The sun is very bright today. The glare off the hard-packed road makes my eyes burn. It’s hot in the sun, but others have taken up all the spaces under the few trees that grow here. I learned early that a single person sitting alone has a better chance of getting something in the begging bowl than those in a group. It’s as if one person is safer than several together, even though we are all in rags and must repeat the same phrase whenever someone comes close to us.
It’s not easy being a leper, being considered unclean by one and all, and forced to live in very small tents away from the town, and to be dependent on the generosity of others who toss bits of bread and sometimes leftovers from their own tables to us, just as if we were dogs. That’s much like what they consider us, except that even the dogs get a friendly pat or encouraging word now and again.
One advantage to being alone rather than in a group: I get to hear things others don’t. It’s as if by being nearly invisible, passersby don’t think we can overhear what they are talking about, whether it’s daily household talk, things going on in the town, or even news of the outside world that is important to them. Most of the time I hear their voices but don’t register their words unless it is something I haven’t heard before. Having learned to filter what I hear has been one of the very few good things about my condition.
I am considered a leper. My skin has not thickened, and I haven’t lost my facial features or my fingers and toes. My disfigurement is that my skin has bleached white areas while the rest of me is the normal color. Still, those white spots have cost me nearly everything. I have lost my home, my family, my clan, my way of making my livelihood, my ability to worship in synagogue, everything. Someone saw one of my patches and informed the priest who examined me and declared me a leper. In that one second, my world changed. Yes, I’d known about the whitish spots, but I hoped to avoid detection since I didn’t have any other signs, like sores and flesh that seemed to rot and thickening skin.
Today began much as usual, me taking my place by the side of the road, bent over as if to emphasize my “uncleanness.” People came and went, chattering as they passed by. But this morning I heard something different. There was a crowd of people coming by the town, which was something to be marked as unusual, important, and possibly threatening. Crowds sometimes taunt us and throw stones, so the sound made me instantly alert to any threat.
I kept hearing this name. I had heard it before, but then, it wasn’t exactly an uncommon name. The chatter I had heard before, though, was about someone who was a great teacher and a miraculous healer. I knew, or used to know, several men named “Jesus” in our village, but these people surely couldn’t mean any of them, could they? Still, I kept my ears open for more information about this “Jesus” who was coming down the road toward us.
The closer they came, I could feel the excitement building and the noise as well. It was hard to pick up individual conversations, but I did hear things like “He healed that blind man,” or “He taught with such authority like we’ve never heard from the priests we’ve had before.” This intrigued me, and yet it isolated me even more. I could pray for healing, but out here, alone and friendless, would God really pay attention? Would this Jesus even notice me?
Finally, the procession came past where I had been squatting. I had to try something, anything, that had even the most remote chance of healing me. I stood up and approached the man who was undoubtedly the Jesus that the crowd had been speaking of. Being unclean, and remembering the rules that governed lepers, I stayed a short distance away, but I looked him in the eyes and spoke to him. “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.” God only knows where I got the courage to make such a statement, but it felt like it was wrenched out of me, my last hope of healing and curing, my one chance at life. Jesus’ eyes were full of compassion, something I wasn’t used to. Even when I had dared to look people in the eyes in my early days of this existence with my disfigurement, all I saw was fear, disgust, scorn, and dismissal. These eyes of Jesus were so very different.
When I heard him say, “I do choose. Be made clean!” I wasn’t sure I had heard him right. If he had not stretched out a hand and touched me, I would have doubted that I really heard what I thought I had. I felt a power surge through me, and a tingling in the places where the white skin was. I looked at one of the discolored spots and saw that it was gone! My skin was all a same color! I could barely wait to go and bathe in the river, to make sure what I felt was real. But this Jesus had an order for me. “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” The bath could wait. I ran as fast as I could.
The result was that after I was examined thoroughly by the priest, I followed the prescribed rites and ritual sacrifices and then finally got to bathe, wash my clothes, and shave all my hair. I stayed outside my tent, and seven days later, went again to the priest to complete the sacrifices and cleansing rituals. Then I could take my place back in the town, and begin again to build my life, this time full of gratitude to God for the man Jesus and the miraculous healing. I kept my silence about Jesus, just as he asked. I wanted people to know what had happened, but I thought that there would come a time when I could speak.
What change did this all make in my life? I felt greater pity for the lepers who were not healed, and I made sure I had good hunks of bread and fresh fruit to give them instead of leftovers. They mistrusted me at first, but then began to see me as a friend rather than someone trying to impress others with their generosity while giving away castoffs. I continue this service this to this very day, in honor of Jesus’s kindness to me.
It was almost harder to see the life of the leper from outside the group than when I was part of it. So many just ignored them or crossed the road to be as far away from them as possible. Yet Jesus had actually touched me in my leprous state. If Jesus could risk becoming unclean as he ministered to me, then how could I not reciprocate? I gathered food for the lepers from the houses in the town and shared it among the poor souls who had not received the blessing I had. It became my passion and my calling.
I say unto you, if you see someone less fortunate than yourself, do not be afraid to do what you can to help them. It is the work of God that you will be doing, and God will bless you as God has blessed me.
Linda Ryan is a co-mentor for two Education for Ministry groups, an avid reader, lover of Baroque and Renaissance music, and semi-retired. She keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter. She is also owned by three cats.