2 Kings 5:1-14
The Rev. Melanie McCarley
This morning, in the book of Second Kings, we encounter the person of Naaman, the Syrian. Naaman is a great man, a military leader, an alpha male. Think of Naaman, if you will, as possessing the kind of glamour that would make him a prime possibility for a presidential candidate in our own day and age. Goodness, the man was probably even photogenic. The story combines insight and humor. Sickness, you see, can be the great leveler that joins the 1% with the other 99%. Today we discover that Naaman is plagued by a skin disease, one serious enough that he would enlist the aid of foreign political and religious leaders in order to find a cure. Now, that’s serious! Imagine Nancy Pelosi, Mitch McConnell or Mike Pompeo calling in favors from the Archbishop of Canterbury & the Queen of England in order to continue their political careers. Rather inconceivable, isn’t it.
I’ll grant you that afflictions of the skin can be serious—but I suspect that many of us would raise our eyebrows at the thought that a bad case of psoriasis could merit political intervention from foreign power. But here it is. In the ancient world all skin diseases were lumped together under one term: “leprosy”. Some of these diseases were undoubtedly leprosy as we understand it today, and those sufferers, they would be unclean for the whole of their lives. But other skin diseases, such as eczema, these are cyclical. So those people would eventually be declared clean and readmitted to normal society during the periods that the disease was in remission. The practical upshot is this. If you suffered from leprosy in any of its manifestations, you were unclean, and you couldn’t function normally in society. You certainly couldn’t command the military. In fact, you would have to stay some distance away from others until a priest declared you clean. In short, you would be persona non grata in the public realm. Imagine being a commander of military forces and unable to address your troops. This wouldn’t simply be inconvenient, it would be disastrous.
So, here is Naaman, a great man, afflicted with a disease that was the scourge of the lowly, and who is it that brings him aid. None other than a young girl, an Israelite slave—talk about a juxtaposition. This young girl (in fact, the Bible doesn’t even tell us her name), suggests to her mistress (Naaman’s wife—both of whom, in my opinion, are the real heroines of the story) suggests that he contact the prophet of Israel; and this gets the political and religious ball rolling. As you can imagine, with nothing being simple in the political realm in either ancient days or our own, confusion ensues. The Aramean King, eager to assist Naaman, sends gifts to the King of Israel amounting to approximately 750 pounds of silver, 150 pounds of gold, and ten sets of garments—as well as a letter stating: “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that YOU may cure him of his leprosy.”
But when the King of Israel he reads the letter he is far from rejoicing. He panics. “What kind of trick is this?” he thinks. “The King of Aram sends his great warrior here and demands that I cure him of leprosy, what’s he trying to do? Start a war? I’m not a healer. I can’t cure anybody!”
Now, recall, if you will, that the servant girl said that a prophet in Israel could heal Naaman but somewhere along the way this suggestion turns into a request for the king to cure this popular general. The king of Aram assumes the other king had all the power in his own kingdom. And notice how quickly the king of Israel assumes that the other king is up to no good. 3,000 years later, and I have little doubt that the same assumptions would be made today.
Enter Elisha, the prophet of whom the servant girl spoke. He steps in with the simple suggestion that Naaman visit him. Naaman, along with his impressive gifts and entourage, arrives at Elisha’s house, and discovers that this renowned prophet of Israel, this great and awesome healer, won’t even step out of his abode to see him. Instead, Elisha sends a messenger with simple instructions. Wash in the Jordan seven times. Naaman, by now, is incensed. He’s come a long way, he’s brought a bevy of expensive gifts, and expects a bit more from this so-called prophet—at the very least a face-to face encounter and some hand waving and incantations; maybe even a foul tasting potion to boot. And what does he get---someone, sending a messenger to tell him to take a bath.
Once again it’s the common folks the servants, come to the rescue. They approach Naaman, calm him down and talk a little common sense into him; saying “Look, if the prophet had asked you to perform some great feat like climbing a high mountain or slaying a great monster, you would have done it, no questions asked. Your problem is all he did was tell you “wash and be clean.” Can you not do this simple thing?” Presumably Naaman takes some deep breaths, calms down and listens to his servants and goes to the Jordan and washes seven times. We are not told what goes on in Naaman’s heart and mind, what pride he has to swallow, or how filthy the Jordan river is on that particular day. All we know is that Namaan descends into the waters seven times, sees his leprous skin “restored like the flesh of a young boy”, and then—then Naaman does a great thing, or at least a thing that was most probably difficult for him, he humbles himself in obedience to God. He puts aside his pride and his expectations as well as his preconceived notions as well as his resistance to simplicity and makes a decision to trust in this God.
In Luke’s gospel, Jesus mentions “Naaman the Syrian” as an example of divine grace given to an individual who was not an Israelite. Naaman, quite simply, is representative of us—you and me. God asks that we trust, and what do we do—we invent a million different excuses for why we can’t. In the end, this isn’t so much a story about leprosy, as it is a story about the healing of Naaman’s heart. This was a man who, at the beginning of the story, doesn’t know—he doesn’t have a clue that God exists; by the end, he is carting back soil from Israel to build an altar to God in his own land. He is a great example of someone who has heard and received the grace of God.
And this is what brings us back to that unnamed servant girl who proffers the suggestion to her mistress that Naaman consult a prophet in a country not his own in order to seek the healing he truly needs. In today’s Gospel, Jesus sends forth the Seventy to share the Good News. He tells them to forego carrying a purse, a bag or sandals—in other words, he is telling them they don’t need anything special in order to do their work, only to share their faith. They return in amazement with stories of success. Sharing your faith takes nothing except words and intention. That’s all. It’s that simple; like washing in the Jordan seven times, or being baptized. Yet those words, simple though they may be—offered to one who needs to hear them, can be a lifeline to one who is suffering, resulting in a life that is healed, restored and strengthened. If you look at sharing the good news from this perspective, it seems—well, rather ungracious, not to share them. Think about who you might know who needs an offer of grace, and consider extending it this week. In Jesus’ name. Amen.