Our scripture passage this morning comes from the book of 2 Kings, chapter 5. But before we read it, allow me to give you a bit of context.
The person who says the Bible is boring has not read 2 Kings. There is more drama here than can fill an entire week of primetime TV, more humor than you’ll get from any stand-up comic.
And there are some crazy stories.
In one from the beginning of 2 Kings, the people of a city go to a prophet and tell him, “Hey, we really like where we live, it has a great view, it’s a nice place. The only problem is that the water is polluted and the land actually won’t grow anything. But other than that it is fantastic!” So the prophet, Elisha (not to be confused with Elijah, who had just died and passed the propheting down to Elisha) asks the people to bring him a bowl of salt, walks over to their well, and throws the salt in it, pronounces it clean and leaves town.
This is just after Elisha’s mentor, Elijah, has been taken by God up to heaven in a chariot of fire and a whirlwind. A fairly traumatic way to be set off on your own, I would guess. Hearing that this had happened the company of prophets—50 of them—came to Elisha and offered to go looking for the spirit of Elijah, just in case God couldn’t get him all the way to heaven and he had fallen on a mountaintop or something on the way.
In another instance, again with the company of 50 prophets, someone has made some stew and accidentally included a poisonous wild vine with the herbs to season it. All of a sudden, as they were eating eat, they scrunched up their faces and called out “Yuck!! What it is in this stew?? It tastes like death! What have you fed us??” It was so bad they could not eat it. So Elisha asked for some flour to be brought, threw it in the pot, curing the poison, and all of a sudden the stew was fine.
There are some crazy stories in 2 Kings—and this is only the beginning!
Our text for this morning comes from the assigned lectionary passage for today. The lectionary, by assigning certain sections of the Bible to each Sunday of the year, is thought to keep the preacher honest, by forcing some variety into the preaching routine. Actually, I really wanted to preach about the parable of the Good Samaritan. Coincidentally, that comes up next week.
But in looking over the texts assigned to this week I became fascinated by the story in 2 Kings. To be honest, though I have read the Bible cover to cover back as part of a One Year Bible campaign, and though I studied it for three years in seminary, I don’t ever remember coming across this story before. Jesus even mentions it, as told in the book of Luke, and it causes such a stir that the people in the synagogue chase him out, screaming at him, threatening his to kill him. On second thought, it might not be such a good text to have chosen!
It is a crazy story.
As we read the text this morning, sit back, listen, not as the Bible or something that you are supposed to be learning or should pay attention to, but like a child before bedtime, saying to her parents, read me a story, and then losing herself in the enjoyment of it. 2 Kings 5:1-14Naaman, 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.
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. She said to her mistress, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.”
So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said. 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. 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.” 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.”
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.” So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house. 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.”
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! 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. 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?’ 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.
This is the word of the Lord, thanks be to God. And it is kind of a crazy story.
Enter Naaman, strong, mighty, valiant in battle. The text says that through Naaman the LORD had given victory to the king of Aram. Interesting, since Aram was in Syria and the Lord, thus far, was the God of Israel. What was the Lord doing, fraternizing with the enemy?
Naaman was highly favored, and successful, but with one slight problem—he’s got this nasty rash. Scholars note that the word translated here as leprosy was most likely a generic word that could indicate any number of skin diseases. Naaman’s case clearly was not a severe one, as he was able to continue what appear to be normal social relationships. So it is very possible that this leprosy of Naaman’s was not really an ailment so much as it was a pain, maybe a bit embarrassing at the victory parties after a successful battle…
Did you catch how the story began? With Namaan’s wife’s slave girl… Like a souvenir from a distant land, Naaman picked her up on his last business trip, I mean raiding party… “Oh yeah, isn’t she great? We got her on one of our trips over to Israel—a real bargain, actually, when you think about it.”
So this young girl has been kidnapped, taken from her family and her own people, and forced into servitude, slavery, if you will.
One day she happens to be chatting with her mistress, Naaman’s wife, and sets in motion the unlikely series of events. This girl has been forcefully taken from her family, her land, and her people—why in the world is she offering helpful advice for the comfort of her oppressor??
But she mentions it to the wife, the wife must have passed this along to her husband Naaman, and before you know it Naaman is telling it to the king—straight up the food chain, the hierarchy of power, all the way to the top.
The king, after hearing the words of the slave girl, through Naaman’s wife, through Naaman, is pleased as punch at the idea and begins putting into motion all the social niceties that the situation requires, most importantly, a letter to the king of Israel.
But wait a second. Israel. Isn’t that where the slave girl is from? And wasn’t she captured on a raid? Of Israel? So, what exactly is the King of Aram going to write in this letter to the King of Israel?
“Hi. Remember me? I am the King of Aram. You may remember us. We are the ones who raided you a while back, took a bunch of your property and some of your people back with us? Anyway, I hope there are no hard feelings about all that. The thing is, I am sending my top military commander to you—you might remember him from the raids? He has this nasty rash and, well, one of your young girls (Deborah or Rachel or something…I can’t really remember her name, but she is working out really well for us) mentioned that you might be able to cure him of his leprosy. So, anyway, if you could do this little favor for us, you know, just among friends, that would be fantastic. Thanks!”
