Saturday, November 5, 2022

“Healing and Humility” - November 6, 2022

Text: 2 Kings 5:1-15

Last Sunday, we thought about wisdom and discernment as we looked at Solomon.  Under his leadership the great temple was built in Jerusalem.  Along with the temple there was an ambitious program of public works, including a palace for the king.  Though he had asked God for wisdom, not wealth, he lived lavishly and became fabulously wealthy.  To support all of this, the people were taxed heavily, and by the end of his reign, the nation was nearly bankrupt.  

After Solomon’s death, the nation was divided north and south.  It is during the time of the divided monarchy that the prophets Elijah and Elisha arose in the northern kingdom of Israel.  Elisha was Elijah’s protégé, and at the end of Elijah’s life, Elisha took up his mantle, or cloak - literally.  This is where the expression comes from for passing on authority from teacher to student.

It was in the time of Elisha the prophet that we come to today’s scripture.  Naaman was the commander of the army of Aram, an ancient country that is today part of Syria.  Naaman was a military hero and a powerful man.  

But there was a problem.  Naaman had a terrible skin disease.  Unless one was born into the royal family, a person could not rise any higher than Naaman, but his power and status did not protect him from illness.   This skin disease is often translated as “leprosy,” but it is not leprosy as we think of it today.  Now in Israel, if you had such a skin disease you would have to remain outside the community according to Leviticus.  There were purity concerns and the possibility of spreading this on to others.  It’s not clear what this would have meant in Aramean society, but this is clearly not good.

Now, Aram borders Israel to the northeast.  There was a history of border disputes and fighting between the two nations that has essentially gone on for millennia and still goes on today in the Golan Heights.  During an earlier raid on Israel, an Israelite girl was taken captive, and she was now Naaman’s wife’s servant.

Surprisingly, almost unbelievably, this servant girl taken from Israel cares about Naaman.  It’s hard to imagine why she would root for this military leader of a rival nation.  But for whatever reason, she wants to help him.  So she tells Naaman’s wife that there is a prophet back in her home country who could heal him.  

This girl is unnamed.  This is the only part she has in this story.  And yet without her, there would be no story.  It is her suggestion that makes everything possible.  

It perhaps says something about the depth of Naaman’s desperation that he listened to the advice of this Israelite servant girl.  As a traditional foe of Israel, it would be humiliating for this great man to go to Israel, of all places, on bended knee.  But his disease threatened to take everything from him, and so he was willing to try almost anything.

Naaman mentions this servant’s suggestion to the king, and to his surprise, the king thinks it’s a great idea.  Of course, there were political implications to consider.  Naaman’s visit would create quite a stir.  The king sends along gifts: silver and gold, an enormous amount of money, and ten new suits - the latest in Aramean fashion.  The king sends Naaman directly to the king of Israel.  This needed to be handled at the proper level.   A person like Naaman didn’t just go hat-in-hand to some Israelite prophet.  

The letter sent to the king of Israel says, “I have sent Naaman to you so that you may cure him of leprosy.”  No mention of a prophet who might be able to heal him.  The king of Israel panics.  “What, you think I can just cure disease?” he asks.  He was obviously being set up.  When he failed to provide the cure, Aram would have an excuse, a pretense, to invade Israel again.  It was a potentially dangerous situation, and the king tears his clothes as a sign of his despair.  

But word of Naaman’s visit and the king’s predicament reached Elisha the prophet, who sent a message to the king of Israel.  “Send this guy on over to me,” Elisha says.

It’s interesting that this slave girl, a captive in a foreign land, has heard of the prophet Elisha and believes he can heal Naaman – but the king seems clueless about this.  He doesn’t think of sending Naaman to Elisha for healing.

Naaman and his whole entourage, with horses and chariots and servants, go to the house of Elisha.  They pull up at Elisha’s place.  And they wait.  But Elisha does not come out to greet him.  Instead of being received with honor by Elisha, this Israelite prophet just sends out a servant.  

A visit from Naaman, the commander of the Aramean army, had to be the biggest thing that had happened in these parts in who knows when.  This mighty general arrives, and the prophet doesn’t even bother to see him!  A scrawny messenger boy tells Naaman to go dip in the Jordan River seven times, and he would be clean.

It was a slap in the face is what it was.  Elisha’s prescription was no better than his bedside manner.  The Jordan River was really not much more than a muddy creek.  It was shallow and at times rather foul-smelling.  I mean, if you dipped seven times in the Jordan River, you were likely to get a skin disease.

Naaman is infuriated.  He has come all this way, gone to all this trouble, brought expensive gifts, just to have the servant of an Israelite prophet tell him to go dip in a godforsaken mudhole.  If he were going to wash in a river, they had way better rivers back home.  Of all the nerve!

