Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

This delightfully pesky story of the healing of Naaman the Aramean by Elisha the prophet of Israel is a story of border-crossings, whereby the Lord works in mysterious ways — unwelcome by anyone, ancient or modern, who wants the Lord to observe humanity’s boundaries, and welcome by those finding themselves at the margins or on the outside.

July 4, 2010

Alternate First Reading
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Commentary on 2 Kings 5:1-14

This delightfully pesky story of the healing of Naaman the Aramean by Elisha the prophet of Israel is a story of border-crossings, whereby the Lord works in mysterious ways — unwelcome by anyone, ancient or modern, who wants the Lord to observe humanity’s boundaries, and welcome by those finding themselves at the margins or on the outside.

Textual Horizons
A suggestion right off the bat — lengthen the pericope to include at least verses 15-19a, if not the whole of 2 Kings 5.1  While the healing of Naaman is a demonstration of the power of the Lord, the thrust of the story comes in the post-healing encounter of Naaman and Elisha (verses 15-19a) and the narrative reversal in which the insider, Elisha’s Israelite servant Gehazi, ends up on the outside (verses 19b-27).

On to the story…

From the beginning of Naaman’s story, we know a few things about him. He is a foreigner, particularly a powerful foreigner, commanding the army of Israel’s enemy, Aram. Naaman also has leprosy. It appears that Naaman’s leprosy did not carry the stigma of social and cultic alienation in Aram, such as is described in Leviticus 13-14. At the same time, it is clear from the story that this leprosy is something that Naaman (and perhaps his wife) wanted to be rid of.

An essential character in the story is the Israelite slave girl. Taken captive, she has come to serve the wife of Naaman. Though nameless in the story, her role is pivotal. Breaking out of the silence of slavery, it is her speaking that begins Naaman’s healing. Though a displaced insider, she is the one who directs Naaman to the healing power of the Lord, the God of Israel, by way of Israel’s prophet. She is the initiator of hope. It is upon her word that Naaman approaches the king of Aram with a request to follow this lead toward his own healing. And as quickly as she enters the story, she fades into the background.

From powerful to powerless, the focus shifts to the king of Aram and a bit of political tension. Seemingly bent on having his commander restored and unable to do so himself, the king of Aram sends a letter, not to the prophet, but to the king of Israel. In so doing, the king of Aram not surprisingly disregards to the word of the slave girl. The contents of the letter2 are accompanied by a small fortune, perhaps a catalyst for healing.

Initially, the letter has the inverse result. It drives Israel’s king into mourning, for he knows that God alone can give life and assumes that this is the king of Aram picking a fight.3  

The narrative then turns to Elisha’s intervention. Upon the arrival of Naaman and his entourage, Elisha does not see him but sends a messenger with the prescription — seven washes in the Jordan — simple instructions. What follows is a give and take. Naaman is upset at the simplicity and the locality. Are not the rivers of Aram as good as the Jordan? Calmed by his servant, he follows Elisha’s prescription and is restored.

While this is where the pericope ends, this is where the story begins. 

Things get delightfully strange when Naaman returns to Elisha. It is their first proper meeting, not veiled as their first by the interaction of emissaries. Naaman confesses, “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel…” While one can argue with Naaman’s exclusive location of the God of Israel in Israel, Elisha does not. Rather, in his healing, Naaman has been met and healed by the Lord in a way that leads to knowing.

While Naaman tries to give Elisha some or all of the fortune he carries from the king of Aram, Elisha accepts nothing. “As the Lord lives, whom I serve, I will accept nothing!” It is the Lord who healed Naaman, not Elisha.

Naaman then asks for two things: (1) two mule loads of earth from Israel so that he can worship the Lord when he gets home (recall that he thinks that there is no God but the God in Israel), and (2) that he be pardoned when he necessarily (because of his position in Aram) bows down with the King of Aram in the temple of Rimmon, the chief god of Aram. Naaman has earlier stated his sole devotion to the Lord, yet what is he to do in this situation? Elisha answers “Go in peace.” He does not prohibit or regulate or condemn. He bids him to go in peace.

The foreigner, healed from leprosy, has come to know the Lord is the only God. He has pledged his devotion to the Lord. And, in the face of a pressing dilemma, the prophet does not forbid and perhaps blesses Naaman in his position as commander of the army of the king of Aram with all that this entails.

With Naaman’s departure, presumably with two donkey loads of soil, the story is not quite over.

At this point, we are introduced to a servant of Elisha. While the slave girl, who at the beginning of the story is the initiator of hope, goes without a name, the servant of Elisha, who brings shame, is named. Gehazi is his name, and he thinks that Elisha has let this foreigner off too easy. Leaving his master, he ran to Naaman and fed him a cock and bull story. He misrepresents Elisha and manages to scam Naaman.

Summoned and questioned by Elisha, Gehazi lies. The prophet knows his lie. It is not the lie, however, that brings the curse. Rather, it is that Gehazi scammed the foreigner, Naaman. For this, Gehazi receives the leprosy of Naaman, and the story comes full circle4 and turns upside down. The outsider is blessed, the insider is cursed.

Preaching Horizons

While not the only place where the horizon of this text meets the horizon of today, this text does appear in the lectionary on July 4 — Independence Day in the United States. Perhaps this story fundamentally jars “common sensibilities” about borders and boundaries, about who is in and who is out. What does this story have to say about how the Lord disrespects the boundaries that we humans erect? Surely, the boundaries that we place around God’s love cannot and will not hold God back.

Is it any wonder that Jesus’ sermon in the synagogue at Nazareth filled his fellow citizens with rage? Is it any wonder that his telling of this story made them want to hurl him off a cliff?5

1While I intend no offense to the lectionary editors, the story is only just getting rolling by the end of the pericope.  If you’re going to the bother to preach this text, include the whole chapter.
22 Kings 5:6b
3“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.” 2 Kings 5:7
4John Gray, I & II Kings: A Commentary (second revised ed.; OTL; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1964, 1970), 502.
5Luke 4:16-30