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The cast. Naaman. His name means charm or pleasantness. Apparently a relatively nice fellow as standards of his day would define nice. A powerful personage too - the text calls him "commander of the army of the king of Aram" (modern-day Syria). He was well regarded at court: "a great man and in high favor with his master," and the reason was "by him the Lord had given victory to Aram." Victory over whom? Israel (so the tensions between those two that exist today are nothing new). In fact, the two nations had been adversaries for years, back to the days of Solomon.(1) Naaman was on top of the world...but... He was the poster boy for that old saying, "You can have it all, but if you don't have your health, you have nothing." Our "mighty warrior" was a leper. His ailment was probably not the disfiguring, nerve-destroying leprosy we know today as "Hansen's Disease," for he is not barred from any contacts or activities because of his condition. He has face-to-face access to his king. The word here translated as "leprosy" is actually a generic term that describes a large number of skin disorders. So saying, the suffering and stigma were bad enough for the mighty Naaman to be desperate for help. ANY help. No giggles there. We sympathize. But how ironic: the apparently powerful so powerless.
Another irony. A major role is about to be played by a minor character, Naaman's wife's Israelite slave girl. A bit of a surprise here - someone so inconsequential in the grand scheme of things that she is not even named. The captive helping the captor? SHE has advice? Actually, yes. She tells her mistress, "If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy." It is a measure of Naaman's desperation that he would bother to listen, much less act on this slave's suggestion. But he does. He risks, not only his favored position with the king by requesting permission to go on this ancient version of a pilgrimage to Lourdes for healing, but he would risk his fortune loading up the caravan with an outrageous sum of money (health care was obviously overpriced back then too). He would risk his very life with this journey into the hostile territory of a conquered nation. But what choice did he have? This powerful man was powerless in the face of something as simple (but as potentially devastating) as bad skin. Ironic.
Now we are introduced to the politics of the day. The Aramean king, hoping to expedite the quest of his highly-valued military commander, takes it upon himself to validate this unlikely mission with an official royal letter. No longer is Naaman's search for health at the mercy of a slave girl's knowledge or a mysterious prophet's whim - this is now an officially sanctioned matter of state significance. "When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy."
The reaction of the Israelite king is panic. AHHH! He rips his clothes in anguish. "Am I God? Can I kill and bring back to life? Why does this fellow send someone to me to be cured of his leprosy? See how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me." The message to those hearing this story would be that this king (who, mercifully, remains unidentified) is a stinker. Despite the long history of his people, despite their deliverance from Egypt and wanderings in the wilderness, despite the powerful ministry of the prophets, it does not occur to this king to turn the problem over to God. All he sees is all hell about to break loose, an imminent international incident, a threat to "pick a quarrel," the king of Aram's transparent excuse to resume hostilities. He should know better. One more irony.
Now we meet a new character - Elisha. A bit different from his better-known predecessor Elijah. Where Elijah constantly reiterated the central message of his ministry - that Israel must choose whether it would follow Yahweh or follow Baal - Elisha has no overarching prophetic word. He does not present ultimatums to either the common people or the various kings of Israel. He even leaves the prophets of other gods to their own devices. He purifies poisoned wells,(2) helps a widow pay her debts,(3) restores a young man from death to life,(4) feeds a hundred men to their fill with just 20 barley loaves and some grain.(5) It is nothing more than Elisha's sheer presence that remains a constant reminder of Yahweh's power, a power greater than that of any king of Israel or any foreign ruler.
Somehow word reaches Elisha (we are not told how). He contacts the Jerusalem court. What is the problem? "Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel." And, while we are at it, King, you might learn the same thing your own skanky self!
Now the next irony - the scene will not be played out in glorious Jerusalem, but over in the boondocks of dusty Samaria. To his credit, Naaman takes that in stride and makes the trek to Elisha's home.
He arrives with his impressive caravan, all the trappings of money and might, his whole retinue of servants, not to mention all the gifts he was bringing. The prophet would surely be impressed by the show of power and prestige. But where IS the prophet? Elisha does not even bother to come out of his house. Naaman's presence, which had struck such fear into the heart of Israel's king, is hardly even recognized by Israel's prophet. Instead, he sends a servant out with instructions: "Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean."
What? What kind of greeting is this? Not even a personal SHALOM for someone of the stature of commanding general of the forces of a great nation? The prophet cannot bother himself even to come out of the house? You can see the steam beginning to come from Naaman's ears. And these instructions? Insulting! Naaman had anticipated a Cecil B. DeMille flourish with all the pomp and circumstance such a moment deserved - Elisha would stand tall before him, arms uplifted, "...call on the name of the LORD his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy" with the style and dignity befitting such a VIP. Instead, all Naaman gets is this servant's second-hand directive to go wash in the Jordan - seven dunks in a muddy stream. Big WHOOP! RIDICULOUS! And more irony. The Jordan? "Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than any of the waters of Israel? Couldn't I wash in them and be cleansed?" Elisha has not only insulted Naaman, but Naaman's homeland as well!
