First Century Social Distancing

If asked “What is your favorite Jesus story?” how might you respond? Since Jesus is the visible expression of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15), what narrative about Jesus best displays the character of God for you?

Our small group is working its way through the Gospel of Luke. This past week we were in chapter five where I was quickly reminded of one of my all-time favorite stories – Jesus’ healing of a leper.

While Jesus was in one of the towns, a man came along who was covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he fell with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” And immediately the leprosy left him. (Luke 5:12-13)

Biblical and other historical accounts attest to a prevalence of leprosy in first century Palestine. Today, we have a better understanding of the disease than they did 2000 years ago. Leprosy (Hansen’s Disease) is a chronic infectious disease caused by a slow-growing bacteria that gravitates to the peripheral nerves and the cooler parts of the body. The skin, being one of the coolest regions of the body, is affected first and most significantly by leprosy. Thus, in ancient Palestine, leprosy was often referred to as a skin disease.

When the 2 million or so Israelites camped in the wilderness after their exodus from Egypt, protection from infections was paramount. Pretty much what we are experiencing in the our present day pandemic. For the protection of the entire society, God gave pretty strict mandates to keep the community safe:

As for the person who has the leprous infection, his clothes shall be torn and the hair of his head shall be uncovered, and he shall cover his mouth and call out, “Unclean! Unclean!” He shall remain unclean all the days during which he has the infection; he is unclean. He shall live alone; he shall live outside the camp. (Leviticus 13:45-46)

As the people camped in the wilderness together, social distancing was necessary as long as the person was infected. Fast forward a couple thousand years and the social distancing had turned into social ostracism. Jesus’ later encounter with a group of lepers indicate that they knew their place in public as they “stood at a distance” from him. The societal requirement for lepers was to stand 50 paces (about 125 feet) from healthy people.

So when the man in the Luke story approached Jesus, he broke through the social boundaries that had been established for him. He knew Jesus could make him clean again, making a way for him to reenter society. Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean. What he likely didn’t know was how Jesus might respond. Rebuke was certainly a possibility. He was unclean and Jesus was a rabbi. In their culture, rabbis preferred to stay far away from the unclean. And legally, the man was required to maintain 50 paces from Jesus.

But he took the risk and approached Jesus. He broke both law and social custom on the chance that Jesus might heal him. Jesus’ response was two-fold. First, and I think foremost, he touched the man. Jesus touched him! How long had it been since the man had been touched by a healthy person? (Something we can certainly understand this during a pandemic!) And yet, Jesus made it a point to touch the man first, neglecting to comment on the man’s impropriety. Then he said “I am willing, Be clean!

In this story we experience what Eugene Peterson often referred to as “the great reversal” in The Message paraphrase of the New Testament (cf. Matt. 19:28, Mark 10:19, Luke 13:28). Jesus turned everyone’s expectations upside down – the man, his disciples, and the onlookers. Jim Edwards, in his commentary on the Gospel of Luke, suggested that a reverse contagion had taken place: rather than Jesus being polluted by the leper, the leper is cleansed by Jesus.

The radical, compassionate Jesus trumped tradition in favor of care of the outsider, of touching the untouchable. This is what makes Jesus worth following. And this is what makes our following worthwhile.

(A postscript: Rereading this post, it occurred to me that some may take this story as a reason not to adhere to local mask mandates during the pandemic. That would be missing the intent of Jesus’ actions and missing the character of Jesus. As previously discussed, we dare not let our presumptive religious and political ideologies inform our understanding of who Jesus is (see What the Right and Left Have in Common). We must always allow Jesus to inform our ideologies. Another reversal.)

The Great Reversal

I remember when I first learned, as a youngster, to drive a tractor in reverse. It took a while, but I finally figured it out. Ultimately, operating in reverse became second nature – on a tractor. Not so much with vehicles of speed. When watching action movies, I am always amazed at the speed with which the “Jack Ryans” are able to operate a vehicle in reverse. Ever try it? Don’t!

One of my favorite authors and the writer of the paraphrase, The Message, is the late Eugene Peterson. A life-long pastor, Peterson said he didn’t set out to write a paraphrase of the Bible. It came from naturally translating and interpreting scripture for his parishioners on a weekly basis. In his writings, Peterson had the ability to say things differently, causing the reader to pause and reflect. Several times in the Gospels of The Message, Peterson used the term Great Reversal. In all cases, the term is capitalized, which certainly causes one to pause and reflect…

The context for Peterson’s use of the term Great Reversal is related to the upside-downess of life in God’s governance – “the last in line put at the head of the line, and the so-called first ending up last.” Seen from this context, we discover that much of what Jesus said and did was indeed a Great Reversal. The first words attributed to Jesus in Mark’s Gospel are laced with reversal language: The time has come at last – the kingdom has arrived. Repent and believe the good news [gospel] (Mark 2:15). This might be one of those passages that we are over-familiar with and easily miss the intent. So let’s unpack it a bit, starting with the endpoint – the good news.

How was Jesus’ announcement of the arrival of the kingdom good news to the first-century listener? We see some of the answer in Jesus’ description of his mission in Luke 4 (see Mission Statements). He made it very clear that the kingdom was for everyone, a complete reversal of the accepted religious thought of the day. Outsiders now had access to the kingdom – the poor, the sick, the oppressed, their enemies – ciphers and non-entities in the first-century religious system and worldview.

What did Jesus mean when he said to repent and believe this good news? Repent is a word we can easily misunderstand as simply remorse. Though remorse is certainly part of the definition, it’s far more than that. The first-century listener would have understood repent as both a reversal of one’s thinking (change of mind) and a reversal of one’s direction. Twenty-first century understanding of repent stems from an individualist, Western worldview to which we have added Christian as an adjective. From that viewpoint, repent is understood as changing one’s mind about who Jesus is, changing direction, walking toward Him, and thus securing eternal life (usually understood as heaven). Though there is certainly truth to this, it is not what Jesus was proclaiming in the Gospel of Mark.

Jesus was proclaiming to the first-century religious crowd the need to rethink their worldview, which was an insider/outsider and a we/them political worldview. Their worldview pushed others to the back of the line. Jesus’ admonishment to repent also demanded a change of direction accompanying the change of mind, implying some type of action. In the context of Great Reversal, Jesus could have been saying something like, The time has come at last – the kingdom has arrived. Change your worldview. Go bring people up from the back of the line. That would be good news indeed.

How might this play out today? We need to recognize and admit that we have been shaped by an extremely individualistic version of Christianity. For the past half-century, the mantra of mainstream Western evangelicalism has been, “God loves me and has a wonderful plan for my life”– a non-biblical, self-focused, individualistic viewpoint. If we operate out of an individualistic worldview, would it not make sense that we would tend to move to the front of the line, pushing others further away from the kingdom? Might it also make sense that we might not even see the people at the back of the line, the marginalized, the non-entities, our enemies? Jesus would ask us to repent.

Does this stretch your thinking? If so, I might suggest reading through the gospels with the express intent of discovering how much of Jesus’ message and actions displayed a Great Reversal construct. We might be surprised to discover its prevalence. It might make us rethink some things. We might find the need to repent and believe in this [newly found?] good news/gospel.