Faith, Justice

What’s in It for the Leper?


He was born a child of wealth and privilege. His father a wealthy clothing merchant, he never lacked or suffered. One day, the man we would later call St. Francis was riding along on horseback when he met a leper. In those days, leprosy was the most dreaded of diseases. Not only was it a death sentence, but it was a horrible way to die – lesions, puss and the putrid smell that followed you made you a social outcast.

Under what would later be called the guidance of the Holy Spirit, Francis got off his horse, overcame his revulsion and disgust and gave the leper a full-on body hug. Then, he gave the leper all his money, hopped back on his horse and rode away.

Later, when Francis went to Rome, he was at St. Peter’s tomb and saw the beggars there. In a fit of piety, he swapped clothes with a beggar and sat there with the other beggars, begging for his food.

Thus started the career of the holy man who would go on to found an order of other holy men, who beg their own way, who devote themselves to poverty, who live among the poorest of the poor. It is obvious from reading the story that the encounter with the leper was trans-formative for Francis.

It is clear what was in it for Francis. He experienced the leper and, as a result, experienced personal transformation. But how did it turn out for the leper? He got some money (which he did not ask for). He got a hug (which he did not ask for – and random people coming up and hugging you is just weird). He is forever recorded in history, but not by his name. He is only notable for his disease, for how he was “wrong”, for how he is the “other”.

He was, as this story is told, reduced to a prop in the transformation of Francis. And as a reward for getting to play a part in the transformation of Francis, he got competition, for now Francis was begging along side him.

My problem with this story is that we naturally tend to identify with Francis. I mean, even if we would not touch a leper ourselves, we want to think we are the sort of person who would touch a leper.

This story has been used as an example of how the act of mission can change hearts, and we have been listening. Just the other day, I received a fund-raising letter from a teenager who was going off to somewhere in South America on a mission trip, and the key “selling point” was how much this was going to change the life of the teenagers that go on this trip.

When I read that, I thought back to the Francis story, and all I could think of was: OK, I see what is in it for the people going on the trip, but, well, what’s in it for the leper?


Lest you doubt my paraphrase of the Francis tale, you can see the original version here, from the Catholic Encyclopedia. I have pasted the applicable passage below.

One day, while crossing the Umbrian plain on horseback, Francis unexpectedly drew near a poor leper. The sudden appearance of this repulsive object filled him with disgust and he instinctively retreated, but presently controlling his natural aversion he dismounted, embraced the unfortunate man, and gave him all the money he had. About the same time Francis made a pilgrimage to Rome. Pained at the miserly offerings he saw at the tomb of St. Peter, he emptied his purse thereon. Then, as if to put his fastidious nature to the test, he exchanged clothes with a tattered mendicant and stood for the rest of the day fasting among the horde of beggars at the door of the basilica.

The phrase “What’s in it for the leper” I first heard from my friend Brian Ammons , who is a member of an order based on the Rule of St. Francis and Clare. It gave succinctness and order to my own often crazed and wide ranging thoughts about the danger of identifying with only one person in a story.  If you like the idea – credit him. If you think the idea problematic, then blame me.

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  • Reply

    I’ve figured out that this discussion really has nothing to do with Francis at all.

    To that end, I’ll leave you with two passages from the Rule of Life that I solemnly professed:

    13. As the Father sees in every person the features of his Son, the firstborn of many brothers and sisters, so the Secular Franciscans with a gentle and courteous spirit accept all people as a gift of the Lord and an image of Christ.
    A sense of community will make them joyful and ready to place themselves on an equal basis with all people, especially with the lowly for whom they shall strive to create conditions of life worthy of people redeemed by Christ.

    14. Secular Franciscans, together with all people of good will, are called to build a more fraternal and evangelical world so that the kingdom of God may be brought about more effectively. Mindful that anyone “who follows Christ, the perfect man, becomes more of a man himself,” let them exercise their responsibilities competently in the Christian spirit of service.

    -Rule of the Secular Franciscan Order (1979), Sec. 2, 13-14


  • Reply

    To be asked to consider another perspective of a story doesn’t negate any of the previous perspectives. To ask what’s in it for the beggar doesn’t diminish St. Francis or his transformative experience. It does, however, allow me to consider that the story went on for both characters, and we only hear about one of them. Consider the disabled beggars that Jesus healed, especially the ones who were disabled from birth. They had no skills, had not learned a trade. In some respects, Jesus also took away their only source of income. What happened to them after the healing? Not that the healing was a bad thing, but I learned that there are subtle nuances to doing good that are often ignored for the sake of doing good.

  • Scott Bass

    Perhaps these quotes from Monty Python’s Life of Brian will serve some useful, illustrative purpose. (Sorry, folks, it’s been a hard few days and a little lighthearted thoughtfulness seems fitting.)

