lesser is More
2 Kings 5.1-14
February 15 2009, Ordinary 6B
Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the Lord had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy. Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, ‘If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.’ So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said. And the king of Aram said, ‘Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.’
He went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. He brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, ‘When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy.’ When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, ‘Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.’
But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, ‘Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.’ So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house. Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, ‘Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.’ But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, ‘I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?’ He turned and went away in a rage. But his servants approached and said to him, ‘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 went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.
When I moved to Egypt, I discovered something I’d been told, but could still only figure out for myself. Egypt is a study in contrasts—incredible poverty across the street from incredible wealth, tourist-brochure blue seas and golden sands next to the gut-wrenching air, water, and land pollution of an overpopulated developing nation, the ancient and amazing pyramids of Giza across the street from a modern, two-story no less! McDonald’s.
This story, in some ways, reminds me of those contrasts I found in Egypt, beginning with our reaction to it. This is a shocking story—shocking enough that when Jesus references it during his first (and last) sermon in his home church, the people try to throw him off a cliff! But why?
I could practically hear the collective groan in our subconscious when you all heard the words “Second Book of Kings.” Be honest, now, how many of you tend to think of books like second kings as part of our holy scripture that doesn’t make much sense, full names that are hard to pronounce, and stories that don’t mean anything to us…more the stuff of skimming than of reading over and over?
And yet, as people of the book, we claim that these stories we read are part of our story, and we are part of the story that this book tries to tell, whether we like it or not. But still, that’s not so shocking—people are bored by the Bible all the time…what is it about this story that’s throw-him-off-a-cliff worthy? It seems so harmless—Girl says “hey, we have a prophet who can heal!” Guy says “oh, excellent, let’s check that out.” Prophet says “go take a bath already.” Guy does, he’s healed. Done.
If only things were that simple.
Before the story begins, the Aramean army, apparently aided by God, has just obliterated the northern kingdom of Israel—there’s practically nothing left. The people are quiet but wary. The king is a figurehead, perfectly aware that he has very little power. The Arameans have taken some prisoners of war, including women and children, and one of these children is now a slave in the house of the four-star general who planned and executed this war.
But the general has a problem—he has a skin disease. He’s probably tried to keep it a secret as much as possible…but things like this get out. Now, Naaman is a very rich man, but visiting every doctor and magician in Syria hasn’t helped. Naaman can still do his job, he can still attend the king’s court, he’s just itchy. But to the Israelite prisoner of war slave girl, leprosy is something very different—it’s an affliction that means that Naaman can’t be whole, he can’t be ritually clean, he can’t be a full part of the family or community. It’s something that needs to be cleansed immediately. So she offers her suggestion…
She’s a young girl—nothing more than property, a plaything. A slave girl—easily disposed of if she’s insolent or not useful. A prisoner of war—an inferior being, captured from an inferior people. A nameless young thing, advising the most powerful man in the middle east, and Naaman takes her seriously.
As if that’s not shocking enough, Naaman gets permission from his king to go back to Israel to seek out this prophet. So he loads up his carriages and chariots, his baggage train, his money, his offering to placate the king he knows perfectly well has been demolished by Naaman’s own power. In other words, he loads up the spoils of a war he’d just won, a symbol of his power and might, and he rolls on down from Damascus to Israel, through towns and villages with his military escort and his wagons of money looted from those same towns and villages. No wonder the king tore his clothes when he read the letter—between the letter demanding that the king heal Naaman and the intimidation of the military baggage train, he must have known he was in trouble.
And then in steps Elisha, a prophet unlike any Naaman has known. In Naaman’s world, prophets belong in royal courts, they’re in the employ of the king, their job is to tell the king what he wants to hear. But these Israelites are strange people, and that’s not how Elisha works, so off Naaman goes to Elisha’s little hut, where another surprise awaits. He pulls the chariots, the wagons, the carriages, the horses, the military escort, the money, the extra clothes, up to the door of a mud brick hovel, knocks, and waits…only to be greeted by a servant and given instructions to take a bath and go home.
A servant???? Where is the magician? Where is the royal prophet? Doesn’t he know who Naaman is? Doesn’t he recognize the chariots and soldiers that were here such a short time ago? Doesn’t he recognize the general who led a successful war right here on this land? Doesn’t he know that there’s better water to be had everywhere besides here, in this literal backwater, an inferior country overrun with inferior people? I suspect I too would storm away in a rage.
Again, servant to the rescue, and again Naaman listens…and the man who came looking for a magical cure, laden with possessions and burdened with power, finds healing, naked and shivering in a muddy polluted stream. The one who thought power and might could save him finds that only when he’s alone in the river, powerless and vulnerable, dripping with mud and water—only then is true power revealed. Grace abounds, but the earthly trappings may blur our vision more than water in our eyes would.
What about Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus? Aren’t they better than all the waters of Israel? Could Naaman not wash in them? It’s not like the Jordan is a magic river. It’s a muddy and polluted trickle of water in some places. It’s not clean, it’s not beautiful, it’s not special. What makes it special this time is actually two things, both having to do with Naaman, not with the river. Remember that Jesus said, “there were many lepers in Israel, but only Naaman the Syrian was healed.” Why? First, he agrees to go in the water. Remember, leprosy to Naaman wasn’t something that needed cleansing, he thought he needed curing. Did you catch what Elisha said?—“your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.” But how could getting dirtier in the Jordan, rather than cleaner in his own sparkling rivers, help anything? But he does it anyway. We’ll never know whether Abana or Pharpar would have been good enough…he doesn’t seem to have tried them first, since he was looking for the wrong kind of cure. Second, and more important, in order to wash seven times in the Jordan, he had to leave everything else, from his baggage to his wealth to his escort, on the shore. He had to shed his power to find shalom—and then his flesh was restored, and he was clean.
The whole time he’d been suffering from dis-ease, Naaman had been looking in the wrong places, asking the wrong questions, living on the wrong side of the contrast. He went to the king, having taken the advice of a prisoner slave girl. He demanded magic, having sought out a prophet. He brought more money than anyone in Israel had, seeking grace that can’t be bought. He expected a show of power equal to his, and instead found a different kind of power, a power found in weakness and vulnerability—in a slave girl, a prophet’s messenger, a servant, a muddy river. The lesser the person or task, the more powerful they are, and the more shocking the story becomes.
It’s hard to summarize what we all do while looking for God, looking for grace, looking for healing, any better than the Indigo Girls did:
We go to the doctor, we go to the mountains,
We look to the children, we drink from the fountains,
we go to the Bible, we go through the workout,
We read up on revival and we stand up for the lookout
There’s more than one answer to these questions
Pointing me in a crooked line
The less I seek my source for some definitive,
The closer I am to fine.
May our eyes be opened to look in the right places, to expect surprising grace, to find wholeness in the undefined mystery of faith.
Some of the music for the service this week:
at 830 and 930: a song called "River of Mercy" that I can't seem to find a video of...but includes the words "flow, river of mercy, wash away my fear...run through me like the sea crashes into the sand...pour, river of mercy, healing water flow..."
and, at all three services, after the sermon/during the offering!!