Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost

In this election season, we have grown accustomed to news reports, Twitter feeds, and television ads filled with the faces and voices of the candidates.

Healing of the ten lepers
JESUS MAFA. Healing of the ten lepers, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, Tenn.

October 9, 2016

First Reading
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Commentary on 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c

In this election season, we have grown accustomed to news reports, Twitter feeds, and television ads filled with the faces and voices of the candidates.

They are people of power and influence, usually wealthy, dressed well, telling us with great confidence why they should be elected rather than their opponent.

Naaman, to whom we are introduced in our text for today, is also a mover and shaker. The commander of the armies of Aram (in what is now Syria), a confidante of the king, he is a person of influence and prestige.

There is just one problem. Naaman suffers from leprosy (or some kind of skin disease) and no amount of influence and prestige can cure him of the disease.

Such is the set-up of the story in 2 Kings 5. It will be familiar to some of your parishioners, though not all. It is worthwhile, in either case, to re-tell the story, spending time on the details. Because whether or not the story is familiar to your people, it rehearses a theme that comes up again and again in biblical narrative: God works in unexpected ways, through unexpected people, to bring life where hope has been lost. And in doing so, God turns worldly expectations and worldly systems upside down.

Case in point: The story begins with Naaman, a person of influence and power who is helpless to help himself. The person who knows the information vital to his healing is a slave girl, a young Israelite, captured in one of the many skirmishes between the Arameans and the Israelites. If you tried to imagine a person on the lowest rung of the social ladder in the ancient Near East, you couldn’t get much lower than this. She is a girl in a male-dominated society. She is a foreigner in a foreign land. She is young and she is a slave. She holds no power or prestige. Nevertheless, it is this unnamed girl who holds the key to Naaman’s healing.

One can imagine how desperate was Naaman’s situation, to pay any heed to the voice of a young slave girl, but the text makes it clear that he is willing even to grasp at straws. He goes straight to the king of Aram and repeats (the Hebrew says) exactly what the slave girl said (verse 4).

The lectionary, for some inexplicable reason, leaves out the verses that tell of the actions of the king of Aram and the letter that he sends to the king of Israel (verses 4-6). So the assigned reading jumps from the slave girl’s words to those of the king of Israel. It is advisable instead to read the intervening verses, as they include another example of worldly expectations being turned upside down.

The king of Aram, who obviously highly values Naaman, sends a letter to the king of Israel. And with the letter is an opulent treasure trove of goods. A “talent” is the heaviest unit of measure for weight in the Bible, equal to about 75 pounds, so the silver alone that Naaman carries with him weighs about 750 pounds! Along with the silver are 6,000 pieces of gold and ten sets of clothing. (Considering that one garment cost many hours of labor — shearing wool or harvesting flax, spinning, dying, weaving, and sewing — clothes were a valued commodity in the ancient Near East.)

The king of Aram and Naaman himself seem to assume that a prophet of great renown would be part of the royal court in Israel and would require costly tribute. So Naaman goes to the royal court with this opulent treasure and with the letter from his king: “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy” (verse 6).

Again, the expectations of the rich and powerful are upended. The prophet is not part of the royal court. He doesn’t even come immediately to the mind of the king of Israel. This unnamed king of Israel, though he has his faults (see 2 Thessalonians 6:31), knows his limits. He knows he is not God and cannot cure Naaman, but he erroneously jumps to the conclusion that this is a ploy on the part of the Aramean king to invade Israel. So one can imagine his relief when Elisha sends him a message — Don’t despair; send him to me.

The scene that follows is not without humor. Naaman, the mighty man of Aram, rides up to Elisha’s humble abode with chariots and horses (both instruments of war). Though the prophet does not reside at court, Naaman still brings his costly tribute and likewise expects something dramatic from the prophet. Elisha will come out and perform some sort of incantation, perhaps sacrifice a few animals, call on his god to heal Naaman, set him a task so that he can prove his courage and receive healing.

Again, contrary to expectations, the prophet doesn’t even bother to come out of his house. He sends a messenger, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.”

Naaman’s bubble is burst and he sputters with outrage. It’s as if the President of the United States rolled up to a modest suburban house in the presidential motorcade and the owner of the house texted him (or her) instead of coming out to greet him (or her). Naaman was expecting a dramatic reception from the prophet, something appropriate to his power and prestige. But the prophet doesn’t even deign to come outside to greet him. He sends a messenger as if Naaman were someone unworthy of his attention. And just as bad, he tells Naaman to wash in a muddy backwater of a river.

The prophet’s actions, again, participate in that biblical theme of overturned expectations and thwarted pride. And it is Naaman’s pride that is almost his downfall. His wounded pride would have him turn around and go back home. It is only the advice of his servants that brings him to his senses. So Naaman, perhaps for the first time in his life, exhibits humility, washing in the Jordan according to Elisha’s instructions. And he is healed.

In this story, as in so many other instances in Scripture, God works through the lowly, the last, and the least to bring about healing and salvation, contrary to the ways and the expectations of the world. Naaman, the great and powerful, is helped by a slave girl and a prophet in a backwater country. He washes in a muddy regional river and he is healed.

The real power in the story does not lie in royal courts, military prowess, political influence, or great wealth (which Elisha refuses to accept). The real power in the story lies with the God whom Elisha serves. Naaman finally recognizes that truth at the end of the story and acknowledges this God as the only true God: “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel” (verse 15). Throughout Scripture, this God works in unexpected ways, through unexpected people, to bring life where hope has been lost. And in doing so, God turns worldly expectations and worldly systems upside down. Such is the biblical witness about true power, and it is an apt word for today.