    Ex-Leper: Okay, sir, my final offer: half a shekel for an old ex-leper?
    Brian: Did you say “ex-leper”?
    Ex-Leper: That’s right, sir, 16 years behind a veil and proud of it, sir.
    Brian: Well, what happened?
    Ex-Leper: Oh, cured, sir.
    Brian: Cured?
    Ex-Leper: Yes sir, bloody miracle, sir. Bless you!
    Brian: Who cured you?
    Ex-Leper: Jesus did, sir. I was hopping along, minding my own business, all of a sudden, up he comes, cures me! One minute I’m a leper with a trade, next minute my livelihood’s gone. Not so much as a by-your-leave! “You’re cured, mate.” Bloody do-gooder.

    Brian: Well, why don’t you go and tell him you want to be a leper again?
    Ex-Leper: Uh, I could do that sir, yeah. Yeah, I could do that I suppose. What I was thinking was I was going to ask him if he could make me a bit lame in one leg during the middle of the week. You know, something beggable, but not leprosy, which is a pain in the ass to be blunt and excuse my French, sir.

  • Maggie

    @John God gets the glory as he reveals himself to Francis thru the Leper. Francis is given the gift of a glimpse of the risen Christ in the suffering man. The Leper is seen with the image of God even in his humbled state. God reveals to broken humanity the hope that is the in breaking Kingdom. In Christ there is hope for all humankind. To God be the Glory. Christ in me. The hope of Glory. Look around, John. Like, Francis, we may see the face of God in our wounded neighbor.

  • Jeanne

    Shortly after my husband and I married, we found out that we were going to be parents. We embarked on a journey through poverty with only one of us working at a time for years. We encountered a lot of people who ministered “at” us, and who treated us like the leper. Someone to be helped on the helper’s terms and someone to make the helper feel really good about how far they’d go to give the poor people a hand. None of those relationships persisted as friendships but they gave several the right to voice opinions on how we navigated our poverty.

    When I tell the story, I tell how they didn’t really get the point and how they were only willing to meet needs as they perceived them, not to invest in finding out what would change my reality (the aforementioned poverty). When they tell the story, they may talk about how they were allowed to see how fortunate they were, how God increased their compassion and their tenderness, and how God forever changed their perspective on how different the rich and the poor are. (I really have no idea, they don’t keep in touch). This just illustrates the story above, which makes me see both of the sides of this. I think Hugh gets it, I just think it’s a different story.

    Taken to where he started in the mission area, I think we should really be much more concerned about what it does for those at whom we are intending to minister because while it is touching that God continues to work in the rich and powerful, it is much more important that He continues to love and send provision for the poor and vulnerable. If we’re using that provision to finance our life changing experience, we might be missing the point.

  • robg

    Wow Hugh! I’ve been reading your blog for a while now, and have noted that there are usually 0 – 2 comments per post. When I saw that this one had 16, I was looking forward to reading some good discussion about the question “what’s in it for the leper?”. Instead much of the discussion is about you getting the point of the story or not.

    I think you got it, and then assisted at the birthing of a great question which, as others have said, is not usually asked. Thanks!

  • Chris Simes

    Absolutely, the story is about Francis, and please understand I’m not dissing Francis. But Hugh’s blog post is about us, the ones located in the dominant culture who would try to follow Jesus and serve the poor- and how the story of Francis’ conversion illustrates a common flaw in how we approach that.

    Francis did give up everything, and did become the person who treated the poor and sick as equals- but not all on the first day, which is the story here. Over time, he did live into his voluntary poverty, did become a brother to the poor and sick, and came to illustrate the Way of Jesus in a genuine and inspiring way.

    The point of the blog post is that we need to be much more humble and sensitive to those we would embrace, especially on the initial approach. We need to remember that no matter how downwardly mobile we might try to be, in some sense we are still “posers”- we still have access to the world of wealth/power/influence that our poor friends never will. We can never completely set that aside- it is part of how we were formed as people- but we need to try. The first step is awareness, and Hugh is trying to help us gain awareness.

  • Reply

    I don’t think that’s a fair assessment, Chris. Francis gave up everything. He was no longer a “rich young man,” nor did he develop some “respect.” He became a poor man, a beggar, a leper, himself.

    And David is right- this story IS about Francis.

  • Chris Simes

    I think Hugh is exactly on point with the “bigger context” here. Jesus hisownself said his gospel was “good news to the poor”. It’s wonderful if rich young Francis gets his eyes opened by the leper (first called a “repulsive object”, then upgraded to “unfortunate man”)- but the leper gets no good news. He gets some respect from Francis, but it changes nothing about his condition or place in society. And, as Hugh shows, he seems to have had zero input in what happens to him.

    It’s not about criticizing the St. Francis story. It’s about pointing out how we tend to make everything- even helping the “least of these”- more about ourselves than about the ones being helped. We tend to do it in ways that serve our own needs. (Like those expensive mission trips.) Now, they may be very worthy needs, like our transformation into sincere Jesus-followers. But that makes it still about us, and Jesus says we need to put ourselves aside and (as Thom says) be brothers and sisters to them.

