2 Kings 5:1-14 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the Lord had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy. Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said. And the king of Aram said, “Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.”
He went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. He brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy.” When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, “Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.”
But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, “Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.” So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house. Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.” But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?” He turned and went away in a rage. But his servants approached and said to him, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.
This is one powerful story found in the Hebrew texts. Several weeks ago when I first read it, what struck me was toward the end of the story where this great, prideful man, Naaman, is insulted to be told to simply go into the waters of the Jordan to be healed of his leprosy. My attention was on the reality that so often we take the simplest instructions and make them so unnecessarily complicated when we don’t have to. What is it about simplicity that makes us ignore it? Do we think that advice or direction doesn’t have value if it’s not complicated? What’s that statement? KISS?
Last week, Leslie who facilitates the Music and Dance Academy knocked on the office door asking me to a parade. It was a wonderful, fun-filled, simple, Fourth of July parade with decorated trikes and bikes and wagons and marchers. And it was simply special for the participants as well as those who cheered them on. It reminded me of the parades of my youth: no over-the-top displays; marching girl scouts and boy scouts; town police; a few dignitaries in cars; and no tanks – except on the fire truck. Parades should be simple and beautiful and fun. Why do we tend to make the simple so complex?
I thought simplicity was going to be the focus for the sermon, but like so many things in life, I was led elsewhere. As I continued to do research on this particular passage I found the backstory not only interesting, but relevant in its complexity – a story of brokenness, humility, hope and healing. The central character is the powerful and highly regarded general, Naaman – an Aramean. Also in play are two kings: Naaman’s king of Aram and the king of Israel, as well as the Prophet Elisha.
The story unfolds to reveal to us Naaman’s struggle with his obvious health issue that constantly plagues him – most scholars believe it’s Leprosy. Of all physical ailments, a skin disease is one of the hardest to hide, and it makes Naaman the mighty warrior, strangely vulnerable. Leprosy is a chronic infectious disease mainly causing skin lesions and nerve damage that causes reduced sensation, numbness and weakness in hands and feet – and it’s hard to hide.
Barbara Brown Taylor explores what the great general must have felt like in the simplest of everyday encounters, when his success and fame and power meant very little before the awkward discomfort of someone who might not want to shake his hand or stare too long at his disfigurement (Home by Another Way). Still, this humiliation doesn’t prevent Naaman from having a certain sense of his own place and entitlement that puts him above ordinary people, and, for that matter, ordinary rivers and everyday mud.
Naaman, after all, walks and talks with kings. He rides at the head of an army, and he has the wherewithal to assemble a great treasure to offer in return for a cure he thinks he can buy, with ‘the best available health care, no doubt anticipating a private, luxurious room for his period of confinement.’
Theologian Walter Bruggemann writes: “Everything can be bought, when you live on top of the world.” (The Witness of Elijah and Elisha). This brought to mind one of the recent scandals of our time that continues to unfold of the wealthy parents who buy college admission for their children. Sadly, this is really not such a new story after all.
The powerful king of Aram approaches helping Naaman in his own way and as king he feels he is above working with a foreign prophet like Elisha (poor, uneducated and probably not too well-groomed). So the kings does what comes naturally: he talks to his ‘own kind,’ his peer, and sends a message directly and personally to the king of Israel. According to Bruggemann, this kind of letter from a king is unusual in the Bible, and he calls this ‘healing on demand, by royal memo’ (The Land: Place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith). Power talks to power – for what it’s worth, in a situation like this one it’s not what you know but who you know. Even with all that power the truth of the matter is, neither have the power to heal Naaman.
Fear and politics have always played a very real role in the world. The king of Israel, fears that the King of Aram is trying to find a reason to attack him and so he ends up ripping his clothing which is a sign of grief, anger and perhaps even fear. Power and tension between nations and rulers haven’t changed over the centuries.
The story moves on. Naaman came with his horses and chariots and money and gifts expecting to be met by Elisha himself. But the prophet sent a messenger in his place to Naaman who told him simply to “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.” No prayers of invocation. No special rituals. No faith first for healing. Just, go wash in the Jordan. But that just added insult to injury as far as Naaman was concerned and said: “I thought that for me (the prophet) would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy!” And then he goes on to deride the muddy Jordan River and he stomped away in a rage. What a great story of human nature this is. Any resemblance to any people in power in this day and age is not intentional – but purely coincidental.
Big egos get first billing, but this story is also about important interactions with a cast of seemingly insignificant and unnamed people, who in their own way, have power to move things along and make things happen – these are the everyday prophets. In this story it especially includes the young captive girl who tells Naaman’s wife about the prophet Elisha and his healing power. This telling really got Naaman pointed to a healer from the community from which she was stolen. I find her to be a generous soul because she could have kept this important fact to herself – but perhaps compassion overcame that impulse.
Then there are Naaman’s servants who help him get refocused and off his high horse about what he perceives to be a terrible offense. I admire their courage to confront him as they did when they said: “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” They point to the simple instruction where healing is the goal. They show a courage and compassion to this General that could have cost them dearly.
All of these things, including the not so grand and muddy Jordan are the unexpected means of Naaman’s healing that reveal the compassion of God outside of prescribed religious beliefs. Naaman’s healing is an eye-opening belief-shattering event for everyone, especially for Naaman as he stepped out of his comfort zone deep into the land of his enemy to receive the healing he needed. If we were to continue to read the story, we learn of Naaman’s genuine gratitude and faith in this God of all creation.
God still speaks in and from the most unexpected places and through the most unlikely people, prophets in their own rights – prophets in our own rights. Perhaps it’s a word of possibility and hope we share with another. Perhaps it’s being courageous enough to tell the truth to power or to confront someone’s inappropriate behavior in a loving way. Perhaps it’s a kind action that reflects God’s love through you to someone who desperately needs an act of kindness.
Thomas Merton said it fully and simply when he wrote: “Speak words of hope. Be human in this most inhuman of ages. Guard the image of (humanbeins) for it is the image of God.” (Exploring the Universal Christ)
Dear prophets, may God continue to bless you. Your voices and actions of love and compassion are needed now more than ever. May you find the rest and restoration needed in this sanctuary with other prophets. You are blessed and you are a blessing. When you go into the world, bless others as you are blessed. Amen.
(Resource: UCC Sermon Seeds, Kathyn Matthews)
Copyright DMC 2019