Naaman, 2 Kings 5
This talk was given by Paul Wintle on as part of our worship service at Main Street Community Church and on the Internet. The talk is long.
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Recently, I was due to be in Kent for my parents’ golden wedding anniversary, but they became ill, infectiously ill. Even though mum had been doing her best to avoid dad in their house, this ultra-infectious condition finally got them both. It’s good to see them sitting together back vaguely well, I think, again. After years of being very, very careful, they succumbed to the dreaded.
One of today’s lectionary readings, a way of reading most of the Bible in three years, is about an account of a man who came down with a particularly infectious condition. Meaning, he had to stay away from everyone, lest they became infected, so it’s quite topical, really. One of the things I’ve learned about scripture stories is that if you hold them loosely enough, they’ll always have something to say to us.
It might not be at first glance, but as we sit with it and give it some space, it opens itself up to us. It’s certainly one of the privileges of preaching, to sit and to read, to learn, to understand, and to maybe share something new or powerful or exciting. Sometimes, we get just one main thing from it, but other times, like today, there’s a whole bunch of things that we could talk about.
Naaman was like the chief of staff of his day, the military leader of one of the region’s most powerful nations. He was a definite candidate for Who’s Who. He’s definitely the cream of the crop. He lived amongst the upper crust and corrals amongst the elite. Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram. That sounds pretty smart, doesn’t it? He was a great man in his master’s sight and highly regarded because, through him, the Lord had given him victory to Aram.
Now, Aram was right at the top, if you like, of Israel in the north. The man was a brave warrior, commander, great, highly regarded, victorious, valiant. Here was a man that had power and position and prestige. He was successful. He was wealthy. He was respected. He was admired. He was just like me. He was all of these things, but … a three-letter conjunction, “but.” This small word changes everything, but he had a skin disease, but he had leprosy.
He could think about all of those accomplishments. He could enjoy his power and prestige. He could enjoy and admire his home and his wealth, but they all seemed to vanish as perhaps he stared in that mirror of that day. Each time he looked at himself, there was something looking back that defined his life. He had leprosy. Nothing could change that.
Leprosy was the COVID without the vaccine, or worse, of Naaman’s day. People with leprosy were isolated and humiliated. They were outcasts. They were the original Untouchables. They were forced to wear torn clothing and shout, “Unclean, unclean,” anytime they encountered an uninfected person because there weren’t any COVID apps at the time.
Leprosy was extremely contagious, and in many cases, incurable. In its worst forms, leprosy would lead to death. Granted, we don’t know too much about Naaman’s particular leprosy, but it may have been that it was in its infant stage or perhaps a mild form. He had concealed it, but now, his clothing couldn’t cover it up. While people treated him respectfully, now nobody would touch him.
When we hear about leprosy in the Bible, it’s perhaps a catch-all term for ancient irritations or skin diseases, but that’s not to belittle it. To have leprosy was disabling. We’re not just talking medically. It was a big deal socially and religiously. Having leprosy made you religiously unclean, which made you socially untouchable.
It would literally have separated you from your community, from your work, your faith community, and somehow from God. You may very well survive the disease, but it was a social and spiritual death sentence. Till you were healed or cured, you’d be cut off from everything and everyone.
That’s what we are looking at whenever we look at these sorts of things and stories about disease and ailments in the Bible. They’re not so much stories about the conditions themselves but more about the stigma, the disconnection, the dehumanization that happens because of them. That’s the important bit, just as it was when Jesus healed people because his job was to restore: one to another and us to God, because his ministry was all about wholeness.
I wonder what stigmas or disabling things we can think of today. Perhaps these things don’t happen until they affect us. In this particular case, Naaman getting leprosy is an extra big deal because Naaman himself is an extra big deal. He’s a very rich and powerful and important person in the king’s army. For it to get out that he had leprosy pretty much means losing everything: power, influence, status, his role, probably [inaudible 00:07:00] .
He’s seeing it all about to slip away. Maybe Naaman longed for touch to help get through this: a hug, a hand on his shoulder. Like Naaman, maybe we look for meaningful touch. Why is it that we squeeze one another’s hands at the funeral? Why do we bear hug a friend after not seeing them for a long time? Why is it that we want to hold babies? Because touch brings comfort and connection. It promotes health. It imparts wholeness.
Naaman didn’t have to imagine life without touch because this was his reality. By the way, what’s your leprosy? What’s mine? What prevents us from getting close to other people? Where do we need to be blest in some way? We, too, like Naaman, have our own disfigurements and things that disable us. We, too, have perhaps become proficient in covering up our own issues and problems, and we, too, need God’s touch. He [inaudible] us today what we need today.