    I’m thinking that might mean hanging out with them, seeing and asking what they need, feel, and dream, and then trying to provide that help in a way that preserves their dignity and gives them a little control. If we do that, our own transformation will happen organically…

  • Reply

    I get too wordy when I try to comment on other people’s blogs. All I meant to express was:

    1. Clearly, the leper’s story didn’t get told.

    2. I wish it would have.

  • Reply

    @David I appreciate your sincere answer. Believe me, I’m not looking for defense of the bible. I am interested in the bible, pretty much exclusively, as a written work. I think it’s a fascinating study in the rhetorical device known as “the unreliable narrator.” I appreciate your citation.

  • Reply

    @John: I don’t want to run the thread off topic, but since you asked, John 9 comes to mind as a story that is often condensed far too much in its retellings. It moves back and forth between several characters, but probably gives more attention to the one being helped than any other gospel story. The man Jesus helped is spurned by his parents, repeatedly harassed by officials and eventually thrown out of the temple — still an outcast at the end of the day, if that’s what you mean.

    I don’t know you, or what you’re driving at, but know that I’m not one who feels the need to defend the Bible (which you brought up). Since you asked, though, I tried to give a sincere answer.

    @Hugh: I like your thought that the beggar got competition. It’s given me a new uncomfortable tension to wrestle with (as if I didn’t have enough) now that I am salaried by an organization that budgets money both for financial assistance to the “beggars” this story speaks of, and to paying me. Not that I haven’t been aware of, and working with, that tension for a long time already, but your succinct summarization of “competition” puts a new light on it.

  • Reply

    @David, are you familiar with any stories in the bible that do tell the story from the point of view that Hugh finds lacking in this one? Specifically, I mean one in which a person “helped” tells their side of the story, and I’d be particularly interested in one that shows s/he was not “helped” as the “helper” perceived s/he was.

  • Reply

    The thing is, it is Francis’s story. It is told from his perspective by people who were primarily concerned about the effect it had on his life. Nobody told the leper’s story, or at least it hasn’t been preserved in the same way.

    We can’t know how the leper felt about his meeting with Francis because the story, for whatever reason, isn’t concerned with that. The leper may have experienced a positive transformation as well because of this encounter, or he may have been further humiliated and disgraced by once again being the object of another person’s unwarranted (maybe undesired, maybe not) benevolence. We don’t know, because the story doesn’t say.

    Expecting this story written about Francis and intended to describe Francis and his personality to others to give us an objective view of the leper’s situation is like looking to the story of Humpty-Dumpty to tell us if the King preferred his eggs scrambled or poached. That’s just not something the story is concerned about.

    For me, the question I take away from this isn’t about why Francis did what he did, but why no one cared to tell the leper’s story as well.

  • Reply

    @Maggie, please explain how God gets the glory in this story. Also, what is the rhetorical end to using a character’s name or not in a story? And by that, in the examples you know of each, why do think a name is given in one situation and not in another?

  • Maggie

    gets…oops! I hate typos! :)

  • Maggie

    God get’s the glory…not Francis, Hugh. The lepers, beggars, etc. in scripture don’t always get named either. God get’s the glory. It’s God’s story. We’re all beggars.

  • Reply

    Thom, I love Hugh’s blog, too, but I’m afraid you’ve missed the point of Hugh’s posting. You are saying he needs to view the leper story within a larger context. Hugh is saying that we need to view the story in the leper’s context, which nobody but Hugh, has bothered to do.

    You say, “If you are a beggar, in this case, you gain respect, care, and solidarity…”, but where in the story does the beggar corroborate that assumption? Where is his “voice?”

  • Reply

    The story has to be viewed within a larger context. If you are a beggar, in this case, you gain respect, care, and solidarity… and a radical alteration on the place of a “beggar” in that society. “Beggar” and “leper” may be viewed in Franciscan theology as an archetype of those with whom we are to be- not pity and look down upon, but become brother and sister with.

    • Hugh

      First, I am a huge fan of Francis and the Franciscans. But in the story, as it is told, there is no consideration as to the leper. He is not given a name, he is not asked anything, he is not a willing participant in the story. He is the object of the attention, not an equal, but the “other”.

      I get what you are saying, and I agree, as far as you go. But my worry, with a lot of justification, is that the model in this story of Francis fostering attention upon someone who does not want it, has no say in whether he gets it or not, and gets to have no role other than effecting transformation upon the rich is, well, quite typical in Western models of mission, and it demeans the humanity of the poor.

  • Reply

    I love your blog, but I’m afraid you might have missed the point of the story.

    -a Franciscan

    • Hugh


      Thanks for reading, and I am glad you like my stuff. And I get the story – if you identify with Francis. But if you are a beggar, where does it leave you?

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