2 Kings 5:1-24
Flaring tempers on the international political scene, the aftermath of a Middle Eastern war, a stubborn disease for which there is no ready cure, a health care crisis, a political leader totally intimidated and panicked, a religious controversy, some simplistic theology, an inflated ego, displaced persons and forced labor: what is it that you think we are hearing? The index of today’s Washington Post? Could be. But I have in mind the Second Book of the Kings and its fifth chapter: the story of Naaman the commander of the Syrian army. Syria! Yes, even Syria makes it into today’s lesson. Aram is the ancient name for Syria. Who says that the Bible has nothing to say about what is happening today?
One of the reasons, of course, that we hear this story on this particular Sunday is that it is paired with Jesus’ healing of ten lepers. By Jesus’ time, the reputation of Samaria had shifted considerably. Instead of being known as the somewhat impressive capital of the northern kingdom of Israel, it was known as an area that, after centuries, was the peculiar whipping boy of the Judahites, or Jews. As happens more than once in Luke’s gospel, a Samaritan turns out to be something of the hero of a story, in this case because he was the one out of ten who took the trouble to thank Jesus for his healing.
But the two stories have links other than leprosy and Samaria. And the point of the story of Naaman is a much stronger one than to use it as a kind of mirror of a gospel passage might suggest. First of all, the story belongs to a cycle of stories about the Prophet Elisha. The spotlight of the whole collection is the power of God manifest through Elisha; so in a sense the story is not Naaman’s at all. Yet to say that is not quite fair to Naaman. You will notice that the way Israelite theology deals with defeat in war is to say that by God’s hand Naaman (in this case) had been given victory. Foreigners quite frequently play a major role in the great sweeping story of salvation. Potentates like Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar, Cyrus the Persian are examples of how God uses the stranger and frequently the enemy to accomplish God’s purposes. Divine activity extends far beyond the parochial confines of Israel, an understanding which to us might seem obvious. Naaman, then, is not just a specific Syrian, general, enemy, and leper. He is also more generically an outsider through whom God’s glory is to be manifest. Jesus, centuries later, was to say as much. According to Luke’s record, Jesus pointed to Naaman and referred to this story in his inaugural sermon at Nazareth. “There were many lepers in Israel in the Prophet Elisha’s time, but none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” That, you might remember, did not go down well with the congregation at Nazareth, who were enraged at the implication that Jesus, their hometown fair-haired boy, was as much or more interested in those outside the community as he was about those inside.
Naaman, the outsider, is perfectly poised in this drama to illuminate two great dynamics, separate and distinct, but intimately connected. Those dynamics are wholeness and holiness. The story indeed falls into two clear parts. One could be called the problem and the other the solution. The first is Naaman’s illness, leprosy, and the question of what is to be done about it. The second is Elisha’s power, which is not in fact Elisha’s but that of the God for whom Elisha is the prophet. When the Bible generally speaks about wholeness, which is one of the dimensions of the familiar word shalom, it means an array of actions that lead to peace, forgiveness, making amends, prosperity, wellness, and restoration. You can see that Naaman himself and all that happens to him at least hint at many of these things. The most obvious thing about Naaman though, turns out not to be his disease of the skin, but rather a disease of the spirit. Even before we learn of his medical condition, we hear that he is a “mighty man of valor.” That’s nice. It clues us in to what Naaman’s problem is going to be. He has a bad case of what Carl Jung called “the inflated ego.” Naaman, once he heard of the healing possibilities in the land of Israel, already had a map of what the experience would be like. The healer would come out and stand and utter incantations and wave his hand over the spot. Naaman’s strong suit was not what you would call submission. And when the prophet Elisha did not come out but simply sent word to the general to go wash in the Jordan seven times, the big man was incensed. He was, in the words of the King James Bible, “wroth,” which means that he was beside himself, foaming, writhing, shaking with anger.
