HIV/AIDS and the Church

As a framework for our conversation about HIV/AIDS and the Church, we considered the case of “leprosy” in the Biblical narrative. Leviticus 13:45-46 reads:

“The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, “Unclean, unclean.” He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.”

We then read Mark 1:40-45:

“A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.”

We looked at the Lukan narrative in the light of the purpose that Jesus claimed for his ministry:

Luke 4:43: “I must preach the good news of the Kingdom of God …. For I was sent for this purpose.”

Luke 4:18: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

In particular, we noted the people groups that Jesus singled out in Luke 4:18, as follows:

…to bring good news to the poor
…to proclaim release to the captives
…and recovery of sight to the blind
…to let the oppressed go free

We thought about the common worldview of the ordinary people as it might apply to people with “leprosy” and noted the following characteristics of the worldview that Jesus challenged:

• All good things come from God…
• So those with many good things must be favored by God…
• And those without good things must have done something wrong in God’s eyes…
• Better not have anything to do with those who have incurred God’s displeasure just in case it is contagious

Jesus, through words and deeds, affirmed the first of these points but disputed the others, offering instead a new worldview, which becomes apparent in the Lukan narrative under discussion.

As context, we examined what might be meant by the term “leprosy”:

Today: Leprosy = Hanson’s disease (caused by the bacillus Mycobacterium leprae)
In the Ancient Near East (in Old Testament times): Hanson’s disease was likely unknown in the Mediterranean basin. The Hebrew term sara’at that is translated as “leprosy” refers to a host of medical conditions.
In the days of Jesus: Hanson’s disease had likely entered the Mediterranean Basin but the Greek term lepra which is translated as “leprosy” still refers to a host of medical conditions.

The worldview surrounding sara’at is captured in Levitics 13 and 14, of which we read but a small part. The rest of the text describes in detail the constellation of conditions and the reaction of the people towards them:

• Leviticus 13:1-46 – diagnosis of sara’at in people
• Leviticus 13:47-59 – diagnosis of sara’at in fabrics
• Leviticus 14:1-32 – purification of people after recovery from sara’at
• Leviticus 14:33-53 – diagnosis in houses and purification after renovation
• Leviticus 14:54-57 – summary statement

Leviticus 13-14 speaks of being:

• Clean versus unclean
• Pure versus impure

We noted that these comparisons are not necessarily the same as “good versus bad” but refer to violations of social/religious boundaries, codified in Leviticus.

A person with (or suspected of having) sara’at …

• May pollute the sacred (Leviticus 22:1-4a)
• May pollute the profane and must be isolated outside the community (Leviticus 13:46)
• Must announce his or her presence (Leviticus 13:45).

We noted that this understanding implies that the entire realm (sacred and profane) must be protected from the impure/unclean.

The model for understanding the treatment of the unclean is the Garden of Eden story. Adam and Eve are expelled much as the “leper” is isolated from the community. The fallen human condition (Adam & Eve after eating from the tree; the leper in his diseased state) is incompatible with God’s holiness.

Question: Why is sara’at “impure”?

Answer: Because it is associated with death:

• Numbers 12:9-13 – Aaron compares Miriam’s sara’at with being “like one stillborn”.
• Job 18:13 – “By disease their skin is consumed, the firstborn of death consumes their limbs”

What does purification involve?

• This is not associated with “cure” – it is a means of re-entry into society after a period of exclusion.
• The ceremonial method is outlined in Leviticus 14

We noted that the Old Testament often (but not always) attributes sara’at as arising directly from actions of the LORD:

• Leviticus 14:33-34 “The LORD spoke…. ‘I put a leprous disease in a house in the land of your possession’”.

• Deuteronomy 24:9 “Remember what the LORD your God did to Miriam on your journey out of Egypt”.

