Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

The story of the prophet Elisha healing Naaman, the “commander of the army of the king of Aram,” is one of the most familiar stories from 2 Kings.

Luke 17:19
"Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well." Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

October 13, 2019

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

The story of the prophet Elisha healing Naaman, the “commander of the army of the king of Aram,” is one of the most familiar stories from 2 Kings.

It may be the most familiar story from 2 Kings, because along with the account of Elijah’s ascension on the chariot of fire, it is the only significant passage from 2 Kings in the lectionary.

The account begins with what might seem like a routine report of an important person with an important problem: “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” (2 Kings 5:1).

All but the most biblically literate listeners (or “readers” but I will use “listeners” here) may miss the shocking significance of this introductory verse. Listeners may not know that “Aram” is the name of a foreign nation—the one we now call Syria. Because the narrator reports that “by [Naaman] the Lord had given victory to Aram,” listeners may assume that Naaman worshiped the Lord. But this is unlikely, because in Aram, they did not worship the Lord but rather Hadad. This “great man” and “mighty warrior”—favored with victory by the Lord—had a significant problem, however. Naaman suffered from leprosy.

In an ironic twist that is characteristic of the God of the Old and New Testaments, Naaman’s salvation from his affliction comes from the very people Naaman oppressed. Among his household’s slaves was a “young girl” (na’arah qatannah) from the “land of Israel.” The girl had been enslaved during one of the Aramean raids into Israel. And the girls turns out to be the catalyst of Naaman’s salvation.

Note the power differential. On the one hand, there is Naaman—the “great man” and “mighty warrior” favored by the Lord with victory. On the other hand, a trafficked and enslaved young Israelite girl. The vast chasm in social power and standing between the two is reminiscent of the power gaps between Pharaoh and the Hebrew midwives Shiphrah and Puah (Exodus 1), or Jacob and Tamar (Genesis 38), or Siserah and Jael (Judges 4), or indeed Pilate and Jesus. And as is so typical of the theology of the cross, the Spirit of God stirs among the lowly and brings salvation from the bottom upward.

The girl informed her mistress that “the prophet who is in Samaria” could cure Naaman’s leprosy. So Naaman set out to seek the prophet’s aid.

The lection skips verses 4-7, which preachers may want restore. The verses both explain what “the letter” referred to in verse 8 is and also underscore how the “great man” of power thinks. Naaman brings “ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments”—a vast sum of wealth. The point is that Naaman, a man of power, thinks like a man of power. Victorious according to the ways of the world and yet captive to its ways of thinking, he believes that the issue is wealth and power and proceeds on the assumption that salvation and healing are to be bought. The letter of introduction he bears from the king of Aram simply underscores the point.

The limits of earthly power, however, are revealed in the next scene by the reaction of the king of Israel. When the king read the letter, he tore his clothes—an extreme act in a culture in which every single garment had to be made from scratch, a long and painstaking process—and exclaimed, “Am I God, to give death and life?”

And there it is. Am I God? No. The limits of earthly power and wealth. Neither the king of Aram nor the king of Israel may give life. Nor can Naaman’s wealth and influence buy life. Only God can grant life in the face of death, health in the face of incurable illness.

But the prophet Elisha, upon hearing of the letter, sent word to the king: “Why have you torn your clothes?” (After all, it took some servant or tradesperson a great deal of effort to make them.). “Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.”

In the next scene, the differences between God’s ways of thinking and the world’s ways of thinking are further illuminated. Naaman—“with his horses and chariots”—went to the prophet. But Elijah did not even bother to see the great man. Rather, he simply sent word out to “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.” Livid, the great man began to rant: “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 stormed off in a rage. But Naaman’s servants—again, the lowly—caution and counsel him, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it?”

Note yet again the chasm between the world’s ways of thinking and God’s ways of thinking. The world thinks these things matter to God and salvation—war horses, chariots, generals, kings, letters of introduction from the influential, wealth, complicated religious rituals, cleaner and better rivers and waters. And those who are successful according to the ways of the world think such things matter to and will influence God.

But they do not.

Only the lowly and the godly can see how God works. The young, enslaved girl can see. The general’s slaves can see. The prophet can see. In other texts, the widow, the orphan, the sojourner can see. The crucified one, above all, knows and embodies the way God works.

God is not moved to act by complicated rituals, by golden bribes, by the influence of the powerful, by the power of the military, or the quality of the water and the wine. God is moved to act because God is God. God will save whom God chooses to save.

Naaman followed the prophet’s directions and he was healed. And note the gospel irony: “his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy.” The Hebrew for “young boy” is na’ar qaton—the masculine equivalent to the young girl (na’arah qatannah) whom the great man had enslaved and from whom his salvation began. How ironic. How wonderful. It makes one laugh like Sarah and ask, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?”