Interestingly, it is not the preaching or even the presence of Elisha that effects the necessary change in Naaman, the change that will lead to his restoration and wholeness. It is his servants. Submission and obedience are part of the necessary process that inevitably pulls one off a high horse and sets one on the path to wholeness. “If the prophet had asked you to do something outstandingly hard, you would certainly have done it. So why not do what is simple?” they ask. So Naaman, having fulminated about the superiority of the rivers back home, consents to do what he is commanded to do by the prophet and urged to do by his subordinates: he goes and bathes in the Jordan seven times. The promised wholeness settles on him after his weird baptism as graciously as a descending dove.
The second part of the story actually begins when Naaman comes to Elisha’s house. That is when he begins to encounter holiness. It first comes to him as an unlikely and irrational command: bathe in a river. That is one of the odd things about holiness. It is less about a state of moral or spiritual uprightness than it is about simply following. Note the times that Jesus says, “Follow me.” Follow the leader. Follow instructions. Follow the example. Try to remember and if you remember, then follow. Follow, follow. Following is obedience. Obedience actually involves hearing. Hearing, truly hearing, means being changed, and being changed is the signal that the soul is on the cusp of submitting and obeying rather than insisting on its own way. You may recognize that this is the way of love. It is also part and parcel of that opening of the soul to a new way of being—gentle instead of angry, hospitable instead of defensive, gracious instead of begrudging. So Naaman, whole, comes back to see Elisha in a posture of gratitude. He does not understand about grace. Grace wants no payment because it itself is free. But he needs to acknowledge the power that has made him whole. And in his limited way he wants to carry off a cartload of Israel’s soil so that he can always have access to what he imagines to be the land of the Lord, the holy land which he once raided but whose God has now invaded and healed his body and spirit.
So, looping back to the connecting points between the eighth century before Christ and today’s news, can we see anything that enlightens us, hear anything that inspires us? These dynamics that we encounter in the Naaman story—wholeness and holiness—are at the heart of what the Christian journey involves. We do not have to wonder too much about what wholeness is because most of us have a palpable sense of lacking something. Maybe you don’t have it now, but you most assuredly will sooner or later. If it is not leprosy or something equally dire that creates in you a yearning for healing and wholeness, it will be some sense of inadequacy, some experience of a defect, even the vague feeling that you are somehow not all you could be. It is perfectly natural, not neurotic, to think thus. We have raised up now a generation or two of children in this country who have been told all sorts of things to the effect that they are special, indeed entitled. We as a society have poured our resources and rhetoric into the notion that self-image is something that can be secured. But unfortunately none of that can do an end-run around the fact that humans inherit a kind of consciousness that comes with growing. It is, among other things, an awareness that we participate in a journey of growth and discovery, along the route of which we can count on being assailed by all manner of things that knock and injure us, test and try us, powerful enough to leave us confused and exhausted as to what to do.
The Christian community hears and proclaims a gospel that addresses all that. Not only is it good news for us as individuals, but it is so good that we have every reason to share it boldly and widely with others who might not yet have heard it. It is the good news that God’s power is made perfect in weakness. It is the good news that every time a world or a world-view cracks up, the accompanying shattering of bodies and souls is only a precondition for a healing and wholeness made possible. Taking up a cross and following Jesus is to embrace the paradox and the mystery that real life consists in giving ourselves away. Following the way of wholeness for the man or woman or boy or girl of valor is perfected when we learn to submit and obey the very commands to stop fulminating and simply go bathe in ordinary life where in common places with dirty water and dirty people we can strangely be cleansed and made whole.
Leonard Cohen wrote, “Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” Take any of those things that we named at the beginning: international politics, war, dislocated persons, disease, health care, for instance. You can add to that list: government shut-down, terrorism, financial instability, environmental damage, personal loss, grief, sickness, fear—every one of these things is a signal that you and I have a choice. We can act as if any one or more or all of them is an occasion to despair, or at least an invitation to resign ourselves to inevitable aloneness in the universe. Or we can recognize any one of them as a sign that the little voice was right when she said, “There is a prophet in Samaria who has the power….” There is a balm in Gilead, there is a force right in our hearts, there is a sign on our foreheads that the folly of God is wiser than the wisdom of the world, that the weakness of God is stronger than the power of evil. Knowing that is to be in touch with holiness. It is indeed to become not only cured, but whole. And it is to return to the Source to kneel and say, “Now I know there is no God in all the earth but you,” no life but yours.
“Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2013