Notice the contrasts in Naaman’s journey. This commander-in-chief finds direction through a captive servant, his wife’s slave. Naaman, this highly regarded man, learns of his treatment from a prophet, Elisha. Naaman, this valiant soldier, is cured in a dirty river, the Jordan. What can we learn from such a downwards descent? Perhaps we need people in our lives who need to see the real us.
Naaman’s wife’s servant had been taken hostage from a raid into Israel, and now she’s served in Naaman’s home, attending his wife’s every need. She wasn’t intimidated by his power or his prestige or his position. She did see his pain. She called it what it was. She knew of a pain reliever. She told Naaman where he could find help, a prophet.
I guess, for us, we need humble people in our lives to look past those difficulties, to look past the outward stuff, to see what we really need. We need people who will call our problems perhaps like they are. We need people in our lives who love us for who [inaudible 00:10:03] . Israel was a conquered nation. To Naaman, it was a second-rate, third-world country. Militarily, it didn’t really present much of a threat, but spiritually, for him, it provided a refuge.
The nation of Israel is present throughout the Bible almost as a metaphor for the church. Church is a safe place, a place that gives a caring touch in an uncaring world. A place that provides sanctuary, protection, and comfort from those who would seek to assault [inaudible 00:10:46] , a place that extends a supportive and healing hand to those in trouble.
Israel was a safe place for Naaman. When he first entered Israel, he was in the right place, but he was speaking to the wrong person. He first went to the king of Israel, but the king couldn’t help him. He misunderstood his coming altogether and thought that Naaman was trying to pick a fight with him. Naaman then goes to Elisha in Samaria.
We’ve heard of Samaria before. It’s where the Good Samaritan comes from. If Israel was a second-rate, third-world country, then Samaria would probably be ;like the armpit of the second-rate, third-world country. Samaria was even despised by the people of Israel. Remember the woman at the well when Jesus asks for some water? She was a Samaritan. “Samaritans and Israelites don’t mix,” that’s what she said.
When Naaman arrives at Elisha’s house, Elisha sends out his servant to the front door. Naaman had been remarkably flexible and amiable, having travelled out of this remote place to ask for this healing touch. When Elisha’s servants shows up the door with instructions for the cure, Naaman is then incensed. He’s outraged. Prophets seem to have that effect on people. They don’t beat around the bush. They lack tact. They tell it like it is: straightforward. They speak truth.
When you are face to face with a disease that’s likely to take your life, you’ve got to decide if you want comfort and convenience or a cure. I’m sure that we’ve all met medical professionals who’ve lacked that certain bedside manner. I remember a physiotherapist who told me that it would be much easier if they just cut my legs off.
Naaman almost rejected his opportunity for healing by getting angry that Elisha didn’t show up to greet him at the door. He might have lacked tact, but had the treatment. He might have not had that compassion, but had a cure. Naaman was a big name in the country, and he wanted a big-name prophet to meet him at the door and heal him.
He wanted this prophet to jump up and down and wave his hands over him, but God doesn’t always send blessings in the people we want, or the way that we want. Often, God chooses the lowly person through ordinary means to accomplish his ways. Elisha’s prescription was a bit bizarre. “Go and dip yourself seven times in the River Jordan, and your flesh will be restored. You’ll be clean.”
Let’s retrace Naaman’s downward descent. He receives instructions from a slave girl to go to a conquered land, to a lowly prophet that lives in the armpit of the second-rate, third-world country, who gives him instructions to go to the dirty, dingy River Jordan and bathe, not just once, not just twice, but seven times.
If you are rich and powerful, you’d probably think, “ [inaudible 00:14:38] . “ River Jordan means the descender. It flows, I believe, through a rift valley, 13,000 feet up right down to around the Dead Sea. It’s about 1,300 feet to [inaudible 00:14:57] . It goes down and down and down. You can imagine Naaman thinking, “This is just weird. This is just crazy. This is just mad. Seven dips in a pond, in a dirty pond? We’ve got rivers in Aram that are better and cleaner than the Jordan.”
Naaman doubts that God’s prescription for healing could really do anything. He didn’t realize that the power wasn’t in the water itself but manifested in the water by doing what God said. Reminded of the word spoken by the Centurion in Luke 7 when he says to Jesus, “Look, just say the word, and my servant will be healed.” He wasn’t a signed-up Jewish believer, the Centurion, as far as we can work out, but he believed that Jesus could do the healing thing. Not even by being physically present with the servant [inaudible 00:15:58] . Naaman continued to doubt when he entered the Jordan and came up still a leper. God reminded him that when God says seven times, He means seven times. Humility, perhaps, leads to obedience.
God wants us to go the extra distance. Will he do it?
He was not trying to tie conditions to Naaman’s healing. Maybe he was testing his obedience. I guess that Naaman was that low. He was that frustrated and depressed about life, and he finally gives in, and he’s like, “Okay, let’s do the whole seven dips.” In doing so, he’s touched by God in a healed way that didn’t fix his expectations. They surpassed them.
