Crossing the Boundary
Sixth Sunday of the Year. Fr Bruno Clifton finds profound meaning in leprosy.
As you all know from your close reading of the book of Leviticus, there are three things that can get leprosy: people, tents and clothing. This is because they all have skin, and indeed, the word often translated as leprosy actually covers skin diseases and blemishes in general: ‘a swelling or scab or shiny spot’ (Lev 13:1).
The integrity or wholeness of skin is important for Israel not just for hygiene and health but for ritual cleanliness and if we look further into the Law we can see why. For Israel’s law classifies and separates things:
‘You shall keep my statutes. You shall not let your animals breed with a different kind; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed; nor shall you put on a garment made of two different materials’ (Lev 19:19).
The categories of creation are better left ‘according to their kind’ (see Gen 1:11-12, 21, 24-25; 6:20; 7:14), and skin forms a boundary that keeps things appropriately separate. Healthy skin reflects boundaries that maintain their integrity and conversely, a compromised, blemished skin risks seepage, a blending of categories and the dilution of purity.
At the root of the idea that spiritual cleanliness is promoted by keeping creation’s kinds separate is Israel’s respect for perhaps the greatest separation of all, that between the divine and the created, the holy and the profane. To understand this concern, we can look at the scene when the Law is given to Moses. From Mount Sinai, God invites the people to approach the holy mountain to hear his voice. And yet:
‘…you shall set bounds for the people round about, saying, “Take heed that you do not go up into the mountain or touch the border of it; whoever touches the mountain shall be put to death”’ (Exod 19:12).
The clear distinction between God’s holiness and the people must be maintained, ‘lest he break out against them’ (19:24). As the leper approaches Jesus, the hope is not just for health restored but for reincorporation into the community. ‘As long as the disease lasts, he must be unclean; and therefore, he must live apart; he must live outside the camp’ (Lev 13:46).
But here is the impotent circle: how can the disease be cured with the sufferer living apart? How can sin be forgiven in isolation, a solitary outside the camp, always adrift, always at the margins? The unlikelihood of restoration encourages the sinner to wallow in his outsider status, the unforgiven wandering in the desert of sin. Untouchable, like the mountain.
This is St Paul’s frustration with the Law, that while it reveals who is in and who is out, it does not provide the means to bring those who are out, in. ‘No human being will be justified in God’s sight by works of the law, since through the law comes knowledge of sin’ (Rom 3:20). If the Law is transgressed there is no way back and that is a problem for all of us, a desperation echoed at the conclusion of the longest Psalm, in all other ways a paean to the Law.
‘I am lost like a sheep, seek your servant, for I remember your commands’ (Ps 119:176).
If the Law cannot touch those outside of it, it is difficult to see how the holiness of God’s mountain is to flow down to his people gathered in the foothills, despite the Law’s command to ‘be Holy, for I the Lord your God am holy’ (Lev 19:2). How can God’s Law escape its categories and seek out and find the lost (cf. Luke 15)?
With the leper, Jesus reaches out and touches the mountain… and the holiness of God breaks out against him.
‘Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases’ (Isa 53:4).
For this is what the incarnation means. God transgresses the greatest boundary and goes even further: ‘he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross’ (Phil 2:8). He joins those outside the Law, outside the camp.
‘So, Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore, let us go forth to him outside the camp’ (Heb 13:12-13).
‘For our sake, God made him to be sin, who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God’ (2 Cor 5:21).
Between holy and profane, between divine and created, between sinner and the righteous… Jesus moves the boundary.
No wonder that the healed leper told his story everywhere.