Are unvaccinated people being treated like lepers?
Fear spiritual leprosy above bodily leprosy
In the Gospel of Matthew, a leper approaches Jesus and says, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean” (Mt 8:1-4). Jesus reaches out to him and touches him with his hand saying, “I will; be clean.”
Not only was leprosy thought to be a potentially deadly disease at that time, but Jewish law said both the leper and any person who came into physical contact with them were also ritually unclean and had to be separated from the rest of the community.
[H]e [who] is a leprous man, he is unclean; the priest must pronounce him unclean; his disease is on his head. “The leper who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean; he shall dwell alone in a habitation outside the camp.” (Lv 13:44-46)
The leper of Biblical times was an outcast. He was forced to live outside the community and was prohibited from worshipping in the Temple and the synagogues. The social stigma of the disease probably caused lepers more distress than the actual physical ailments they suffered in most cases (today, we understand that what they called “leprosy” then was usually severe psoriasis or other skin diseases, which were not life-threatening and not contagious).
Jesus didn’t have to touch the leper. He could have healed the leper simply by willing him healed, the same way he healed the centurion’s servant in the verses that immediately follow this passage (Mt 8:5-13), but Jesus chose to touch the leper anyway, even though by doing so he was believed to have put himself at risk of contracting leprosy and made himself an outcast under the Mosaic law, but why?
According to Origen, “[Jesus] touched the leper to give us an example of humility, to show that we must never scorn anyone or despise anyone for the wounds or scars on their body ….” (Casciaro, 72). St John Chrysostom believed Jesus touched the leper to show that to the pure, nothing is impure (Aquinas quoting Chrysostom, 252-53). “His hand was not made unclean by the leprosy, but the leprous body was made pure by the holy hand. For He came not to heal bodies, but to lead the soul to true wisdom.” (Ibid.) It is the leprosy of the soul we ought to dread, rather than leprosy of the body. (Ibid.)
Note that in Leviticus, above, Mosaic law required the leper to “cover his upper lip” and cry out “Unclean, unclean.” This brings to mind images of the masks covering our faces today.
A war between the masked and the unmasked is currently shifting to a war between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated. Vaccine passports, said to be a conspiracy theory last year, are working themselves more and more into the mainstream every day, a digital version of the leper’s cry, “Unclean, unclean.” In some places, separate sections are being set aside in restaurants and ballparks for the unvaccinated. Private companies are putting policies in place to “out” the unvaccinated, or worse, to terminate their employment. “Did you get the vaccine?” isn’t considered an inappropriate question about a person’s private medical history, but is the opening question for some with bad intentions who wish to socially shame perceived political enemies or engage in gossip.
Yet, like most of the skin diseases of Jesus’ time and the seasonal flu of yesteryears, the overwhelming majority of people who contract the virus live (survival is estimated at 99.5% or so, depending on age).
While there are similarities between the lepers of the Bible and the unvaccinated people of modern times, we should note that there is one very big difference between them. The masked leper undoubtedly suffered from a disease, though usually not as serious as was thought in most cases, but most of today’s unmasked and unvaccinated people are perfectly healthy. The social discord plaguing the world seems to come from a forgetfulness that the people near us in the grocery store or at the office are brothers and sisters made in God’s image, not infected or potentially infected wretches to be avoided to save our own miserable lives.
Jesus reached out to the leper and touched him as a sign of love and humility. Saints Aloysius Gonzaga and Charles Borromeo heroically cared for people infected with the black plague. They are examples to follow.
We should be careful that in an overzealous effort to protect our health we do not put our fear of leprosy of the body above our fear of leprosy of the soul and also that we do not fall into utilitarianism and bitterness by treating unvaccinated people the way society treated the lepers healed by Jesus.
All Bible citations are from the Revised Standard Version (RSV), unless otherwise indicated.
Casciaro, Jose Maria., ed. The Navarre Bible: New Testament. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2008.
Powell, Mark Allan, ed. The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary. 3rd ed. New York: HarperOne, 2011.
Thomas Aquinas. Catena Aurea. Vol. 1. London: Aeterna Press, 2014.
Youngblood, Ronald F., ed. Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary: New and Enhanced Edition. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2014.