bridge wondering what it would be like to jump and end it all — the child who’s being physically, emotionally or sexually abused and is afraid to tell thinking it’s their fault — the soldier who hates to fall asleep because he dreams of what he has seen — the person who is falsely accused — the person who suffers because of his or her faith and no one seems to care — the obese person who never leaves the house because of their weight and only finds comfort in food — the anorexic who starves because of a distorted self concept — the desperate man who gambles his last dollar thinking it’s his only chance out of financial ruin.
The list goes on and on, with a thousand different turns, a thousand different twists. Lepers. All of them, lepers.
That’s who Jesus loves in the deepest of ways. That’s who Jesus came to save, the lepers of the heart.
May God bless and care for the lepers. And, may God have mercy on anyone who thinks he is too strong, too good, too healthy to be a leper, for truly, we are ALL lepers on the inside. So thus, to You Great Physician, the Holy God in heaven, I raise my hands and call out, “Unclean, unclean”.