The Gospel read on the 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time (October 13, 2013) in the Archdiocese of Santa Fe and throughout the Catholic Church is the story of ten lepers who met Jesus in an inhospitable land and begged for his healing power to cleanse them. The Savior blessed them and sent them on their way, telling them to show themselves to the Judaic priests, but no one else. As they journeyed to the temple, the leprosy was cured, but only one of them, who is pointed out as being a Samaritan, returns to give thanks to the Lord.
The words ‘leprosy’ and ‘Samaritan’ appear frequently in the Bible but offer little explanation as to the who’s and why’s of this dreaded disease and this particular race of people despised by the Jews. Many will hear the scripture and not understand the meaning or implication of either of these words.
Leprosy dates back clearly to 600BC, almost certainly to 2000BC, and, according to some sources, is mentioned in ancient Egyptian writings suggesting it may have been present much longer. For the Bible scholar, it first appears in the third book of the Old Testament, Leviticus, where two entire chapters (13,14) are dedicated to it: its recognition, treatment, banishment, and more. Even though the disease has been with us for so long, it is not necessarily the first communicable disease as many scientists point to rabies for that distinction. It is caused by an infectious germ that was not discovered until AD1873 by Norwegian Dr. G H A Hanson (thus the modern name: Hansen’s Disease), and, although numerous treatments have been tried with varying levels of success, has never been eradicated from the list of common diseases.
In the modern era, leprosy is probably most symbolized by the story of Fr Damian de Veuster, a Catholic priest, who, coincidentally in 1873, requested assignment to the quarantined island of Molokai, Hawaii, where he lived and aided the physical and spiritual needs of the vast leper colony until his death from the dreaded disease on April 15, 1885. However, earlier descriptions of the disease talk about unending torture, disfigurement, pain and every discomfort short of actual death, which would have brought relief. Thus, it is very likely that we are talking about more than one epidemic.
In Bible times, the meaning of this horror was quite different. It was seen literally from the time of Moses to the time of Jesus as a punishment from God most often associated with a life of sin. In Leviticus 13, God tells Moses that all abrasions, scabs, skin injuries, etc. must be examined by Aaron or another qualified priest, and the victim of the ailment was in essence put through a series of quarantines to determine whether the lesion was leprosy or not. If no leprosy emerged, the person was considered ‘clean’ and allowed to return to worship and the normalcies of everyday life. If they contracted the disease, they were removed from the healthy community.
The two Books of Kings in the Old Testament tell the story of the Samaritans and how they gained the wrath of the Israelites, and in 2 Kings 5, the despicable people are first associated with the despicable disease. The story begins with King Omri of Israel and his defeat of Tibni, King of Judah. At that point in time, the kingdom was divided in two, and Omri reunited them. He purchased a sacred mountain and built a city there, which he called Samaria. The inhabitants of the region were no longer completely Jewish but had been infiltrated, joined and married to by conquerors and vagabonds from throughout the region including Hittites and Assyrians. They are no longer ‘pure’ Jews and never will be considered as such again.
Although the place of worship on the mountaintop remained the sacred site of the Jewish God, each of the intruding races brought their own deities along, and the culture became polytheistic in a Jewish disguise. 1 Kings 16 tells the reader that not only did Omri do more evil in the sight of the Lord than any of his predecessors, his son, Ahab, did even more during his reign. Ahab has been called the most evil king in the history of Israel, who is said top have rejected the living God. This was also the time of the great prophets Elijah and Elisha who figured prominently in the political arena.
Eventually, Israel was defeated by the Syrians, Elijah had been taken into heaven, and Elisha had all but retired in Samaria. The war hero of the Syrians was Naaman, commander of the army, who was called great and mighty, and an honorable man before the Lord, who led him to victory. He was also a leper (2 Kings 5:1). It was a Jewish girl that Naaman had brought back from his conquest to serve his wife who suggested he see the prophet Elisha in Samaria, who would be able to heal him.
Naaman personally carried the request to the king and was soon on his way to Israel with a message from the Syrian monarch asking that the servant of the king be healed. The Israeli king tore open his own clothes as if to show his mortality, and declared that he could do nothing to heal the man, believing this was a plot by the Syrians to justify more attacks. Elisha got word of what had happened and asked the Israeli leader to allow Naaman to come to him so that he might know there is still a prophet in Israel.
To be continued