The Living Bird is Let Loose

 

“And the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: “When a man has on the skin of his body a swelling, a scab, or a bright spot, and it becomes on the skin of his body like a leprous sore, then he shall be brought to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons the priests.  The priest shall examine the sore on the skin of the body; and if the hair on the sore has turned white, and the sore appears to be deeper than the skin of his body, it is a leprous sore.

The above quote is the opening to The Law Concerning Leprosy as recorded in Leviticus 13.

Leprosy: Chronic skin-disease characterized by ulcerous eruptions and successive desquainations of dead skin.

Jewish Encyclopedia

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In Luke’s gospel account, chapter 17 vs. 11-19, we learn of ten lepers who plead for mercy (“Have pity on us!”) at a distance from the crowd. Keeping a distance from others was in keeping with the law proscribed in Leviticus 13. Any leper who was examined after several specified intervals and then declared unclean was isolated, sent to the outskirts of a city. The “unclean” would be required to yell “Unclean!” to any passersby.

Most of us know from a Sunday School lesson what happens in Luke’s gospel account: ten lepers are completely healed by Jesus. The ten are sent by Jesus, in keeping with the Law, to a priest for examination. Only one of the lepers returns to give thanks to Jesus.

The_Healing_of_Ten_Lepers_(Guérison_de_dix_lépreux)_-_James_Tissot_-_overall

The Healing of Ten Lepers by James Tissot

“Is it really the case that the only one who had the decency to give God the glory was this foreigner?”

The healing occurs as Jesus passes along the borderlands between Samaria and Galilee on his way to Jerusalem. The formerly leprous foreigner, and not the nine formerly leprous Israelites, is the one who returns to Jesus to give thanks. Like the Samaritan women who would gladly eat the crumbs under the master’s table, this foreigner knew that Israel’s God was different from all other gods. How different, this foreigner would come to find out. The difference would make his skin tingle.

Jesus made it clear to his disciples that his mission on earth, his vocation, was to his covenant people, the Jews. The Jews were the people God chose to bring light to the nations. But the Jews failed in their vocation. Rebellion, idolatry, stiff necked obstinacy, you name it. The people resisted their calling even after witnessing the extraordinary events of the Exodus – the Plagues, the Red sea dividing, the cloud by day, fire by night, manna on the ground in the morning and water flowing from a rock. The Covenant people resisted their calling even when given a tutor-personal words from God-to keep themselves from sin and sickness and to bring healing to the nations.

One leper returned to give, “God the glory.” Did those hearing Jesus words to this foreigner think about their vocation? Did God’s covenant people, Israel, presume a right to be an entitled people of God’s goodness. Were God’s people like the nine newly restored lepers with a focus on themselves? (Imagine a people focused on a right to healthcare.)

As one can see, the ten-leper account is an analog of the Israel’s history through the centuries. Leprosy is an analog for sin. Sin is that chronic soul-disease characterized by ulcerous eruptions of wickedness and successive offenses and sins of the walking dead.

Early on, Israel was told to eradicate idols from their lives. They were to be a separate and distinct people from the nations around them. When Israel became like other nations and chose to believe that God is not all that He was proclaimed to be, God sent prophets.

The prophet Isaiah, in the presence of God, declared as “the foundations of the thresholds trembled at the voice of him who called out, while the temple was filling with smoke. “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.” -Isaiah 6:5

In God’s presence, Isaiah was made aware of his and Israel’s’ condition. Isaiah would prophecy against Israel-the Northern Kingdom. Corporately, Israel was rich and prosperous under the rule of Jereboam. But individually, Israel was very corrupt. Israel would be expelled from home. By 621 B.C. Israel would be conquered and carried into captivity by the Assyrians.

In exile, Israel pleaded for mercy (“Have pity on us!”).

 

Let’s return to the ten lepers. After healing them Jesus tells them, “Go show yourselves to the priests.”

The following quote is The Ritual for Cleansing Healed Lepers as recorded in Leviticus 14:

Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “This shall be the law of the leper for the day of his cleansing: He shall be brought to the priest.  And the priest shall go out of the camp, and the priest shall examine him; and indeed, if the leprosy is healed in the leper, then the priest shall command to take for him who is to be cleansed two living and clean birds, cedar wood, scarlet, and hyssop.  And the priest shall command that one of the birds be killed in an earthen vessel over running water.  As for the living bird, he shall take it, the cedar wood and the scarlet and the hyssop, and dip them and the living bird in the blood of the bird that was killed over the running water.  And he shall sprinkle it seven times on him who is to be cleansed from the leprosy, and shall pronounce him clean, and shall let the living bird loose in the open field. He who is to be cleansed shall wash his clothes, shave off all his hair, and wash himself in water, that he may be clean. After that he shall come into the camp, and shall stay outside his tent seven days. But on the seventh day he shall shave all the hair off his head and his beard and his eyebrows—all his hair he shall shave off. He shall wash his clothes and wash his body in water, and he shall be clean…

“Then the priest shall offer the sin offering, and make atonement for him who is to be cleansed from his uncleanness. Afterward he shall kill the burnt offering. And the priest shall offer the burnt offering and the grain offering on the altar. So the priest shall make atonement for him, and he shall be clean.”