For a moment, it seems a frustrated, furious Naaman will give this up as a fool's errand. How dare this country prophet show so little respect? He wanted to healed, but there are ways and there are ways. Naaman wanted it done HIS way. Forget it! Turn this caravan around.
But once again, irony jumps in. It is the voice of the lowest - this time Naaman's own servants: "If the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you, 'Wash and be cleansed'?" They urge him not to reject help because the helper's style appears simple. The prophet had asked for obedience and humility, not some mighty act of valor or a hocus-pocus performance.
The truth of his servants' words slaps Naaman back to reality. He stops being the military commander, the friend of kings, the wealthy courtier, and instead acknowledges what he is: a leper who needs to be cleansed.
I wonder if he felt foolish as he took those steps into the river. Some probably. One more bit of irony - the mighty warrior ducking under once...and twice...and three times...up-down-up-down-up-down...four times...five...up-down-up-down...six...seven. Silly? A little perhaps. We are allowed to giggle. But when it was done, he walked up the bank and, as scripture says, "his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean." More than the leprous scales had washed off Naaman's body in that water - so did the pride and arrogance that he had brought with him. Maybe not so silly after all.
The story does not end there, of course. Naaman returns to Elisha, this time actually getting a face-to-face meeting. He is grateful, of course, and he is wise enough to know the true source of his healing. He says, "Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel."
Naaman learned something else important that day. He learned that this God of all the world does not work according to our preconceptions. It took him awhile, but Naaman was finally able to get rid of his, and when he did, his healing began.
Can we get rid of our preconceptions of what God must do, when God must do, where God must do, how God must do? Remember, this God is the same God who took on human flesh in the form of a tiny baby. This is the God who chose one nation to be a "light" to all the others, a little-bitty, fifth-rate one - as the lines of doggerel have it, "How odd / Of God / To choose / The Jews."
Think about the young man from the very devout Jewish family who had more religious conviction than most all of us put together, the one who decided that he was going to destroy this heresy called Christianity. So he set about to. He went around the countryside as scripture says, "breathing out threatenings and slaughter." His name was Saul of Tarsus. If you remember the story from your Sunday School days, Saul got bounced on his babushka on the Damascus Road and he became the greatest missionary the Church has ever known. Why did God choose HIM?
Think through the centuries of church history to a time not quite 500 years after Christ, to the young man in the north of Africa who led such a wild, riotous life, that even after he decided to become a Christian he refused baptism because there was still some sinning he planned to do, and he wanted to go wild with at least a relatively clear conscience. He made a prayer once in reference to his raucous womanizing; he said, "Lord, make me chaste, but not yet." His name was Augustine, and even though he lived a thousand years before the Reformers, he became the inspiration for the work that they would do to change the church. Another surprise!
There would be others through the years. There was Martin Luther, a simple scholarly priest who would have been much more content in an academic setting, but ended up taking on the whole church to correct massive abuses. My Presbyterian forebear John Calvin began his career looking to become a lawyer, but instead became the greatest theologian of the Reformation. There was a young Anglican priest invited to come from England to minister to British colonists in Savannah whose stormy voyage to the New World caused him to re-examine his faith and to conclude it was "vain words." John Wesley's subsequent conversion led, through one improbable event after another, to the eventual founding of the Methodist Church. It was William Carey, a humble shoemaker who became the father of modern missionary enterprise when he took the gospel to India. There was John R. Mott, a businessman at the turn of this century who was convinced that Christian churches would present a better witness to the world if we could only begin to cooperate from one denomination to the next - it was Mott, a layman, who became one of the founders of the Ecumenical movement. There was the young preacher's son, very ordinary, very fallible, but used of God in an incredible way as he became the messenger to America to call attention to our racism and bigotry. Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered for his efforts, but his memory will never die. The list of God's surprises could go on and on and on. But, as Naaman would surely attest, life is full of them.
As he would be the first to admit, Naaman almost blew it. He almost let his preconceptions pre-empt his healing. Naaman could not imagine God working in any way other than what HE had envisioned. He came close to missing out.
Is that a danger for you and me? You know it is. Naaman's attitude challenges our own response to circumstances in our lives. We all have hurts and hopes, and, like Naaman, we all have our ideas as to how God will handle them. The problem might be physical, or it could be something in our home or family or job or church. As I said at the beginning of this, the healing of Naaman is a fun story - lots of neat twists and turns plus not very subtle irony and even humor. But, at its heart, it has a very serious message. Just this: God does not work according to our preconceptions - never has, never will. Is that all right with you? Good. Then be open and ready for some wonderful surprises...gracious gifts from our magnificent, mysterious, even mischievous God.
1. 1 Kings 11:23-25
2. II Kings 2:19-22
3. II Kings 4:1-7
4. II Kings 4:8-37
5. II Kings 4:42-44