Year C: Pentecost 6
July 4, 2010
2 Kings 5:1-14
The background to this intriguing story is the history of conflict between Israel and Syria (Aram). The conflictual relationship made it difficult to conduct normal human affairs, especially those involving officials of the two nations. Added to that was the entrenched concept of male ‘honour’ which prevailed in the ancient Middle East (and still prevails). The ‘honour’ system required the implementation of diplomatic ‘face-saving’ techniques in dealings with officials of the other group. The fact that the king of Aram is willing to ask for help from the king of Israel on behalf of Naaman indicates the high regard in which the general is held. He is a mighty warrior, through whose courage and foresight Aram has won many victories over neighbouring nations, including Israel. Therein lies a problem that will manifest itself further on in the story. The fact of the defeat of Israel by Naaman’s army is inferred by the identification of Naaman’s wife’s slave as an Israelite: ‘Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel’ (v. 2).
But the most important issue is that a terrible affliction has now incapacitated Naaman. He has what the text refers to as leprosy. The disease is developing, and it limits his capacity as commanding general of the army. It is also viewed with personal dismay by his benefactor, the king of Aram. The solution comes from a highly unlikely source. The Israelite slave girl in Naaman’s household offers what is likely to be the only possible hope for a cure for Naaman. She tells her mistress that there is a prophet in Samaria who could cure the leprosy. The prophet is Elisha, who is the successor of Elijah, the champion of Yahweh and fierce opponent of the worship of other gods, including the gods of Aram. The help comes from a slave, who is also female. She represents a nation which Naaman’s armies have defeated in the past. Therefore, there are several reasons why Naaman will have to overcome his pride in order to go ‘cap in hand’ to ask Elisha to cure his disease.
Yet there is no other choice, so he sets off armed with a letter of referral from the king of Aram to the king of Israel. Not only does he take a request for help, he also takes has a huge store of gifts for the king of Israel. He will need to humble himself, and throw himself completely on the mercy of the Israelites. But when Naaman presents the letter and the gifts to the king of Israel, we find that the letter mistakenly asks the king himself to cure Naaman. Maybe the king of Aram cannot lower himself to ask for help from a mere prophet. Alternatively, he may not know of prophets who cure diseases. Thirdly it could be a political trap for the king of Israel.
The king of Israel is suitably terrified. He knows he is not capable of such healing, but does not wish to offend the powerful king of Aram. He tears his clothes in preparation for mourning the calamity which is sure to descend upon him and his nation. Fortunately, his distress is communicated to Elisha, who suggests that Naaman be sent to him ‘that he may learn there is a prophet in Israel’. In other words – a true prophet of the true God. This is the beginning of a series of ‘come-downs’ for Naaman. He is sent from the royal court to the humble abode of the prophet. When he arrives he expects to remain outside on his camel, with his entourage, while this prophet comes and pays him the honour he has come to expect. But the prophet does not even appear, electing rather to send a message by a servant. The instructions are so simple: ‘Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.’
Naaman cannot take this. He had pictured himself instantly cured as the prophet waved his hand over him. He also resists the idea that a river of Israel might have more curative properties than rivers in his own Syria. None of it is happening the way he expected for a man of his station in life. So he turns it down. Again the advice of humble servants turns out to be the wisest: ‘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 does wash, and is cured.
While Naaman remained self-sufficient and ‘closed off’ to the healing help of God, he could not be helped. Immediately he is persuaded to listen to instruction from God through the prophet then God rids him of the things that were troubling him. But the story is not simply one about humility and healing going hand in hand, as if God is waiting for this prominent man to eat humble pie. It is about the surprising and unexpected way of God in the world and our openness to that way. It is about our expectations being undone as we engage with a God who does the unexpected. And above all it is about the healing being totally the gift of God, neither initiated nor controlled by human action.
The first surprise in this story is that God would heal this Aramean at all. The second is that this God entrusts his message to servants for its conveyance. Even when he follows the slave girl’s suggestion Naaman acts as though the ways of power and authority in this world are the ways of God (v. 5b). The final surprise concerns what Naaman is told to do – bath in the Jordan. The ways of God seem to respect neither personnel nor proper protocol, and they are not to be controlled in any way. Just as in last week’s reading here is a God whose word and spirit move to their own tune, and with surprising effect, on whomever they will.
The gospel reading for today (Luke 10:1-11, 16-20) strikes a similar theme as the disciples are sent forth by Jesus to preach. They are not to carry any provision for the journey. This is neither a test of God’s support for his workers, nor of their trust, although that is involved. Rather, it is witness to the total dependency of God’s people on God, who has yet more surprises to show them in their faithful service.
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