AIDS, leprosy, and love

Leprosy no longer strikes fear into human hearts as it did in Jesus day. A new disease has taken its place. Do we have the courage and kindness of our Master?

Kenneth R. Wade is an assistant editor of Ministry.

I have never visited a leprosarium, never seen a leper face to face, never felt fear that I might be leprosy's next victim. And so I don't think I have a real appreciation for what Jesus went through in the encounter described in Luke 5:12: "While he was in one of the cities, there came a man full of leprosy; and when he saw Jesus, he fell on his face and besought him, 'Lord, if you will, you can make me clean' " (R.S. V.).

Leprosy takes various forms, some more serious than others, and this man apparently suffered from the worst kind--he was "full of leprosy." In other words, he had lost his eyebrows long ago, and his ears had likely fallen off. No doubt there were places under his ragged clothing where the white of bone shone through lesions that had eaten away his skin. Perhaps he had no nose, but only hideous holes in his face through which he drew rasping, gasping breaths.

To reach out and touch such a man would require not only a strong stomach but a moral courage born of love that always puts others first. To touch such a man could be a fatal mistake socially, politically, and physically. Jesus risked not only the long-term possibility of a horrible death but the immediate possibility that the crowds that followed Him, drinking in His truth, would abandon Him in fear of infection.

I find it a little difficult to identify with just how hard it must have been for a person in Jesus' day to touch a leper. I have no fear of leprosy and could visit a leprosarium without any thought of danger. Modern medicine has made leprosy a treatable disease, and research has shown that it is not so contagious as was once believed.

But there is a disease I do fear. Just the mention of AIDS acquired immune deficiency syndrome strikes fear into many hearts today. We hear of nurses refusing to treat patients, undertakers refusing to handle bodies, tenants demanding that a victim move out of their apartment building.

The similarities between AIDS today and leprosy in Jesus' day are plentiful. And they have the potential of revealing our inmost hearts, helping us to under stand Jesus, and ourselves, better.

Neither leprosy nor AIDS is highly contagious to those not in intimate contact. But the fear incited by each makes facts irrelevant. People in Jesus' day ostracized lepers; today we ostracize AIDS victims.

Leprosy carried with it the stigma of sin--it was viewed as God's retribution for some terrible misdeed. I daresay that in any group of Christians you could find those who consider AIDS to be God's retribution upon homosexuals and drug abusers.

Leprosy almost inevitably led to a horrible death. So does AIDS.

Some time ago I held a casketless funeral. State law had mandated that the body of the deceased--an AIDS victim--be cremated. The flag that honored this veteran was draped over a small urn in front of the church.

I had never met the deceased nor his family. I held the funeral because their pastor was out of town. At the meal after the funeral I stopped to talk with the bereaved mother, who had cared for her son, daily washing the oozing sores on his legs until he finally had to be hospitalized a few days before he died. I took her hand in mine. And afterward I made sure my hand didn't go near my mouth.

I also met the young man the deceased had been living with when he contracted the disease. I thought of the doubts, fears, and questions that must be assaulting his mind. But I spoke only briefly with him. And I made sure I washed my hands.

More than a year later I finally realized that I had taken the pious, self-preserving, aloof attitude of the Pharisee instead of the caring, self-sacrificing, touching attitude of Jesus.--K.R. W.

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Kenneth R. Wade is an assistant editor of Ministry.

September 1985

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