By Father Brian Morris
Q: I can’t square in my head that God would tell Moses to have lepers go around and yell about how they are unclean and had to live away from everyone else. Do you think Jesus would have said the same thing? I struggle with the Old Testament sometimes.
Before I begin, I must apologize for my last column. A number of people came up to me saying that it was a bit too technical and confusing. As I mentioned, I was staying in Rome when I wrote it. Being surrounded by so many canon lawyers must have affected my writing style!
This question was asked of me by someone very special in my life and I thought I’d share it with all of you. And for the answer I consulted many different young priests of the diocese. So, I cannot take complete credit for everything I’ve written. There are in fact a few different avenues for answering this question. The first is the usual: “If God did it, then it must be the best course of action, even if we don’t think so.” This answer, which really could be thrown carte blanche at all theological questions, is not a bad one, for it causes us to humbly recognize a very important truth. But at the same time, God gave us an intellect so that we could attempt to understand His actions in history and the message that they reveal. It is never wrong for us to ask questions of our faith, as long as those questions are rooted in a desire for greater love and knowledge of God.
When reading the Old Testament, we must always remember the context in which it was written. We must remember that this is God revealing Himself through Moses and the Prophets not to people of the 21st century who are the beneficiaries of thousands of years of philosophical and scientific wisdom. Rather, He is revealing Himself patiently and slowly over the course of many years of Jewish history. Now that is not to say that the ancient Jews were foolish in their ways either. However, when we look particularly at Moses’ teaching on leprosy, we must remember that leprosy was seen as a highly contagious disease that could destroy a community. So, it would appear to be only reasonable for the Jewish people, as did most other nations at that time, to separate infected people from the greater community. After all, we still do it today when we quarantine people with seriously infectious diseases. The ancient Jews didn’t have air-sealed rooms or even rubber gloves and masks to protect themselves from a disease that they didn’t even know how it spread. Hence, they did the best that they could by physically separating lepers from the community.
In the case of Jesus, He adopts a medically radical position when it comes to lepers. He can do this because He is God. He not only has protection from the disease of leprosy, He has the power to heal leprosy. But, notice, He does not command all his followers to go around touching lepers. Some, like Francis of Assisi and Damien of Molokai, will feel a special calling to be present to the lepers in a heroic way. But in general Jesus does not expect His followers to adopt a reckless, unhygienic approach towards illness. Rather, He calls us to love those who are sick, which includes doing everything in our power, with the tools of science and medicine at our hands, to care for them.
Leprosy exists, as all diseases, as a result of Original Sin. There was seen in the Old Testament a connection between physical illness and sin. As the psalmist writes, “When I kept silent about my sin, my body wasted away…” Leprosy happens to be a disease that was very public and difficult, if not impossible, to hide. Therefore, lepers were seen as people being justly and deservedly punished for sin. And we also must remember that there is always a theological dimension to things written in the Bible. The person separated out of the community was not only cut off from normal, social contact, but was also cut off from the sanctuary, from proper worship of God. So, the theological point behind this is that sin separates us from our ability to worship God.
Finally, we must remember that the key to the fulfilled revelation of the New Testament is Jesus’ extraordinary exercise of mercy. Had the Old Testament preached the kind of mercy and forgiveness and love for the poor and sick that we take for granted today, Jesus would not have been very challenging to the people of Israel. His position of reaching out to a leper would not have been seen as radical. We have to remember that God has a plan throughout human history. You might think it is unfair for a leper who had to live in the “unmerciful times” of the Old Testament as opposed to the leper that Jesus healed. But it is also unfair that God heals some people today and not others. Jesus didn’t heal people simply to entertain the crowd or even for the betterment of a single person’s situation. His miracles were to draw us to a deeper reality; to show us that He is God and He has the power to save us. So, the deepest answer is that God gave Moses a teaching on leprosy which seems harsh so that Jesus could heal lepers and reveal to us why He heals. He heals the lepers so that they can return to the community of the Jewish nation just as He heals us all from sin so that we can return to communion with God.
“Ask the Newly Ordained” features Fathers Brian Morris, Joseph Brice and Stephen Battey — who respond to questions about the faith from Rhode Island Catholic readers. Have a question? Ask the Newly Ordained! Readers may submit questions by sending them to Editor@thericatholic.com.