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Sunday, July 14th, 2024
the Week of Proper 10 / Ordinary 15
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Bible Commentaries
Leviticus 13

Parker's The People's BibleParker's The People's Bible

Verses 1-59

The Law of Leprosy

Leviticus 13:0 , Leviticus 14:0

The thirteenth and fourteenth chapters are occupied with the question of leprosy. With that disease we have now, happily, nothing to do in this country; yet those who care to peruse the note at the end of this discourse will find that England was once ravaged by that terrible disease. It would be pleasant to turn over the thirteenth and fourteenth chapters, and to escape to subjects less revolting; but pleasure is not the law of life. It is here that so many men fritter away their days and altogether mistake the divine purpose of education. Men set up their "taste." When a man talks about his "taste," he has no taste to be proud of. Look at this large question in the light of religious history and human progress. What was to be done when leprosy was suspected? "The priest shall look." Would you hasten away from that great saying? Why that is the key of history. You would escape from the richest thought if you escaped from the fact that God has trained the human race from the religious instinct. Where was the doctor? There was no doctor then; he is a later creation. He came in due course and by pressure of necessity, having regard to the widening expanse of civilisation; but the priest was the doctor, and the priest is the only true doctor in every age. "The priest shall look"? Why not confine himself to his own work? Why not stay within the church and do the priestly rites and ceremonies, and let the leper alone? No work is excluded from the priest. The priest has, indeed, lived downwards and backwards, and given up his heritage and his rights and properties, and has cut down his divine vocation with a ruthless hand; but, rightly interpreted, the minister of God is the doctor of the world, the musician of the world, the father of the fatherless, the leader of the blind, the great schoolmaster, the gentle unwearying shepherd, he is the son of man. He has allowed himself to be snubbed out of nine-tenths of his work; he has permitted himself to be enclosed in a certain way, and to be shut up within certain boundaries and points; but that is his blame his apostasy in the Eden which includes the world and if he has fallen into a little man, it is not because God's vocation was a limited call. The Church is the true lazar-house; the Church is the great hospital; the Church is the dame-school, presided over by gentlest mother, who collects us all around her, and helps us in the spelling and building up and speaking out of words. But we have allowed the fool to prate over us and to tell ministers to confine themselves to their own work, as if they were artisans or specialists, not having right over all flesh, all history, all poetry, all music, all progress. The doctor is but part of the minister a spark flashed out of the greater fire. The true priest the seer, and interpreter is the foremost man of the age: beyond him is One only, and that is God. In old history the priests were the doctors; in our own history the priests are the leeches. What is the meaning of this? The profound philosophy of it is, that it is from the religious point, or instinct, that all history is developed. We are told that of course in the early ages all learning was with the monks. That does not impair the proposition that has been laid down; that circumstance rather increases the evidence of the truthfulness and cogency of that proposition. How did all learning come to be associated with the monk, or religious man? The same philosophy is here. Life is associated with the religious instinct, prying into all things, knocking at every door to have it opened, looking over every water and wondering what shores are lying beyond its waves. If religion has allowed itself to be shut up in some church cellar, religion, in its human relations, must blame itself. It was meant to stand on the mountains, to rule the nations, to lead every holy war, and to settle the tumult of the world into the peace of heaven. The largeness of the religious responsibility continues. The Church is responsible for the ignorance of the world. Do not blame the State a poor little machine, a shed run up in the night-time for protection against the weather. The Church is responsible for every man this day that does not know the name of Christ, the claim of God, the holiness of honour, and the duties of civilisation. The Church is responsible for every child that cannot write its name. But the Church has fallen upon small ideas, little comforts, seventh-day indulgences, half-day hearings, and these marked by extreme reluctance or spoiled by pedantic criticism. The heroic conception the vocation to seize the world, arrest it, fight its enemies, shut up its hell has been misinterpreted or forgotten. Read history, and be just to the religious instinct It is easy to see where civilisation, having entered into elaborate redistribution of offices and positions, may have forgotten its original obligations: it is easy for a man to forget at whose torch he lighted his own; but search back through the days and nights of history, and you will find that the first torch was kindled by the hand of God. We soon become forgetful; it is easy to drop into the spirit of ingratitude. We may look at the sky until its very blue becomes commonplace.

