Summary: This message examines why we aren’t more thankful.
They were without friends, family or future. Ten men thrown together through a common tragedy without a home and without a hope. Have you ever heard someone say “They treated me like a leper” or “they acted like I had leprosy?” Back in the eighties when AIDS was just surfacing and society and science still didn’t have a grip on how it was spread or who would contract it you would often hear those how had acquired AIDS make that statement, “I feel like a leper.” And while I wouldn’t want to minimize the hurt that people feel when they ostracized by others it is doubtful that anyone in this time could ever fully comprehend what life as a leper was like 2000 years ago.
Leprosy was probably the most feared disease of the time, and that wasn’t just then either, we don’t think of leprosy as a modern disease but the world health organization estimates that there were almost 690,000 cases reported in 1999. We forget that the rest of the world doesn’t have the health care that we have. And while we grip about a half-hour wait for the doctor or a three-hour wait in outpatients there are many places in the world where the closest hospital is a days journey away, and drugs are almost impossible to acquire for the common person. As a matter of fact it’s not a far stretch to say that this group of people would be considerably smaller if we lived in a third world country, because some of you would not have survived without the medical care that you have obtained in Canada.
But back to the subject at hand: Leprosy isn’t the term we use, today we call it Hansen’s disease, which isn’t to be confused with Hanson’s disease which is the uncontrollable compulsion to make puns. In 1869 Gerhard Hansen a Norwegian doctor discovered the disease was caused by a bacillus now called Mycobacterium leprae. Here’s a picture of it in case you ever see it and wonder what it is.
But before 1869 the scientific term was leprosy and we are told that there were three types of leprosy recognized when Christ walked the world. The first kind was Nodular or Tubercular Leprosy and it began with lethargy and pain in the joints. Little brown patches would appear over the body and nodules would form on them especially in the folds of the face, around the nose, eyes and mouth. Ulceration of the vocal cords would result in the victim talking in a hoarse rasp and before the disease had run it course the person would be unrecognizable.
The second type was Anaesthetic Leprosy and it begins the same way but the nerve ends are also affected and the infected area begins to lose all sensation and feeling, often without the person knowing until they scald themselves or break something without the warning that pain brings. Pain’s not always a bad thing. As the disease progresses the muscles waste away until the hands are contracted into claws and the feet curl up. It this particular type of leprosy that caused the loss of fingers and toes.
The third type of leprosy was just that Leprosy Proper and it was when the victim exhibited the combined symptoms of both other types. It was a horrible disfiguring disease that was contagious and incurable. Today through the marvels of modern sciences leprosy can be contained and in many cases cured, it the funds are available, but 2000 years ago or even 100 years ago the diagnosis of leprosy was a death sentence, not a quick death but a slow and painful death.
And so people were terrified of leprosy as you can well imagine and so at any sign of a skin disease the person was examined by the Priest and put into quarantine, if the symptoms disappeared the person was considered cured however if became apparent that the disease was or could be leprosy the consequences were actually quite dire.
But if the physical effects of leprosy were horrible there was something even worse. The leper had to bear the mental anguish and heart break of being totally cut off from the people he loved, being banished from society and shunned by everyone.
The book of Leviticus contained the law for the people of Israel and this is what it said Leviticus 13:45-46 “Those who suffer from any contagious skin disease must tear their clothing and allow their hair to hang loose. Then, as they go from place to place, they must cover their mouth and call out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ As long as the disease lasts, they will be ceremonially unclean and must live in isolation outside the camp. Nice huh?
The person with leprosy was not allowed to mingle with anyone who didn’t have the disease, they weren’t allowed to live in the village or the city they had to move into the wilderness living in caves and hovels, their only companions other victims. The closest they could come to a person without the disease was six foot which would have made for a tough time keeping your marriage intimate, but that didn’t matter because once you were diagnosed with leprosy you were considered dead and your spouse could remarry and your estate was divided up amongst your heirs.