So Naaman heads off to Israel with the King’s letter and about 1000 pounds of loot—perhaps taken from the raids?—and presents the letter to the King of Israel, who reads it and promptly rips off his clothes.
In all of the excitement over the preparations for the journey, somehow the King of Aram, Naaman’s king, forgot to put the part about the prophet in the letter, that it was the prophet who would cure Naaman’s leprosy, not the King himself.
The King of Israel is convinced that this is another trick, perhaps it is a way to sneak the enemy’s military commander right into the heart of his territory and then sneak up on them and plunder them again, taking more loot and more slaves…
So the king tears off his clothes. I can just see it now… George W Bush, in the oval office receiving a foreign diplomat, tearing off his suit…
Somehow Elisha, the prophet, gets word of this and sends a message to the king. “I hear that you’ve torn your clothes. Why?” even though he really knows the answer to why because he continues, “send Naaman to me and I will show him that there is a prophet in Israel.” It almost sounds like he is saying, “I’ll show him who the boss is…”
So Naaman heads over to the prophet’s house, already anticipating the mighty work of healing that is about to take place. It seems like a done deal, as far as he is concerned. Perhaps his military victories have made him used to always getting what he wants.
The text says that Naaman went to Elisha with all of his horses and all of his chariots…enough to carry the thousand pounds of loot and ten outfits…and stood at the entrance of the house, in all his pomp and finery.
As the door opens Naaman can almost taste the excitement of the drama…he is going to be healed! By a man of God! By a prophet! This is definitely going to be a story to tell back home by the fire! Well son, let me tell you about the time that I was healed by the prophet…fire came down from heaven, he waved his wand, and immediately, instantly, whoosh, the leprosy was gone!
One thing you’ve got to give Naaman is his faith. He doesn’t seem to question that the healing is possible, or whether or not it will happen. He takes it for granted. So maybe that is not so much faith as it is privilege.
But when the door opens instead of Elisha to greet him, there stands a servant. And instead of inviting him in to see the great prophet, the servant simply gives him a message. “Hey, commander, Elisha says go jump in a lake.” Okay, that’s not exactly what he says, but it is not far from it: go wash yourself in the Jordan River seven times and you will be clean.” End of story. The door is slammed shut and Naaman is left standing on the stoop, dumbfounded.
“Does he not realize who I am??” cries Naaman in a rage. I’ll show him! I’m not going to follow his silly instructions. And for that matter, our rivers are better than his rivers any day! Who needs this Israel and this man of God anyway? This was a stupid idea and I’m outta here.”
“Umm…excuse me… sir?” we hear a small voice making its way through the waves of rage… “We did come all this way, and with all this stuff…just a suggestion, you can take it or leave it, but maybe you should just try doing what he said, I mean, really, what can it hurt? If it was complicated you would have tried it, right? So why not try it even more since it is easy and there is really no harm in trying…?”
And in the second instance in a fairly short period of time, Naaman again listens to the voice of a servant and figures, “well, what the heck? I might as well give it a shot…” So he goes to the Jordan, dips seven times, and comes out clean. Just like the prophet said.
There are many voices in this story, but none of them come from the sources we might expect.
The kings? Both the king of Aram and the King of Israel appear a bit as buffoons.
The mighty military commander? He throws a tantrum when his healing doesn’t come with the spectacle he had worked up in his head.
It is a crazy story.
Many years later Jesus stands up in the synagogue and reads a passage from Isaiah. The people are amazed at his wisdom and his teaching and are falling all over themselves to gush about it. But instead of leaving well enough alone, Jesus has to spoil the moment. He talks about a widow’s son, and then mentions Naaman, the leper, our hero.
“There were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.
I am not making this up. It is right there in Luke 4. It is a crazy story.
The distinction I have always missed, in passing by this verse in Luke, is the heart of the matter—there were many lepers in ISRAEL at the time of Naaman, but none of those Israelites were healed. The only one who was cleansed was Naaman, a SYRIAN, not only a foreigner, but an enemy to Israel. It is pretty scandalous stuff. Imagine someone standing up in church and saying “There were many Americans who needed healing, but none was cleansed except for Osama Bin Laden.”
Now the whole part about them wanting to hurl Jesus off the cliff makes a bit more sense, doesn’t it?
Naaman, a SYRIAN, an enemy, a foreigner, was the agent through whom God gave victory, OVER ISRAEL, to Aram.
A SLAVE GIRL was the agent through whom God put in motion the healing of a powerful military commander.
A MESSENGER is who brought the healing to Naaman from the prophet.
And his SERVANTS were the ones who convinced Naaman to listen to the message and to obey.
And the GOD OF THE UNIVERSE
took on flesh and dwelt among us,
ate with prostitutes and tax collectors, those shunned by ‘polite society,’
broke the Sabbath to bring healing,
and proclaimed that the Kingdom of God had come near.
It is a crazy story.