All this care, outlined with so complete an elaboration, was not meant for the sake of the individual alone, it contemplated the protection of the whole body of the people. Why this anxiety about a man who shows signs of the plague? For his own sake, certainly; but largely for the sake of the uncontaminated host. The man was to be put outside the camp or to be shut up in a dwelling of his own: for a period he was to be cut off from his people and made to live a solitary life. Did the priest order this punishment with the view of afflicting the poor sufferer himself? Unquestionably not; the priest had no wish to add solitude to pain, exile to defilement. The priest represented the spirit of compassion soft, tender, healing pity; but it was the large pity that not only looked at the sufferer himself, but regarded the unnumbered hosts who might be affected by the defilement of the leper, were the leper permitted to sustain his customary relations. "No man liveth to himself." The camp was afraid of contagion. Save the untouched by expelling the defiled. Look at the precautions taken by ourselves in case of disease: how we publish the names of affected neighbourhoods; how we protest against the erection of buildings appropriated to endeavours to cure certain malignant and infectious diseases; how we blanch under the intelligence that cholera or small-pox has threatened an invasion of the country. What anxiety! What endeavours to prevent the ravages of the disease! All this is right; but it throws into tremendous and appalling contrast our carelessness about the contagion that poisons the soul. There is a moral contamination; there is a mental defilement. "Evil communications corrupt good manners." "My son, if sinners entice thee, consent thou not." We do not know what evil we are working by the subtle influence of contagion. It is not needful for the infected man to go and deliberately touch the unaffected man, as if by an act of violence: we spoil the air. We drop a word and think no more about it; but that word is working for evil in the soul of the youth who heard it; we indulge a jest which hides impurity, and the impurity works when the jest is forgotten; we throw out a suspicion, and pass away as if we had done no wrong, better fill the air with poison and kill a thousand men a day than unsettle the soul's faith, trouble the moral confidence, risk the eternal destiny of men. Why are we not consistent with our own logic? Why do we not complete our own view of cleanness? Any man who can content himself with external purity is not a pure man; he is a trickster, a mechanician, a man who attends to externals. Only he is clean in the flesh who is clean in the spirit. You cannot wash a man with an unclean spirit to any effect, even in the flesh; the evil oozes through the burnished skin; the iniquity comes through every pore. What we should look after is moral consistency. We are anxious to shut out a disease that would kill the body, and yet open all the doors and all the windows and let in the diseases which infect and poison and damn the soul. Out of thine own mouth will I condemn thee!

It is interesting and instructive to note that the pure man can alone deal effectively and harmlessly with corrupt and pestilent subjects. This lesson can never be taught to some minds. The priest represented purity; we have seen what pains have been taken to purify him, to sanctify him, and consecrate him; we have been present in all the process, and now the priest ideally represents purity, divine holiness. We have no instruction to the effect that one leper is to look on another; the distinct direction is that the priest the holy, pure man shall look at the leper handle him, undertake him. Send the holy to the unholy; send the Christ of God to the sinners of the earth: he has "gone to be guest with a man that is a sinner." Religious men should take up all bad questions; but they will not. The mischief is that such men should take upon themselves the responsibility of representing the kingdom of God. Why are not they infidels, if we must have infidels upon the earth for a time? I should turn all the imperfect and misinterpreting professors of Christianity into infidels, for such they are, and they are such of the very worst type. The Church is burdened with men who do not understand the genius of the kingdom of heaven. When our holiest women are found in our unholiest places, know ye that the kingdom of heaven is at hand: the day is dawning; the sweetest wife we have is away seeking the piece that is lost. But she will be defiled? Never! She will be exposed to danger? No! Not when the theologues have balanced their wordy battles and foolish misunderstandings, but when the holy lives are sitting down with lives unholy, will the orient whiten and the day dawn, and Christ "see of the travail of his soul." It is no sign of piety to turn away from revolting subjects and to say, We cannot enter into this because our taste is offended, and our feelings are shocked. Whoever says so is a knave in the Church; he has no right to sit down where Christ sits; he is worse than Iscariot; he is a traitor for whom no death has been devised sufficiently awful. These people abound on every hand; they are the plague of society! Raise a very evil report about a man: make it very bad: spare no charge: enlarge the accusation until it takes in all things revolting, shocking, and instantly nearly all the pious people you have ever known will leave the man because the accusations are so shocking. Accuse him of some trifling violation of etiquette, or propriety, and twenty men may be willing to share his fate, or abate the force of the social blow that is aimed at him; but make the accusation bad enough: especially introduce into it elements of obscenity, and you will hear so-called Christian people say that they have no wish to enter into subjects of that kind. The very people who ought to say "What are they? when did they occur? let the witnesses stand up" will speak of their taste and their sensitiveness, and the delicacy of their bringing-up, and will abandon the man. Those people are the infidels. Do not believe I speak to inquirers as to the extent of the divine temple and the meaning of the divine kingdom do not believe that wordy opponents are the infidels; those are the infidels who profess to know Christ, and yet know nothing of the infinite pity, valour, nobleness, and deity of his spirit. Let the priest look on the man accused. The priest must never be afraid. The priest must enter the house where small-pox is, or leprosy, or cholera; let others cry fear if they will the priest resigns his priesthood when he resigns his courage. Christ was holy, harmless, un-defiled; yet he was the Guest of sinners, he received sinners, he ate and drank with sinners, he spake to sinners as never man spake; to the lost woman he said, Sister, begin again.

