YEAR B: EPIPHANY 6
(Sunday between February 11 and February 17)
2 Kings 5:1-14
Several matters lie in the background to this intriguing story. First, there is the history of conflict between Israel and Syria (Aram). This conflict made it difficult to conduct normal relations between people of the two nations. Secondly, there is the entrenched concept of male ‘honour’ which prevailed in the ancient Middle East (and still prevails in many societies). The ‘honour’ system required the implementation of ‘face-saving’ techniques in diplomatic dealings with officials of the other group. Thirdly, the king of Aram works under the assumption that power and special gifts belong only to those in powerful positions. Finally, there is the great esteem that the king of Aram holds for Naaman. He is willing to ask for help from the king of Israel on Naaman’s behalf. Naaman is a mighty warrior, through whose courage and foresight Aram has won many victories over neighbouring nations, including Israel. Therein is a problem that will only manifest itself later 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 matter for the shaping of the story is the terrible affliction that has incapacitated Naaman. He has leprosy. Whether it is the same disease as medical practitioners would refer to as leprosy today is difficult to say. Clearly, however, the story describes a serious affliction which is developing. It limits Naaman’s capacity as commanding general of the army. It is also viewed with personal dismay by his benefactor, the king of Aram.
The solution to Naaman’s problem comes from a highly unlikely source. The Israelite slave girl in Naaman’s household offers what is likely to be the only hope for a cure. She tells her mistress that there is a prophet in Samaria who could cure the leprosy. The prophet is Elisha, who is the successor to Elijah, the champion of Yahweh, and fierce opponent of the worship of other gods, including the gods of Aram. Several elements combine in this solution to make it a difficult proposition for Naaman. The help comes from a female Israelite slave. In addition, it requires him to go into the land of Israel, the country of his former enemy, ‘cap in hand’ so to speak, to ask Elisha for help.
With no other choice, Naaman sets off with a letter to the king of Israel from the king of Aram. Not only does he take a request for help, he also has a huge treasure 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 asks the king himself to cure Naaman. The inference is that the king of Aram has not been able to step outside his world of power and diplomatic relations and seek help from any other than Israel’s king. Naaman is unable to lower himself to ask for help from a mere prophet. He may not even have been aware of the reputation of prophets like Elijah and Elisha to cure diseases. A second inference is that real power lies not where Naaman assumes it does.
Nonetheless, Naaman’s letter of introduction is addressed to the king of Israel, and when the latter receives it he is terrified. He suspects a trap as he is not capable of such a healing himself, yet he 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 as well as the king of Israel. Naaman proceeds from the royal court to the humble abode of the prophet. He expects to be treated with all the dignity and respect his high position affords, but the prophet does not even appear, only sending out a message via a servant. The instructions are also rather simple: ‘Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.’
Naaman cannot take this. He probably pictured himself instantly cured as the prophet performed suitable rituals. He also resists the idea that a river in Israel might have more curative properties than rivers in his native Syria. None of this is happening in a way appropriate for a man of his station in life. So he turns it all down. Again the advice of humble servants turns out to be the wisest advice: ‘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’?’ (v. 13). So Naaman submits, and is cured.
In the course of this story many expectations, assumptions, ‘normal’ practices and appropriate behaviours are overturned. Further, much pride, dignity and authority had to be cleared from the path before the goal could be reached. In the world of God’s healing action, there is little room for ‘things as they should be’, or for those whose self-sufficiency ‘closes them off’ to the healing help of God. Immediately Naaman is persuaded to listen to instruction from God through the prophet, and to break open his preset view of things, God rids him of things that were holding him back. Humility and healing go hand in hand. An openness to new possibilities is essential.
In the Gospel reading today we have another leper seeking healing (Mark 1:40-45). But this man stands in contrast to Naaman’s early thoughts and actions. Here is a man who knows where to come for healing, and whose only expectation is to know that it can be the will of Jesus to heal. As we think of the two stories together we are reminded again that the coming of God in Jesus to heal this broken world is not something many would have expected. Yet this is God’s life-giving way in the world. The world has its way of imprinting many expectations, assumptions, ‘normal’ practices and appropriate behaviours upon us. Only the powerful have the power to change situations; we can only change our circumstances by performing appropriate actions; our dignity, pride and authority should be preserved in the public arena etc.
Both the message to Naaman and the episode with the leper coming to Jesus remind us that God overturns human expectations, imposed limitations, and assumed givens to break into the world with healing and new life. God’s choice, like Jesus’ with the leper, is ‘to make all things clean’ to use the language of the leper. That choice is surprising, upsetting, and world changing for those involved. It is also a little threatening as it involves radical personal and social change too.
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