The skin is the largest organ “in” the human body. It is also our most important physical boundary. Skin marks where we stop, and the world starts. It holds “me” together and protects me from illness and infection. My skin marks me as an individual person – or at least it should. In social terms, however, skin also broadcasts to the world messages about who I am. If I am outside the ranks of the privileged, my skin may in fact hide my identity and relegate me to the status of a category or class.
Yet, how often do I – a White American man – actually think about my skin? Not very often, because my white skin remains the cultural norm and center of Western culture. That blithe lack of consciousness is only one symptom of my White-skin privilege. Those without such privilege must think about their skin all the time. Just do a search on a book by a Black author, for example. In Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist, “skin” shows up ninety-seven times. For those in America who are not White, “skin” matters.
White Westerners use the reality of skin tone differences to construct the fiction and mythology of racism. Ta-Nehisi Coates reminds us that race is the child of racism, not the father (page 7). Superficial differences in appearance get reified into real distinctions between persons. These distinctions are then used as the justification for differences in the valuation and treatment of persons. These distinctions are used to erase individual identities and to create limiting labels.
I imagine that “skin” was a regular subject of conversation, attention, and awareness in the leper community in our text. Those ten men must have talked about the ways they had found to manage their skin conditions. They likely compared blemishes, scars, and the lack thereof. I assume that they helped one another monitor changes in their skin conditions – especially in places they could not see themselves. Skin was a central part of their shared reality.
I have some second-hand acquaintance with such concerns about skin. If one has or has had some variety of melanoma, the condition of one’s skin becomes a heightened concern. SPF becomes a very important number when considering a variety of products. I have learned that even hats can have an SPF rating. Regular monitoring of moles and blemishes becomes very important. Sometimes those offending spots must be surgically removed. Ignoring one’s skin is a luxury for the few, not the norm for the many.
The ten lepers didn’t choose this shared reality. Nor did they seek out skin focus as a way of life. Nor did they construct leprosy’s social and religious meaning. They shared a superficial resemblance and ceased to be individuals. They became a category of people, subject to rules and regulations regardless of their individual identities. While these ten knew intimately how they were alike and different, the world around them only saw “lepers.” Not even the distinctions between Jew and Samaritan could transcend the erasure of individual identities imposed by the label of “leper.”
The very vagueness of the biblical understanding of “leprosy” means it is also a constructed category. A superficial skin difference that might remind viewers of a corpse becomes the basis for a label, legislation, and loss of status. Whatever the degree of isolation those labelled as lepers suffered, there was sufficient ostracism for the condition to be one that cried out for healing.
I recently finished Jessica Nordell’s excellent book, The End of Bias, A Beginning: How We Eliminate Unconscious Bias and Create a More Just World. I would strongly recommend this book for your consideration. Nordell examines all sorts of unconscious bias, but she offers deep insights into race-based bias and discrimination.
“Discrimination on the basis of skin color arrives around age five or six,” Nordell reports, “though recent research suggests that White children may form biases at the intersection of race and gender as early as four, reacting more negatively to Black boys than to Black girls, White girls, or White boys” (Nordell, page 45). I wonder if discrimination against “lepers” began as early and was as deeply entrenched in first-century Mediterranean culture. I suspect it was.
Gabor Mate’ would ask a “penetrating” question of this text, I think. To what degree is biblical leprosy a symptom rather a disease itself? What if the disease is more social than personal, as much psychic as physical? Does this concatenation of skin conditions represent and express deeper psychosocial illnesses in the culture? Are the lepers merely the identified patients in a psychosocial system that suffers from violated boundaries?
“The suppression of individual authenticity plays havoc with biology, breeding illness,” Mate’ writes, “even greater mayhem will ensue for bodies belonging to groups whose self-suppression has been systemically imposed, often with great violence” (page 318). Mate’ outlines in excruciating detail the ways in which racism, for example, causes the gap in health outcomes directly correlated with race.
Mate’ quotes the German physician, Rudolf Virchow. Virchow is now known as the father of modern pathology. He “disdained any separation of health from social conditions and culture,” Mate’ writes. When Virchow was challenged with the critique that his views were more political than medical, Virchow replied, “Medicine is a social science, and politics is nothing else but medicine on a large scale” (Mate’, page 324).
Perhaps we could say that even more for a religious faith. What social and political traumas do those lepers wear on their scaly skins? I don’t know. But I imagine that their ostracism made things worse for them, not better. They lived in a place and time where boundaries of all kinds were assaulted (as do we). The place between the world and them (to nod toward Ta-Nehisi Coates) – their skin – carried the signs of assaults on the self. Those assaults were perhaps on their own selves, but surely on the selves around them as well.
Jesus cleanses their blemishes. He does that for all ten. But the one who acknowledges and accepts the depth of his healing – the Samaritan – that one was saved. Perhaps a sermon title for this text might be, “Salvation is More Than Skin Deep.” Ten were cleansed. One was rescued. Ten were invited into a required transaction. One was personally transformed. The Samaritan could embrace his full humanity, worshipping and praising at Jesus’ feet. That one received transformation rather than mere transaction. Trauma was transmuted and transformed.
It strikes me that Jesus transforms the whole “system” in this story. The prescribed response following such a healing was to “go, show yourselves to the priests.” After a thorough examination, the former leper was pronounced “clean” and could return home. The Samaritan “returns” to Jesus and praises God. John Swinton declares that “Jesus did not sit with those on the margins of society, Rather,” Swinton argues, “he moved the margins” (page 49, Swinton’s emphasis).
The Samaritan’s skin condition could be remedied and removed. However, his social status, vis a vis, Judaism, could not be remedied and removed. The Samaritan’s ethnicity could be embraced or rejected, but not altered. “The social location of Jesus reveals the proper social location of the church,” Swinton concludes, “and the primary orientation of the theological journey” (pages 49-50).
That “proper social location” of the church is not inside our church communities and institutions. The Lukan documents emphasize “going” more than “receiving.” Even when Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them, Jesus goes to the homes of those sinners. He doesn’t wait for them to come to him. The forgiving father goes to meet the prodigal son. Jesus comes to the home of Zacchaeus, and in that way, salvation comes to that house.
It’s too easy for us White Christians, heirs and inhabitants of colonizing imperial denominations, to think that when we go, we are the only ones who bring something to the table. That’s part of the wonder of our little story this week. Jesus brings cleansing and saving with him. But the Samaritan brings insight, trust, worship, praise, and gratitude – responses the “insiders” apparently didn’t bring to the table. When the church “goes out,” our first posture is that of listening learner, not that of White savior.
And the Samaritan becomes once again a “person,” when his leprosy is removed. That is certainly the case in cultural terms. Jesus recognizes him as an “other-born” person. But more than that, the Samaritan embraces what it means to be fully human. He praises God with joyful worship. He thanks God for the fullness of life restored to him. He has stepped out of the shadows of prejudice and despair. He walks in the light of love and hope. That’s what being saved looks like – a fully human being joyfully embracing their own, God-given skin.
References and Resources
Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Myrick C. Shinall Jr. “The Social Condition of Lepers in the Gospels.” Journal of Biblical Literature 137, no. 4 (2018): 915–34. https://doi.org/10.15699/jbl.1372.2018.454556.
Mate’, Gabor, and Mate’, Daniel. The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness, and Healing in a Toxic Culture. New York: Avery, 2022. Nordell, Jessica. The End of Bias: A Beginning. Henry Holt and Co. Kindle Edition.