Men turn away from the perusal of such chapters, and look complacently upon moral leprosy. Men who would walk a mile to avoid an infected house, will read the very last book that the devil has published, and allow the devil to cut the pages for them; men who are so dainty that they could on no account pass by certain hospitals, have in their libraries books that poison the soul; men who would be alarmed if they knew that their children were exposed to companionship with children who have the whooping-cough, will tell lies by the hour; pitiable men! shameful men! Men who would not allow any child of theirs to look upon a drunken man, will allow their children to hear themselves speaking evil of their neighbour all day long. What inconsistency! what irony! But this is the difficulty of Christ: that whatever is objective, tangible, and fleshly, has, by reason of its substance, an advantage over the moral, spiritual, invisible, and immortal. The conduct of men is not always against God only, it is against inward honour, conscience, moral right, spiritual sensitiveness; the atheism is not a speculation which challenges the heavens, it is a practice which embitters the fountains of life.

Read the thirteenth and fourteenth chapters of Leviticus through without stopping, then read Jesus Christ's cure of leprosy, and compare the two. The leper said: "Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean.... I will" and the man was cleansed. "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us"; and Jesus said, "Go show yourselves unto the priests"; and as they went the burden fell off, and they stood up in the purity and suppleness of renewed youth; one soul was so filled with gratitude that he went back to bless his Benefactor. You can hardly have a more striking instance of the difference between the ancient ritual and the Christian dispensation than by reading the thirteenth and fourteenth chapters of Leviticus, and then reading in immediate connection the history of the cure of leprosy by Jesus Christ. We are all afflicted with leprosy; the disease is within. Jesus Christ is within our cry: we can now make him hear: let each say with an honest heart, "Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean; create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me," and we shall escape all this elaborate ritual, all this exclusion, and separation, and purification, and at a word the creative, redeeming word we shall stand up clean men, pure souls. "Lord, I believe, help thou mine unbelief."


Many imagine leprosy to be some obscure disease alluded to only in the Bible. Leprosy was also a disease of the Middle Ages, more widely spread and more fearful in its results than any other in ancient or modern times. It is probable that the worst form of leprosy in early Jewish history was that now known as elephantiasis. The milder form of Jewish leprosy, called bohak , was neither severe nor contagious.

Leprosy in England and Europe arose gradually after the destruction of the Roman Empire, as fast as barbarism spread with its uncleanliness of personal habits, and its resort to animal food and beer as nearly exclusive articles of daily diet. In all ancient towns it was early found necessary to erect hospitals and retreats and churches for those afflicted with leprosy. We have in England, now, hospitals built for lepers, so ancient that their origin is unknown, such as the St. Bartholomew Hospital at Gloucester, and others. It is known that there were at least 9,000 hospitals in Europe for leprosy alone. Louis VII. of France left legacies to over 2,000 hospitals for lepers in his country. We have extant a touching account of a knight of vast wealth and influence, named Amiloun, expelled from his castle to be a beggar, almost in sight of his vast possessions and stately home; for the Normans in France virtually outlawed, as well as expelled from their homes all lepers, and, as soon as their influence was established in England, they extended their sanitary measures and benevolent enterprise to lepers.

