Lepers And Social Distancing

A curious thought occurred to me recently with regard to how we talk about lepers in the bible, and especially in the new testament. It’s fairly common to hear about how lepers were feared, had to stay outside of society, etc. and this is often connected to people in modern times who are on the outskirts of our society. Jesus was not afraid of lepers, and so we should not be afraid of those on the outskirts of society, either. (That this means that, among others, we should love neo-nazis and KKK members and the like is rarely mentioned, though, nor is the fact that love does not always look like acceptance, as it would not in those cases.)

What this modern approach seems to miss is that ancient people avoided lepers because lepers had a communicable disease. They weren’t outcasts because they looked different, or had a different culture, or pronounced words in a strange way; they were outcasts because being too close to them might cause one to catch a serious disease. That is, people practiced social distancing from lepers.

In these modern times of COVID-19, we have an exceedingly similar practice with people who have COVID-19, though with our modern understanding of diseases and the conditions of transmissibility, we do admit some exceptions who are wearing a great deal of anti-germ-armor (“PPE”). Medical personal in body suits with respirators aside, people with COVID-19 are outcasts, except we phrase it, “they should self-quarantine”. If someone with COVID-19 comes to a hospital, we expect them to call ahead to warn the staff, and to come through a different entrance, which is a slightly more technologically advanced version of clapping a bowl and calling out “unclean!”

If Christ were conducting his earthly ministry today, there would undoubtedly be COVID-19 patients who came within six feet of him hoping to be cured, and instead of lecturing them to maintain social distancing, he would, undoubtedly, cure them. But he would not come within six feet of someone with COVID-19 because he doesn’t recognize human prejudices and is not afraid of human superstitions—disease is not a human superstition and people with a communicable disease can actually spread it. He would come within six feet of people with COVID-19 because, as Lord of the world, he is Lord of diseases, too. As the one through whom all things were made and nothing was made apart from him, COVID-19 could not hurt him. The one who can make the blind see and the lame walk and clense lepers cannot be harmed by disease, unless he were to choose to permit it.

In short, Jesus did not care about social distancing with lepers because his miraculous power made him immune to communicable diseases. The closest parallel I can think of was when he angered a crowd who brought him to the top of a cliff to throw him off, but it was not his time, so he just walked away from them. This was a demonstration of Christ’s power, not an instruction that Christians should treat angry mobs as if they aren’t dangerous. In like way, Christ was not afraid of lepers because he could cure them, not because communicable diseases are, to use another modern phrase, fake news.

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