July 7, 2013 2 Kings 5: 1-14
Rev. Catherine Purves
From the ancient story of David and Goliath to the modern epic of Harry Potter, everyone seems to like a good story in which the little guy wins in the end. Perhaps we all fancy ourselves as unsung heroes. Or maybe it’s just that almost everyone resents the self-important power-driven people who seem to have all the luck and who always claim center stage. Turn-about stories delight us when those who are apparently powerless are revealed to be wise and brave and honest. And we do like to see proud know-it-alls put in their place. The healing of Naaman is that kind of story. It has a dazzling cast of characters: a fierce warrior, two kings, and a mighty prophet. But, in the end, it is a few unnamed servants who are revealed to be faithful, brave, and wise. They are the real heroes, and without them Naaman would never have been healed of his leprosy.
At the beginning of this story we are first introduced to Naaman, the commander of the army of the king of Aram. This is obviously a very important and powerful warrior who had risen through the ranks in spite of his disfiguring skin condition. It is called leprosy, but, obviously, it wasn’t the very contagious disease which caused people to be banished from society. Still, this was a serious condition, and, apparently, Naaman’s entire household was desperate for a cure.
A young Hebrew slave girl, captured in a raid on Israel, suggested a solution to Naaman’s problem. Though she had absolutely no status in that household and could as easily have been punished for the mere suggestion that Israel’s God and Israel’s prophet might provide a cure unobtainable in Aram, she nevertheless spoke out bravely and confidently. She was far from home, living among pagans, the enemies of her people, yet she continued to trust in her God and in his prophet.
Have you ever found yourself in a new context, lifted out of the structures and the ‘culture’ that told you who you were and how you were to behave and what you were to believe. This happens to our young people when they go off to college or join the service. It can happen when you are away on vacation or if you move (even across town) and lose your immediate connections to community, family, and church. I remember vividly the experience of falling out of the sky and landing in Scotland as a young 22 year old. It was one of those “Dorothy, we’re not in Kansas anymore” moments. It took me a while to find my feet, and learn how to be myself abroad and in a foreign culture.
How much more would a prisoner of war turned slave girl living in the home of the commander of the army that had just defeated her people feel untethered, out of place, frightened, and separated from all that gave her life meaning and purpose? Yet, still that young woman bravely declared, “If only my lord (that is, Naaman) were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” I expect she would have been beaten for a far less provocative comment, but, surprisingly, her mistress took it to heart and told her husband that there might be hope for him in Israel.
This began the chain of events that brought Naaman, eventually, to the home of Elisha, all because a young slave girl was brave enough to say that her God and his prophet could cure an incurable disease. But when the great and powerful characters in our story decided to make something happen, the plot suddenly got overly complicated. Everyone was trying to impress everyone else, throwing their wealth and their power around. Important people like to be treated like important people. They like to feel that they are in control. They like to give orders. So, the king of Aram sent his pretentious letter. Naaman loaded his servants down with elaborate gifts. The king of Israel tore his clothes when he realized that he couldn’t meet the demands of his enemy, the king of Aram. And Naaman became furious when Elisha refused to welcome him and make a show of his healing.
Typical! They should have been coming to honor the God of Israel and his prophet and to ask humbly for a cure. Instead they came ready to strong-arm Israel’s king and to buy off the wonder-working prophet. Naaman came with threatening letters and bribes, and with his own expectations and demands. No wonder Elisha refused to see Naaman after such a self-serving demonstration of pride and privilege. Naaman thought he deserved a cure, and he wanted it on his own terms.
Before we dismiss Naaman entirely as a know-nothing foreigner who was inexcusably presumptuous in his attitude toward God and the prophet Elisha, let’s consider for a moment our own motivations in coming to worship. Do we not all come with an agenda and with expectations about what the experience of worship is going to do for us? Aren’t we assuming that God will show up and do something special during the one hour we have allotted for worship? Are our offerings always freely given out of gratitude, or do we sometimes think of them as the price of admission or even a source of some pride? Do we really come ready to be changed deep down, or do we simply want God to affirm and accept us as we are? I don’t actually think that Naaman was all that unique in his attitudes, and it wouldn’t hurt any of us to examine our own motivations whenever we come to worship God and seek his healing.
But now we come to our second group of servant heroes. Remember that Naaman had just thrown himself into a rage after being snubbed by Elisha and then given a preposterous cure by a mere messenger sent by the prophet. If ever there was a time when servants should lay low and keep their mouths shut, this was it. What business was it of theirs if Naaman wanted to go all the way back to Damascus without a cure? Certainly, he was letting his pride get in the way, but that was his choice to make. They were only servants, after all. Why should they stick their necks out and get involved? But, of course, they did, and reasoning with Naaman they persuaded him to do what Elisha had said.
How easy it is for us to decide not to get involved. Even in a situation when we are among equals, we might hesitate to give our opinion in matters of faith or ethics, politics or family matters. We tend to let sleeping dogs lie, especially if, like Naaman, they are angry dogs, and even more so if, like Naaman, they are people of some power and importance. We have cockeyed notions of privacy that separate us from our neighbors, and we have convenient ideas about social hierarchies that free us from responsibility for those more rich or powerful than ourselves. But Naaman’s servants didn’t fall into any of those easy traps. Instead, they bravely and wisely confronted him with the foolishness of his own stubborn pride and urged him to wash in the Jordan, and, of course, his leprosy was cured.
It was a happy ending all around. The slave girl and the courageous servants were vindicated. Elisha showed Naaman and all the people of Aram, including their king, that there was a God and a powerful prophet in Israel. We learned that, like the slave girl, we must be true to our God no matter where or in what circumstances we find ourselves. We were reminded, as Naaman was, of the correct way in which to approach God in worship. And we were shown that, like Naaman’s servants, we are called to act and to get involved in the lives of others, bravely living out our faith, taking risks, and speaking the truth. And we have celebrated the victories of the little people in the story who both helped and taught the important people what faith is all about.
That’s quite a lot to get out of one story. But you may have noticed that we didn’t actually read the entire saga of Naaman and Elisha. If you have time this afternoon, you might want to read the rest of chapter 5. There you will see that Naaman was finally humbled before the God of Israel, and he promised Elisha that, from then on, he would never offer sacrifices to any god but the God of Israel. His healing was a true baptism and conversion. He still had a lot to learn, but his life would be forever changed. The great man became a humble servant of the Lord.
You will also read about Elisha’s greedy servant, Gehazi, who followed after Naaman as he returned to Damascus, and who tricked him out of the valuable gifts which Elisha had refused to accept. Gehazi was lured into sin by greed and a desire for the power that money can buy. The poor servant was trying to make himself a great man. Elisha was not fooled, however, and he cursed Gehazi with the same leprosy that had brought Naaman to Israel seeking a cure.
So, here is one more lesson for us from our story. The rich and powerful are not always the bad guys, and the poor servants are not always the good guys. We all can make both good and bad choices, no matter who we are. We are responsible for those choices, and they will have consequences. But God can change anyone (even Naaman!) in surprising and unexpected ways, no matter how many bad decisions or wrong choices they have made in their lives. Never assume that you know the end of the story until God is finished with all of the characters. And that includes you and me.