In Chapter 4 of John Dominic Crossan's Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography he considers the accounts of Jesus' healing ministry. I'd like capture here a bit of what Crossan says about Jesus' healing of lepers.
Again, Crossan doesn't believe these miracles happened exactly as recounted in the New Testament. He does believe, however, that Jesus was known as a healer and exorcist. So Crossan seeks to find a way to reconcile his skepticism about Jesus having supernatural powers with Jesus' 1st Century reputation as miracle-worker.
Now, I'm not really interested in quibbling with Crossan on this point. I'm interested in his take on the miracles because I think his analysis is helpful whether you believe in miracles or not.
The insight that Crossan builds on is how the ancients saw the human body as a model, symbol and microcosm for society and the Cosmos. We saw something similar to this in Part 1, where 1st Century table fellowship mirrored the social arrangements of the larger society. Who was welcomed to table reflected who had standing in the larger society. And your place at the table mirrored your status in the larger socio-political world.
In a similar way, the body itself was a reflection of social structures. And one of the keen concerns within societies, particularly those under stress, is maintaining integrity (moral, social, political, religious). And one way this is accomplished is by policing social boundaries to maintain the "health" of the society, spiritually and physically. In light of this, certain bodies were often excluded from civic life because they symbolized, through their malformity or porous skin, threats to the integrity of the larger society. We understand this conflation. When we talk of society's "lepers" we know we can be using the term either medically or sociologically. For the ancients the association here was very close.
The point in all this is that ritual uncleanliness was a means of enforcing boundaries to protect and maintain social structures. Consequently, one way to approach Jesus' healing of lepers is to see how his "healing" was less physical than sociological. That is, while we tend to see the healing of a leper as a medical miracle what Crossan has us attend to is Jesus' attack on the system of ritual uncleanliness. In this sense, Jesus' "healing" is less about the medical issues than about dismantling the boundary between "clean" and "unclean." Consider this story in Mark 1.
A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, "If you are willing, you can make me clean."Let's think this story through as a sociological miracle, as Crossan does. The deep problem in the story isn't the skin ailment. The real wound is sociological, how this person has been marked as "unclean" and ejected from the social, emotional, and political life of the community. In light of this, note how Jesus touches the man before anything else happens. Jesus' action cracks the sociological quarantine, Jesus dismisses and ignores the sociological categories erected by ritual uncleanliness. And after he does this, Jesus declares the man "clean." Put the issue of the physical miracle aside for the moment and consider how Jesus, by simply touching the leper, has made the man "clean." Sociologically clean. By dismantling the barrier of ritual uncleanness the man is in the society of Jesus, in the Kingdom of God, fully and truly "clean."
Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. "I am willing," he said. "Be clean!" Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cured.
Jesus sent him away at once with a strong warning: "See that you don't tell this to anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them."
Now consider this. After the cleansing Jesus sends the man to the temple. Let's imagine, as Crossan does, that the man's skin ailment is still there; that the miracle of Jesus is sociological, his refusal to make distinctions between "clean" and "unclean." Jesus sends this man, still obviously showing signs of the skin disease, to the Temple to offer sacrifices to secure his social restoration in the eyes of the social guardians. Now, if this is what happened the man becomes a heat seeking missile aimed right at the power center governing ritual uncleanliness. The man, still afflicted by leprosy, is to walk into the temple, under Jesus' orders, and say, in effect, "This whole system is evil. I don't care what you think, I'm clean. Jesus of Nazareth showed me this."
Curiously, however, if you continue reading the story in Mark, the man disobeys Jesus and skips going to the temple. One way to think about this is to see how Jesus' social intervention was so powerful the man felt he could disregard the temple altogether. Having experienced the Kingdom of God the leper felt he was set free of the religious structures marking clean versus unclean. Can you imagine how threatening this was to the religious Powers of the day? No wonder they killed Jesus.
Here is a bit from Crossan on these matters:
[T]he leper who met Jesus had both a disease (say, psoriasis) and an illness, the personal and social stigma of uncleanliness, isolation, and rejection. And as long as the disease stayed or got worse, the illness would also stay or get worse. In general, if the disease went, the illness went with it. What, however, if the disease could not be cured but the illness could somehow be healed?I expect more conservative Christians would recoil at Crossan's thoroughgoing naturalism in how he treats Jesus' miracles. However, I find that attending to the sociological aspects of Jesus' healing ministry to be both important and refreshing. Further, as I noted above, the sociological approach need not replace a more traditional reading, it can supplement that reading and enrich it. Because I think it is very clear in the gospels that Jesus is not simply healing people because he is a compassionate person. Jesus' healing ministry was attacking a social, religious, and political system.
This is the central problem of what Jesus was doing in his healing miracles. Was he curing the disease through an intervention in the physical world, or was he healing the illness through an intervention in the social world? I presume that Jesus, who did not and could not cure that disease or any other one, healed the poor man's illness by refusing to accept the disease's ritual uncleanliness and social ostracization. Jesus thereby forced others either to reject him from their community or to accept the leper within it as well. Since, however, we are ever dealing with the politic body, that act quite deliberately impugns the rights and prerogatives of society's boundary keepers and controllers. By healing the illness without curing the disease, Jesus acted as an alternative boundary keeper in a way subversive to the established procedures of his society. Such an interpretation may seem to destroy the miracle. But miracles are not changes in the physical world so much as changes in the social world, and it is society that dictates, in any case, how we see, use, and explain the physical world. It would, of course, be nice to have certain miracles available to change the physical world if we could, but it would be much more desirable to make certain changes in the social one, which we can. We ourselves can already make the physical world totally uninhabitable; the question is whether we can make the social world humanly habitable.
This vision is exciting to me because it implies that I can actively participate in the miracles of Jesus. Today. I can be a miracle worker, reaching out to the lepers in our world and declare them "clean" by my presence.
Interestingly, this way of looking at things changes how I see the promise Jesus makes in the gospel of John:
Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or at least believe on the evidence of the miracles themselves. I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.This passage always perplexed me. I will preform greater miracles than Jesus? I am to do things more amazing than walking on water, feeding thousands, turning water into wine, and raising people from the dead? Huh?
But if we think of the miracles from a sociological angle then, suddenly, I see what Jesus might be talking about. In his lifetime Jesus could only accomplish so much. The social structures were so backward and rigid (think about gender relations or slavery) that Jesus could only make minimal progress, a small dent, during those three short years. Ultimately, Jesus' time on earth was prematurely terminated due to the violent reaction of the Powers to the Kingdom of God. But that tiny mustard seed, which died and was buried, has grown, and is growing. Just as Jesus said it would. Acts of inclusion and welcome, barely imaginable in the time of Jesus, have and are coming to fruition. Miracles that are, as Jesus promised, greater than his own.