Do you see any analogs in the above passage? What is it about the two birds? One is killed and the other set free. And, what about that earthen vessel in which one bird is killed?

 

In Leviticus 13, the priests were required to check the skin of the individual who was observed to have an ulcerous skin condition. The priest did this over several prescribed intervals. Each time the priest would examine the individual to determine if…

“If, after the scales of leprosy have spread over nearly the whole body, a bleeding and scaleless ulcer (miḥyah) is observed, the subject is unclean. Similarly, if the scales, having covered almost the whole body, fall off in one place and uncover an old bleeding ulcer, the subject is unclean.”Jewish Encyclopedia

It is interesting to note that in the next verses following the account of the lepers, Luke 17 vs. 20-21, that Jesus refers to what is observed to answer the Pharisees question, a question which was on every Jew’s mind. He reminds them of what you can see with Kingdom eyes:

“The Pharisees asked Jesus when the kingdom of God was coming.

“God’s Kingdom,” replied Jesus isn’t the sort of thing you can watch for and see coming. People won’t say, ‘Look, here it is,’ or “Look, over there!” No: God’s kingdom is within your grasp.”

In giving the lepers a renewed humanity and by restoring them to their communities and Synagogues from exile Jesus was doing the work of the Kingdom on earth. He hoped the nine of Israel (and the crowd) would have grasped this. We are told that the only one to “give God the glory” was the foreigner. Do you think he kneeled and grasped Jesus’ feet in thanksgiving?

Hinterland of Youth

Hinterland of Youth

 On that rapidly growing dark afternoon of November 23rd, 1972, two friends called on me. They came to take me to Mauston, Wisconsin, a nether-land up north.  The trip would be a get-away weekend of exposed anima with just the guys. We were headed to a hunter’s cabin on loan to us from a local town alderman. The three of us, Jack Kerouac, Bill Caulfield and me, Tom Merton said goodbye to my parents.  We then hit the road and headed north on I-90, leaning forward into the “next crazy venture beneath the skies.” So Jack began the scroll of our trip.

Just across the Illinois-Wisconsin border and somewhere on an isolated back road Bill had Jack stop the car. Bill got out and went around to the trunk.  I watched him not knowing what he was doing. He pulled out a small insulated lunch bag.  Apparently Bill hid the bag in the spare tire cove of the trunk.  He returned to the front seat, opened the bag and handed me my first cold beer – a Pabst Blue Ribbon. I figured then that Bill had made off with a six pack from his father’s beer refrigerator in his family’s basement.

I tasted my first beer in the backseat of Jack’s ’69 Ford Galaxie.  I slurped it slowly thinking it smelled strangely familiar, something in the order of wet wheat-germ or chilled sweat. I dug its mystic cold smarminess.

As we drove north drinking beer we listened to Bill’s eight track tapes.  The eclectic collection included Woodstock, Jethro Tull’s Hard as a Brick, The Beatles’ Rubber Soul, the Beach Boys, Jimmy Hendrix and many others.  I had to beg Bill and Jack to get them to listen to my Chicago CTA album and to my Simon and Garfunkel Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme album. When I did get to play them, I do so with the Marantz turntable sitting next to me on the back seat. The road yielded to the beat.

After three hours and thirty-one minutes of driving and several “Nature’s calling” stops we arrived at the cabin, about ten miles outside of Mauston. It was around 10:30 pm. The cabin was dank and cold. We found the thermostat and switched on the furnace.  There was a small hutch filled with firewood and so we started a fire going in the brick fireplace. Not long after that we hit the bunk beds strained from the day’s massive carb-loading and the red-eyed myopia of night driving.

The weekend at the cabin gave me new insights into what the body can and cannot handle. Drinking alcohol for the first time in my life and without reservation had me revisiting the first seventeen years of my life from the inside out. My stomach doesn’t suffer fools well. In the morning my brain pummeled me with its version of smashing clay pots filled with forget-me-nots on my head.

It was during this next morning that I came up with a throbbing new insight:  I told Bill and Jack that we should buy milk shakes to coat our stomachs before drinking again that night.  They mumbled an agreement and we drove to Dairy Queen that afternoon. We drank large vanilla milk shakes in hopes of staving off the stomach sucking creatures of the night. The ultimate effect, though, was thorough expurgation. I was to find out later that a more prudent trade-off was to not drink so much that one would up running around in twenty degree weather in their underwear howling at the moon.