Naaman said, “I thought the prophet would come out, and wave his hands and call on his God, and say magic, mysterious words to cure me.  I thought there would be drama.  I thought there would be spectacle.”  And Naaman stormed off in a rage.

And for the second time, it is not the mighty and powerful people, but a lowly servant who saves the day and points Naaman towards healing.  His servants approached him and said, “Look, if the prophet had asked you to do something difficult, wouldn’t you have done it?

The servant was right.  If Elisha had sent Naaman on a difficult quest, or prescribed an arduous or painful treatment, he would have done it.

Actually, that kind of prescription would have been easier for Naaman because it would have meant that he had worked for his healing.  It would have meant that he himself was responsible for it.  As it was, he wanted to pay for the treatment with an enormous amount of money and fine clothing.  But Elisha would not take it.  For Naaman, to simply accept a gift was a lot harder.

But the servant’s words were true.  He would have done anything.  So it made sense to at least give Elisha’s prescription a try.  He goes to the muddy waters of the Jordan, and he immersed himself seven times in the water.

Naaman had to set aside his pride and humble himself.  The text says, “He went down,” and he really did have to go down.  He had to stoop to taking advice from an Israelite slave girl, then he went down to Jerusalem, and then even further down to the prophet in Samaria.  He had to lower himself to the point of being set straight by his own servants, and finally he went down into the muddy Jordan, washing with the very common people of an enemy nation, before he found healing.

“The Doctor” was a movie starring William Hurt as a physician who is diagnosed with throat cancer.  As a teacher in the med school, he is used to people following his commands.  He is in control and in charge, and he is not used to being a patient.

As a patient, he finds that he has to do a lot of waiting.  He is treated like anybody else and has to go by other people’s schedules, not his own.  He is not used to feeling unimportant; he is not used to all the indignities of being a patient.  In the course of his treatment, he becomes friends with a fellow patient who teaches him a great deal about living and about dying.  He makes a full recovery, while she does not.

When he returns to his teaching position, one of the first class projects is to assign a bed to each student and to attach a hypothetical disease to each of them.  Each make-believe patient has to undergo all of the tests associated with that disease.  The nurses, much more familiar than doctors with the day-to-day care of patients, seem pleased by this.

This doctor was not only cured, he was healed.  He experienced a conversion of sorts, and returns to his profession, both a changed man and a much better doctor.

We can hope that it was that way for Naaman.  He was cured of his illness, and we have to hope that in the process, he was healed as well, that he learned humility, learned to listen to others, and was a changed man after the experience.

The power dynamics in this story are so interesting.  On one level, you have the official sources of power.  You have Naaman the general, the king of Aram, and the king of Israel.  All of the power and resources available at their disposal – including truckloads of cash and the coercive power of the state.  But they are unaware of other sources of power and other kinds of power.  In fact, the main thing that the servant girl had told Naaman was completely ignored.  And it doesn’t occur to the king of Israel that he prophet might be able to provide healing through the power of God.  

On the other hand, you have a couple of Naaman’s own servants and an Israelite prophet who is unimpressed with displays of power and wealth.  They are the ones who actually get things done.   And in fact, Elisha performs a low-key miracle.  It is not flashy, it’s not dramatic, and he isn’t even around to see it.

This could have been a simple story.  The servant girl told Naaman’s wife that there was a prophet in Samaria who could heal Naaman.  And eventually, that is exactly what happened.  But there were all of these complicated steps and missteps along the way, with social structures and official channels and all kinds of expectations related to power and entitlement.

It was only once Naaman got beyond all of this, got past being full of himself, that he was able to find healing.

Unlike Naaman, we are not national heroes.  We are not amazing, miracle-working prophets.  We are not superstar saints.  But we can do what this young girl did.  In small acts of compassion and caring, we can make a difference.  Each act of kindness and compassion and unexpected goodness contributes to the healing of both others and ourselves – as well as our community and our world.  

Each time we care for our neighbor or choose to be generous or help a person in need or express concern for a friend or act to protect the earth or welcome a stranger or give of our time to make our community a better place, we are contributing to healing.  In this season that we think about stewardship, it strikes me that such acts of kindness and caring and compassion are powerful acts of stewardship.

We are called to be stewards of all God has entrusted to us.  And that includes the relationships in our lives.

Who are the people that have blessed you, who have made a real difference in your life?  Sometimes it may be an unexpected person, like the servant girl who makes healing possible for Naaman.  And sometimes, we have the opportunity to be that person, to share the hope and peace and love of Christ and in doing so point another toward healing.  May it be so.  Amen.


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