In the Ancient Near East, a person with (or even suspected of having) sara’at was:

• Absolutely excluded from normal society
• Absolutely excluded from the religious institution
• Shamed, degraded and humiliated
• Suspected of being complicit somehow in his/her condition (impurity)

This provides for us the model for the ultimate “marginalized person”.

Given this understanding of sara’at, the last thing a person would consider doing is to actually TOUCH a leper. TOUCHING a leper makes a person unclean!

Question: What is the difference between being cured and being “made clean”?
Answer: Being “made clean” signifies a re-introduction to society.

We asked why Jesus touched this man. The narrative states that He was “moved by compassion” to reach out to the man. The Greek word translated into English as ‘compassion” means, literally to “feel it in your bowels”. The word “compassion” itself is from the Latin: Com (with) + pati (to bear, suffer) = “To suffer with”. Compassion is more than simply curing someone’s illness, feeding their hunger, clothing their nakedness, essential as these are, there is something much more important that Jesus ca
lls us to do….

Jesus calls us to reach out (“touch”) those who are excluded and to facilitate their re-entry into society – both sacred and secular – and he shows us how to do this….

Jesus was willing to cross the line himself (“to suffer with”) in order for the leper to be made clean.

We asked who might take the role of “the leper” in our society today? The list of possible answers is very long, but we reminded ourselves that “lepers” in 1st-century Israel were:

• Absolutely excluded from normal society
• Absolutely excluded from the religious institution
• Shamed, degraded and humiliated
• Suspected of being complicit somehow in his/her condition (impurity)

The parallels with persons with HIV/AIDS are compelling. Those with HIV/AIDS in the US today report:

• Loss of family and friends
• Loss of job and medical insurance
• Loss of home

Compare: “Absolutely excluded from normal society”.

Those with HIV/AIDS in the US today report:

• Loss of faith
• Loss of hope

Compare: “Absolutely excluded from the religious institution”

Those with HIV/AIDS in the US today report:

• Feeling excluded and marginalized
• Feeling like victims
• Feeling like nobody cares

Compare: “Suspected of being complicit somehow in his/her condition”.

We asked what might we learn from the wisdom of Jesus on sara’at (lepra)?

• Inclusion of the marginalized matters.
• Sometimes inclusion calls for us to cross the line too.
• There is no “us and them”, there is only “we”.
• There is a difference between “ministry to” and “ministry with”.
• We are called to transcend those social norms that divide us for these are not part of the Way that Jesus teaches.

We asked what we might do in the face of HIV/AIDS:

• Know the facts and fight ignorance
• Pass on knowledge
• Reach out to those around us
• Help with local and global efforts
• Show compassion, not just sympathy
• Actually be “the church”

We considered these points as follows:

• Know the facts and fight ignorance
• Pass on knowledge

A take-home quiz: Probably you know that HIV is transmitted via body fluids…..

Can HIV to passed from person to person via (a) blood; (b) semen; (c) vaginal/cervical secretions; (d) saliva; (e) tear drops; (f) perspiration; (g) urine?

We took the position that we need to know the answers to questions like this!

• Reach out to those around us
• Help with local and global efforts

A take-home quiz: Is the spread of HIV/AIDS an issue of: (a) sexual behavior; (b) worldview; (c) poverty; (d) lack of education; (e) politics and finance ?

Here we concluded that the answer is “all of the above” and we looked at examples of each case.

• Show compassion, not just sympathy
• Actually be “the church”

A take-home quiz:

How many people do you know who are HIV positive?

How have you sought to welcome them into community?

How much of your time, effort and money are you willing to commit to help in the face of the HIV/AIDS pandemic?

We saw the good news in all of this as our recognition that God sees each and every individual as made in God’s own image and that through each journey with HIV/AIDS, God is present. We also saw that it is our responsibility as the church to do something (“the good news”) in the face of 40,000,000 cases of HIV/AIDS in the world. As a small start in that direction we called for a sacrificial (compassionate) offering, to be given in its entirety to the Global AIDS Fund.

Thanks for visiting!