Scripture says, “Naaman went down and dipped himself in the Jordan seven times, according to the command of the man of God, then his skin was restored and became like the skin of a small boy, and he was clean.” Then he is clean. The word clean, טהר tahir, denotes ritual purity. His skin is that like a young boy, and the word young boy can also mean servant. His skin was like a servant. Not only his skin, but his very self seemed to be remade.
Like the tenth leper healed by Jesus in the New Testament, Naaman returned. He returns to the prophet. That word return, שׁוב shuv, can also mean repent. He turned around to give thanks. If his leprosy defined his earlier life, it’s God’s healing touch that redefines his later. Having experienced the grace of God, he was changed, not only physically but spiritually and probably vocationally as well. He was whole.
Naaman stood before Elisha and said, “I know that there’s no God in the whole world except for the God in Israel. Therefore, please accept a gift from your servant.” Naaman went from a sick man to a healed man, an ungodly man to a godly man, a great man to a gracious man, commander to a servant. He was a man that had felt the touch of God, and he was changed forever.
That’s the story that we hear from the lectionary, that schedule of Bible passages that we perhaps hear in all across the world over this three-year period. The whole point of it is to expose people to look at different themes and different ideas, not just to fixate on the easy or the fun bits of the Bible. One of the problems is that there’s perhaps too much Bible, but this is one of those stories.
We could just end the story there, and it’s lovely, and off he goes, but then we might read a little further on because the story doesn’t end where we left off today. Oh, Moira’s kind of looking at me. [chuckles] It goes on to say that after Elisha refused payment for his healing, Naaman goes home. Then Gehazi, which is Elisha’s servant he gets named now. Before that, he was just a servant, but he’s got a name now. It’s Gehazi.
He thinks, “What? He’s offered insane amounts of wealth, and Elisha’s turned it down? Stuff that. I charge for my worth, even if he doesn’t.” He runs after Naaman, lies to him, and says, “Oh, by the way, Elisha has changed his mind about charging, and now he wants payment for the healing. Please, thank you.” Naaman gives him some stuff, Gehazi pockets it, and he comes back to Elisha, and Elisha, being a prophet of God, knows about this kind of stuff.
As a consequence for conning Naaman, the illness is transferred from Naaman to Gehazi. That’s where the story actually ends with Gehazi contracting leprosy, obviously, which is, as we remember, a pretty big deal. Gehazi is now an outcast. He’s now an untouchable. He’s now banished and alone. It all seems really quite harsh all because of God’s Prophet Elisha, all because someone works for God, and it all sounds a bit confusing because it seems really reactionary.
It seems really inappropriate, and that’s not how we think someone in a powerful position should conduct themselves. It’s not the way that we think someone should act in the name of God. The thing is it’s not even the first time with Elisha because a few stories earlier, Elisha’s out and about, and a bunch of kids make fun of him because he’s bald. You might know the story. Elisha uses his God-given powers and sends a pack of hungry bears to kill each and every one of them.
Again, it’s a bit much, really. Even more astonishing. God is silent. God doesn’t say anything in either case here. Why doesn’t God say something? Why doesn’t God beam up Elisha and give him at least a stern talking to? Why is God silent? It’s a good thing to ask because it raises other important questions, like what do we do when people in power do things that don’t line up with their position or with their own beliefs?
We can sub into this story, any current politician or celebrity, perhaps even church leaders or anyone else with any amount of power who do terrible things or act in a way that is out of sync with what Elisha was doing. Our questions are perhaps still the same. Why is God still silent on this? Why isn’t God doing something? What if God is silent because God’s waiting for us to speak? What if God is waiting for the God within each of us to speak out? He’s saying, “I will speak out for those who have no voices.”
Really, to sum up, there are questions for us all to wonder about. Am I willing like Naaman? Does compassion move me to speak up? What if God is waiting for me to speak up? Lots of unanswered thoughts and questions as we leave behind Elisha and Naaman and the children and bears, Gehazi. May we sit with these unanswered questions and questions about why God isn’t doing stuff. May we sit with those for a moment. May we give them space and the time that they deserve. May they take us into the kind of life we’re looking for.
Lord God, we do thank you for Naaman’s perseverance in looking for a cure. We thank you that, even though he didn’t really know you, there was somebody amongst his people group that did know an answer and pointed him in the right direction. Thank you for his trust and his faith and his journeying and that he found resolution to his [inaudible], even though it was weird and odd.
Lord God, would you please help us to seek out people who we need to journey with us? Would you help us to expect expected things from you? Even when those questions aren’t answered, help us to be able to still trust you and walk as you [inaudible 00:25:30]. Thank you for the promise that you are always with us, and thank you that that promise, even though it was true then, is still true today. Help us, Father God, in Jesus’ name.
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