Hugo, or Eudo Dapifer the steward for William the Conqueror having received from him vast possessions of land in Essex, built or rebuilt, and endowed a St. Mary Magdalen Hospital for lepers in Colchester. The hospital for lepers, dedicated to the same saint, in the city of Exeter, is of unknown antiquity. Bartholomew, bishop of that city and diocese (1161-1184), finding its usefulness limited for want of funds, and the sufferings of lepers unlimited, endowed it with considerable wealth. He gave it for ever five marks of silver yearly the tenth of a certain toll, and the profits arising for ever from the sale of the bark of his wood at Chudleigh. His example stimulated the chapter of St. Peter's, in the same city, to grant a weekly dole of bread for ever. The good bishop Bartholomew wearied the Pope to give a charter to the hospital, making the endowment an everlasting benefaction, as he viewed the curse of leprosy to be as wide-spreading as humanity, and as lasting as the race of man. But he died before his wishes were gratified. However, Pope Celestine III. granted or confirmed a charter in the year 1192, and the charity exists to this day.

Hubert, Archbishop of Canterbury, held a synod at Westminster, in the year 1200, to carry out the decree of the Council of Lateran (1172), to build a number of churches solely for leprous people, for they had long been expelled from all parish churches. They were to have priests, officers, and graveyards exclusively for themselves. They were released at the same time from all claims for tithes for their land or cattle. So careful and determined were our ancestors to remove from sight and smell every leper, that a law was early in existence to enforce their removal out of towns and villages "to a solitary place." The writ is in our ancient law-books, entitled De Leprose Amovendo, and it is fully stated by Judge Fitz-Herbert in his Natura Brevium. King Edward III., finding that, in spite of the old law, leprous persons were concealed in houses inhabited by other persons, gave commandment to the Lord Mayor and Sheriffs to make proclamation in every ward of the city and its suburbs, "that all leprous persons inhabiting there should avoid within fifteen days next," etc., etc.

At the city of Bath, a bath, with physicians and attendants, was endowed exclusively for lepers and the endowments are still paid. That the bath was occasionally effiacious, in connection with improved diet, we have sure evidence; for one leper in late days had fixed to the bath a mural tablet to say that "William Berry, of Garthorpe, near Melton Mowbray, in the county of Leicester, was cured of a dry leprosy by the help of God and the bath, 1737,"

Gibson Ward.

Verse 44

"Handfuls of Purpose"

For All Gleaners

"... utterly unclean." Lev 13:44

This is a ceremonial expression. People in certain conditions of body were to be pronounced by the priest as "utterly unclean." The Bible is everywhere careful not to allow the idea of partial goodness or partial uncleanness. There is a great moral suggestion in all this. Once let a man consider that he is not so bad as some other man, and instantly false standards of purity are set up. The Pharisee adopted this method of self-measurement, and separated himself from the publican by certain degrees of supposed righteousness. The consequence was that he went down to his house unjustified. The idea of partial unrighteousness necessitates the idea of partial self-justification. A partial righteousness obviates the necessity for a divine atonement. The Bible proceeds upon the doctrine that "there is none righteous, no, not one"; that "the whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint"; that "the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked." "Utterly unclean," is the expression which best defines the condition of the soul as before God. When we read the words "utterly unclean" in this connection we are to remember that they were only ceremonially used; they in no wise countenance the idea that some persons are morally partially unclean, and others utterly unclean. There are degrees of ceremonial purity, but there are no degrees of moral purity or righteousness as before God. It was to an utterly unclean world that Jesus Christ came. "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and truth is not in us." Every man must feel that he is "the chief of sinners." This is not a rhetorical expression, nor is it to be judged comparatively as between one man and another; it is to express the soul's bitter consciousness of its personal unworthiness in view of the purity of heaven. Every man knows that his own sin is the worst that can be possibly imagined. He knows its aggravations; he is aware of atmospheric influence and colour, not observable by any other eye, which give deadly heinous-ness to his whole line of conduct. We are not called upon to judge ourselves by others: we are simply called upon to put our hand upon our mouth, and to lay our mouth in the dust, and to cry, Unclean! unclean! There is only one method of cleansing revealed in the Bible. No man cleanses himself. Without the shedding of blood there is no remission. The blood of Jesus Christ cleanses from all sin. Jesus Christ, looking upon his Church, says, "Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you." The moral cleanness of the human race is the sublimest miracle of God.

Bibliographical Information
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Leviticus 13". Parker's The People's Bible. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/jpb/leviticus-13.html. 1885-95.
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