The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (July 7, 2019)
Readers’ Theater: The Healing of Naaman – 2 Kings 5:1-15
We continue our third in a series of stories from 1 and 2 Kings on the old prophets Elijah and Elisha. So far Elijah has fled from Arab and Jezebel, hidden in a cave and encountered the “still, small voice” of God; recruited a protege, Elisha, a young farmer, and passed on his mantle and a double portion of his spirit; and been swooped up into heaven with a chariot of horses and fire. This is good stuff…
Today we continue with the work of Elisha, who assumes the role of prophet in Israel. It is tradition for such prophets to provoke the powerful and meddle in their affairs with the power of God, hence today’s story of Naaman the general. To help me tell it, I’ve asked Irv and Sylvia to do a little reading. Let’s listen for God’s wisdom and word…
One: The king of Aram had great admiration for Naaman, the commander of his army, because through him the Lord had given Aram great victories. But though Naaman was a mighty warrior, he suffered from leprosy.
Two: At this time Aramean raiders had invaded the land of Israel, and among their captives was a young girl who had been given to Naaman’s wife as a maid. One day the girl said to her mistress,
One: “I wish my master would go to see the prophet in Samaria. He would heal him of his leprosy.”
Two: So Naaman told the king what the young girl from Israel had said. “Go and visit the prophet,” the king of Aram told him. “I will send a letter of introduction for you to take to the king of Israel.”
One: So Naaman started out, carrying as gifts 750 pounds of silver, 150 pounds of gold, and ten sets of clothing. The letter to the king of Israel said:
Two: “With this letter I present my servant Naaman. I want you to heal him of his leprosy.”
One: When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes in dismay and said,
Two: “This man sends me a leper to heal! Am I God, that I can give life and take it away? I can see that he’s just trying to pick a fight with me.”
One: But when Elisha, the man of God, heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes in dismay, he sent this message to him:
Two: Why are you so upset? Send Naaman to me, and he will learn that there is a true prophet here in Israel.
One: So Naaman went with his horses and chariots and waited at the door of Elisha’s house. But Elisha sent a messenger out to him with this message:
Two: Go and wash yourself seven times in the Jordan River. Then your skin will be restored, and you will be healed of your leprosy.
One: But Naaman became angry and stalked away.
Three: I thought he would certainly come out to meet me! I expected him to wave his hand over the leprosy and call on the name of the Lord his God and heal me! Aren’t the rivers of Damascus, the Abana and the Pharpar, better than any of the rivers of Israel? Why shouldn’t I wash in them and be healed?”
Two: So Naaman turned and went away in a rage. But his officers tried to reason with him and said,
One: “Sir, if the prophet had told you to do something very difficult, wouldn’t you have done it? So you should certainly obey him when he says simply, ‘Go and wash and be cured!’”
Two: So Naaman went down to the Jordan River and dipped himself seven times, as the man of God had instructed him. And his skin became as healthy as the skin of a young child’s, and he was healed!
One: Then Naaman and his entire party went back to find the man of God. They stood before him, and Naaman said,
Three: Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel.
Let’s do a little power analysis here. What I mean when I say “power analysis” is how the tool is used in community organizing circles, a mapping out of power relationships— power, who holds it, who doesn’t, how it’s used, how others could use it for leverage.
Let’s recap the major players:
- Ben-Hadad II, the king of Aram (Syria; Aram was the Hebrew name for Syria). We don’t know much about him from the text, but what you need to know is that Syria was Israel’s enemy.
- Naaman, the commander of Syria’s armies. He was victorious in battle because Israel’s God helped him. Being the ancient equivalent of the “chairman of the joint chiefs” he’s very, very powerful. He was well connected, physically strong, and likely personally charismatic. The only problem is that he’s got leprosy. Now, this is not the same condition as the leprosy we know, Hansen’s disease, but it was an obvious condition of the skin that made one ritually impure and socially ostracized (the Bible had very precise instructions for how to cleanse oneself from this affliction). So Naaman is in a tough spot here because he’s both a powerful man and an outcast.
- Joram, the king of Israel. He’s under a lot of pressure in this situation because the king of Syria has asked by letter for something impossible for him to do which is more or less “fightin’ words” as we say.
- Elisha the prophet who we’ve met before. He summons God’s power to heal the general of his affliction. He also royally ticks the general off by 1.) Not coming to greet him when he comes to his door, and 2.) Sending a messenger instead, and 3.) Telling him to go to the river Jordan (Israelite territory) to be cleansed.
- The unnamed young woman, who is from Israel, not Syria; a captive from war; an enslaved person, a servant of Naaman’s wife; and obviously a young woman, a girl, in that culture and time virtually a non-person. Yet she has the gumption to approach her “mistress” with the solution.
So, I’ll ask you, who’s got the real power?
The ancient “pyramid” with the kings at the top, the general below them, then the prophet, then the wife of the general, and then her servant is flipped on its head. The ones who have the power—or who channel the real power, God’s power—are at the bottom of the pyramid. For Naaman’s healing, God uses unlikely vessels.
This is how God works. This is a resounding truth that echoes through the pages of the Bible: God chooses to love—and not only love—but side with and move through the outcast, the downtrodden, the least, the seemingly power-less.
Think about this Biblical thread…
- An old, childless couple to give birth to a people as numerous as the stars to bless the nations of the earth.
- A band of enslaved people freed from Pharoah’s chains.
- Wild and woolly prophets like Elijah calling rulers to account.
- Foreigners like Ruth playing pivotal roles in salvation history.
- Foiled plots by the likes of Queen Esther.
- Knocking down Goliaths through the likes of little shepherd boys.
- God becoming incarnate in the sonthe son of country peasants in the backwaters of the Roman Empire, who then inaugurated God’s rule in the company of fisher folk, tax collectors, sex workers, and lepers.
And the same was true of the early church. The apostle Paul, in writing to the Corinthians about the mystery and foolishness of the cross, told them:
Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.
Because what Paul was saying was that the cross of Jesus redefines God’s power altogether. It takes our typical notions of power and its “cousins” wisdom, status, pride, and strength, and recasts them in the light of love.
The real power in Naaman’s story is the healing and the rebirth in the water—not his military conquests. That’s what inspires him to proclaim at the end, “Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel.”
It’s like Desmond Tutu, the former Archbishop of Capetown in South Africa, said, “We used to say to the apartheid government, ‘You may have the guns, you may have all this power, but you have already lost. Come, join the winning side.’” The real power wins in the end.
What a necessary reminder for us…
- on this week of Independence when turn on the news and what is celebrated is military pomp rather than the ever-evolving ideals for which people have sacrificed their lives—a land of “liberty and justice for all” where “all [people] are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights;”
- or in the midst of one political crisis after another, when we get tempted by the thought that true, lasting change comes with just the right candidate and not in the movements of ordinary people organized out of a sense of their common humanity;
- or when we personally feel weak and even power-less, maxed-out, or “at the end of our rope,” and are still operating on the assumption that we can do this (whatever “this” is) on our strength alone and not with the help of the one who made us and loves us.
How and through whom God exercises God’s power… it looks differently and comes through different channels. May we be open to it when it meets us.