Naaman the Syrian

Du Page Care Center, Wheaton, IL, USA
October 13, 2019

Naaman is cured from leprosy

1 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 Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. 3 She said to her mistress, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” 4 So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said. 5 And the king of Aram said, “Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.”
He went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. 6 He brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy.” 7 When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, “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.”
8 But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, “Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.” 9 So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house. 10 Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.” 11 But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, “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! 12 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 turned and went away in a rage. 13 But his servants approached and said to him, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” 14 So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.
15 Then he returned to the man of God, he and all his company; he came and stood before him and said, “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel; please accept a present from your servant.” 16 But he said, “As the Lord lives, whom I serve, I will accept nothing!” He urged him to accept, but he refused.

(2 Kings 5:1.16, New Revised Standard Version)

Good morning.

The lectionary text for today is one of the best-known stories in the Hebrew Bible, and always a Sunday School favorite. It’s a great story with great characters, and very artfully told. Let’s review it to make sure we don’t miss anything important.

Let’s start with a few definitions.

  1. When this story happens, Israel was divided into two kingdoms: Israel on the North, and Judah in the south. The two kingdoms were often at war with their neighbors and with one another. While several of the kings in the south were faithful to the Jewish religion, most of the northern kings were not. Samaria was the capital of the Northern Kingdom, and Jerusalem the capital of the South. There were two major prophets who operated in the Northern kingdom:Elijah and Elisha. This story is about Elisha.
  2. Aram was a kingdom to the north of Israel. The modern name for it is Syria. At the time this story happens, Aram (aka Syria) had military control over the Northern Israelite kingdom.
  3. The disease called “leprosy” in the Bible is not the same disease we call leprosy. Leprosy was well known in the old world, but didn’t arrive in Israel until much later. We don’t know exactly what Naaman had. The only thing the experts agree on, is that it was some kind of skin disease which carried a heavy stigma. Many considered it a curse. I will continue to use the word leprosy here just for convenience — so we don’t have to start talking about “the disease previously known as leprosy”, or use the Hebrew term tsaraath. Just keep in mind that the meaning of the word has changed.

So, who and what is happening here?

First of all, we have Naaman, the “great man”, commander of the army. One of the few persons whose name gets used in the text. He was a mighty warrior, but suffered from tsaraath — sorry, leprosy.

Next we have the Israelite slave girl. A young girl. As a young person, a female, a slave to Naaman’s wife, she was several layers down the pecking order. In fact, we don’t know her name, and we don’t even know Naaman’s wife’s name. This girl is a remarkable example of loving our enemies. Here she is, a slave kidnapped in battle. She had every reason to wish the worst to her captors, but instead, she gives Naaman the information that could get him saved.

Go find the prophet, she says.

And what does Naaman do, does he go find the prophet? No. He is an important man, and he does what important men do: he uses his connections. He goes to the king of Israel carrying a letter from the king of Aram, and mucho dinero: a whomping lot of money and goods. He knows what he wants, and he is ready to pay for it in cash.

By the way, we had our panel of ancient Aramaic scholars translate the letter Naaman took with him, and it reads like this:

“Hello, Israelite king?
King of Aram here!
I know things have been hard and some bad things have happened, but we have been very good to Israel! Tremendous!
So, I would like you to do us a favor. There’s this guy, great guy! tremendous guy! big supporter of Israel. Well, i would like you to take good care of him and cure his leprosy.”

The king of Israel was caught completely off guard, and had no idea what to do. He thought the whole thing was a pretext to start a war! Fortunately, Elisha heard about it and said “relax, king! Just send him to me.”

And so Naaman arrives at Elisha’s nice little home in the suburbs, with his horses, his chariots, his gifts, his slaves, the whole shebang. Here we are! what do we do now? knock on the door? play the trumpets? What the heck, let’s play the trumpets. Tatatatarah! The Great And Powerful General Naaman is here! All bow before The Great And Powerful General Naaman!

And now Elisha is annoyed. What is this noise? So he sends his servant to make it go away.

Hey general? The boss says to go wash yourself seven times in the river, and you will be fine.

Now Naaman is furious! “I thought he would come out wearing fancy robes, and do some kind of impressive ritual and miracle the leprosy away! I didn’t come here to talk to the help! And by the way, we have much better rivers back home.

What’s happening here, is that Naaman has this perfect script in his mind. He thinks he knows how things are supposed to go. He’s not listening at all. He had seen an opportunity and he thought he knew what to do to grab it. So he goes to the king with his money and his letter, and when that doesn’t work, he goes to the prophet with his money, but by then his patience is running thin, and he’s not about to go dip himself in no silly river. By now he is ready to do some damage. Burn some stuff. Maybe take a few more slaves.

And would you ever think, once more it’s a slave who saves the day. Another unnamed slave, this time one of Naaman’s own: “Sir”, he said, “if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more when all he said was wash and be clean?”

We know the rest of the story. Off he went, and dipped himself in the Jordan river one time — “yuk! mud!”
Two times: “i should never have listened to that litlte girl!”
Three times: “I’m going to show them all!”
Four times: “I’ll teach them to disrespect a Syrian general!”
Five times: “What’s that floating stuff?”
Six times: “almost done…”
Seven times: “what? why do i feel different? What happened?”

With supreme irony, the Bible says that his skin became like the flesh of a young boy. Which brings us back to the young girl who through her charity made it all possible, and completing the circle of the story.

It should also remind us of what Jesus said, that anyone who wants to know the Kingdom of God, must first become like a child.

This story is about the reversal of the normal order of things, and thus it is a story about the Kingdom of God.

The powerful people of this world have their ways, their connections, and their money, but God’s voice comes from below. In this story, only the unnamed slaves speak wisdom. And so it is in the Kingdom of God: God is with the poor, the powerless, the oppressed, the sick.

In 1 Corinthians 1:26–31, Paul wrote:

Consider your call, brethren; not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth; but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption; therefore, as it is written, “Let him who boasts, boast of the Lord.

God doesn’t follow the script

Jesus mentioned this very story at the start of his public ministry: there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cured, except Naaman the Syrian.

The point he was making was exactly this, that God is not obliged to follow human expectations. Notice the double sting of what he said: there were many lepers, but only one was cured: the foreigner; the bad guy; Naaman the Syrian!

The people listening to Jesus understood this very well. So well, in fact, that they picked up stones to throw at him and kill him, but Jesus miraculously walked away unharmed.

So it is. We may have strong ideas about what God likes or doesn’t like. About how God acts or doesn’t act. But remember: the Almighty is not obliged to agree with us. It’s always wiser to be humble and admit that even in our best days we walk in darkness a little. Don’t be too ready to claim that God is on your side, so you don’t end up looking silly.

In our world, the rich, powerful and healthy often have the final word. In our world, people strive and compete for positions of prestige and power. But not so in the Kingdom of God. In God’s Kingdom, wisdom and power come from the weak, the oppressed, the sick.

Jesus Christ is the greatest affirmation of God’s nature, and he was executed like a despised criminal by the imperial power of his time. Jesus is the greatest reversal of the power structures of this world.

As Paul said in 1st Corinthians 1:22, “some demand miracles and others desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified. Christ, the power of God and the wisdom of God.”

That’s the essence of Paul’s message and of ours: not just “Christ”, but “Christ crucified”, God’s gigantic denial of the powers of this world.

So let us pick up our crosses and follow him with humble and open minds.

Amen.

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Glauber Ribeiro

Glauber Ribeiro

Musician, anti-racist, feminist, reader, thinker, diaspora Brazilian, humble follower of Christ. #BlackLivesMatter