One of the more sober highlights of our weekend was using a .38 special to shoot at beer cans and bottles lined up on a fence behind the cabin.  The gun belonged to Bill’s father. His father was a Brink’s truck guard. As I learned Bill had secretly taken the gun and some ammo from his father’s bedroom. We used the gun to shoot at bull’s eye targets nailed to unsuspecting trees. The exhilarating effect of shooting a handgun though quickly wore off. I wanted more and more fire power. I eagerly wanted to shoot a shotgun or a bazooka or a cannon or an ICBM – anything that provided a flesh-shaking ear-deafening “KER-POW!!!!”

This was the first time I had ever shot a gun. In my hand the cold hard steel loaded with more cold hard steel sent a hot rush of testosterone through my extremities. I had to pull the trigger to release the pressure or I felt that I would have exploded.

The cabin, being a hunter’s paradise, was filled with Playboys – Playboys which included Marilyn Monroe and Jane Mansfield. This was not the first time I had been exposed to these magazines. Men seemed to keep them in places where boys would find them. All I needed besides the Playboys was a smoking jacket and a pipe. Instead of those Hugh Hefner type accoutrements Jack supplied me with Tiparillos. A blanket would be my smoking jacket.

At night Bill and I looked at the collection of Playboys by the light of the glowing fireplace. Reading the ‘articles’ warmed our sensibilities and the centerfold’s siren call would make drooling cave men of us all. Well not all of us.  I found out a year later that Jack was gay. I realized then why he would want two guys alone with him up at the cabin. I do remember being especially thankful at the time for Marilyn’s company and being curious about Jack’s ambivalence toward the women who were stapled down for our viewing pleasure.

The weekend in Wisconsin with the guys worked out all of my unexercised stupidity. And it all happened under the gauzy star-filled night pointed at by thousands of towering conifers just outside of Mauston, Wisconsin.  Fire-in-the-belly embers would burn through the fabric of my being leaving my satin youth singed.  The weekend was a rite of passage of sorts which thankfully didn’t regress into a Lord of the Flies sequel.

If I had a time machine I would not go back to Mauston and the cabin. I might, though, go back to that Thanksgiving dinner, say “Thank you” to my parents, push away from the table and go take a long nap, not waking up until November 24th, 2011. I wouldn’t miss the self-obsessed oblivion of those in-between detached days.

Days of Heaven

It is no mistake.  Thanksgiving is my favorite day of the year.  Thanksgiving Day, for me, ends one spiritual year and starts a new one.  This day, set aside for giving thanks, is the proper response to a life well-given from God.

As much as I relish Thanksgiving I have no taste for Christmas. At least not the Christmas that is now cradled in commercialism. Bah-humbug and then some!

As I sat in a restaurant last night waiting for an order to go, I heard, in the background, Christmas carols being played with elevator trance-like mantra-ese. O Little Town of Bethlehem has now become cool jazz! The angels of the big-screen bar TV announced the coming of a Savior – a Black Friday sale.  Outside the window I could see streets lined with wreaths, decorative lights and people scurrying about in cars, driving into the silent night of sales.  Bah-humbug, squared!

Christmas aside, my life, stuffed with good things, is something to give thanks for. Here is a short list of what I am grateful for …

The colorful and cuddly afghans my mother knitted for her grandkids.

 My father’s love for music and art and his leadership downloaded into me.

 A paycheck for the last four years.

 Another year of not receiving anything from the government except freedom.

 A God fearing mother and father who continue to serve the Lord.

 My parent’s marriage of 56+ years still going strong.

 My four children, each one healthy and strong

 A great church home; godly priests and friends

 The Common Book of Prayer

The Eucharist: the body and blood of my Lord

 A car to use, a bed to sleep in, food to eat.

 Recovery from a rear-end car accident.

 And, the Exceptional Country I live in:  freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from dictatorship, freedom from religious oppression, freedom from strife, freedom to work and pay my way, freedom to become.

The good news of Jesus Christ, the Gospel:

God has dealt directly with evil (anti-creation, anti-love, destroyer of God’s good space, time and matter) thru the death and resurrection of His son.*

 Death, the final enemy, has been dealt a death blow by Jesus Christ:  “One short sleep past, we wake eternally; and death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.” John Donne*

 Tomorrow begins another year of my spiritual journey, a journey which will prayerfully take me past the road-stops of greed, self-pity and shallowness into the fully sated days of heaven.

*see N.T. Wright’s book, Evil and the Justice of God, IVP books, copyright 2006