But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years. —Luke 1:7
In the book of Judges and the Gospel of Luke we have two examples of barren or sterile women: the mother of Samson and Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. The theme is so common among the wives of patriarchs that one begins to wonder if there was something wrong with the water in Israel. But maybe barrenness/fertility is a symbol of something else. Maybe all of the healing stories are not so much about medical cures as very real transformations. Jesus most often did not want people to talk about his physical cures. Does that surprise us?
Do we know why? Because the mere medical cure was not the point, although most people stop there.
There are more healings of lepers than any other kind of story in the four Gospels. Jesus is always healing lepers. Leprosy, in fact, in the New Testament is a broad term. It really doesn’t mean what we would call Hansen’s Disease today. “Lepers” were people who, for some reason, were told they were physically unacceptable. They were people who were considered taboo, contagious, disabled, dangerous or excluded for all kinds of reasons. The message seems to be: “You’re not doing it right” or “You are not acceptable as a member of society.” Every society does this, and we do too, but just in different ways and by different criteria.
When Jesus receives the lepers, he always touches them, and often he then leads them or sends them to a new place. Invariably he reintroduces them to the community and realigns their social status and acceptability. He pulls them back inside of social acceptability. That is the healing! The lepers are no longer disposable. The Gospel text also emphasizes Jesus’s physical contact with the lepers, which of course makes him ritually unclean. Jesus’s compassion is finally also an act of solidarity with the lepers’ pain. He changes places with them, as it were. In several places the Gospel makes this explicit when it says that Jesus himself cannot now enter the city (see Mark 1:45).
Barren women and lepers are, of course, stand-ins for all of us as classic “before” pictures. Fertile women and realigned lepers are also stand-ins for all of us as the triumphant “after” pictures. Authentic God encounters make us all spiritually fertile and humanly connected.
Who do you know who has been rejected from your community and who you can reintroduce and thus heal?