Jesus and the New Leprosy – A Christmas Meditation


And in despair I bowed my head: "there is no peace on earth", I said, "for hate is strong, and mocks the song, of peace on earth, good will to men"

The cold-blooded murder of two New York Police Department (NYPD) police officers yesterday in Brooklyn, NY just a few days before Christmas as they were sitting inside their squad car having lunch, pushed me to the keyboard today to write this article to express in large part a deep sadness in my heart. For this to happen while the country is still reeling from the recent police-related killings in Ferguson, MO., Staten Island, NY, of unarmed black men, and the protests that grew out of it until now, seems to me that our society is in the grip of a resurgence of great fear, hatred and violence. Our 24/7 broadcast media has brought front and center in recent weeks the violence and woundedness that continue to infect our society and the world.

At the Christmas Sunday worship this morning at my home church, the Chesterfield Baptist Church, I was reminded that the birth of Jesus dawned also in a setting that was in the grip of fear, hatred and violence. Rome was the imperial power in the world of Jesus’ birth, wielding absolute and tyrannical power over its subjects, and whose violent impulses used slaves (including Hebrews) as entertainment in brutal blood sports. Joseph and Mary themselves were in hiding, escapees from a genocidal governor. The Good News, the euangelion, entered a world also full of bad news and ugliness.

As I have been trying to struggle with the ugliness that still remains in the world, the story of Jesus’ healing of the leper in Matthew 8: 1-4 has caught my attention in a fresh way. Upon closer scrutiny, it is easy to see that the Bible speaks a lot about leprosy. The Old Testament mentions it over 50 times, and the New Testament mentions it at least a dozen times. Leprosy has terrified humanity since ancient times. The disease leaves the infected person severely deformed and unsightly. Thought in broader terms than the Hansen’s Disease that we know today, leprosy, being untreatable by human standards during that time, became the symbol of everything that was ugly, to be understood as punishment of sin and its destructive spread. This distorted understanding led to people being shunned, stigmatized, and driven out from or marginalized in their own communities and from the very homes in which they lived. The sight of a leper during those times was enough to cause hysteria. But, alas, that same response still exists to this day.

Hysteria over disease is not new. History shows that responses to epidemics often lack rational or scientific bases. The Ebola epidemic in West Africa that caused a few US health workers to come home with the disease is another case in point. It caused hysteria and fear. And where there is fear, people are demonized, stigmatized, shunned and ostracized. Panic and fear of contagion led, in 1894, to the establishment of a “home” for the humane care of leprosy patients in Louisiana. With leprosy, we ended up with laws that not only isolated the ill but stigmatized them and their families. Fear brings to the surface the many dark sides of our human condition. It breeds many horrific offspring - hate, bigotry, prejudice, narcissism and the will to power. Fear leads a people to enslave another. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, our country - gripped by fear - arrested all Japanese Americans and sent them to internment camps. They were Americans, and many of them were pillars of our Asian American Baptist community. The fear of the different led Hitler to unleash the greatest genocide of modern history - the Shoah, the methodical murder of 6 million Jews from 1941-45.

The Advent waiting for Christians ends in the lighting of the Christ candle on Christmas Eve. And in a few days all that waiting will be consummated, as we celebrate the birth of Jesus, the Christ child. What is the voice of the church? Where is it? The real ugliness in the world is fear. Fear is the mother of hate, and hate has many offspring - slavery, avarice, genocide, bigotry, violence. Jesus touched the untouchable, the leper, he touched leprosy, and doing so he made leprosy beautiful and pronounced that the real ugliness in the world is not leprosy but fear - fear that is borne out of its blindness to God’s love.

The first words of the gospel is the announcement of the angels, “Fear not!” In one way, the words acknowledge the presence and reign of fear in the world. In another, it is an audacious rebuke and subjugation of its illusory power. Fear cannot drown out the words of the Prince of Peace. They are the very words the world needs. As for us, we are called to be makers of shalom, makers of peace. We are to be proclaimers and embodied ambassadors of Christ's love - the sacrificial love that came not to condemn the world, but to save it; the sacrificial love that cannot but express itself in the righting of wrongs; the sacrificial love that continues to call each one of us to participate in, and physically commit to, the ongoing work of love of the Holy Spirit in the world.

A Christmas prayer: Lord, we see your tears as you gaze at our brokenness. Lead us to gaze back to your tears, that we may be led into your compassion.

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: "God is not dead, nor doth he sleep; the wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, good will to men

– Henry Wadsworth Longfellow