February 15, 2009
2 Kings 5:1-14 (17)
Immediately after Jesus preaches about this story from 2 Kings, his listeners become enraged and try to throw him off a cliff.1 (We’ll hope my sermon goes over a bit better than that.)
At first read, the people’s negative, violent, reaction to Jesus’ referencing this story is simply perplexing. I mean, the story of Naaman is one of the best—one of the most fun—stories of the Old Testament. I remember a panel picture from my early Sunday school years: a man standing in a river with spots all over his body and then in the next panel the spots are gone.
It’s a happy story. So why does Jesus almost get thrown off a cliff for preaching about it?
What Jesus says is: “There were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” In other words, foreigners have more access to the power of Yahweh than the Israelites. In other words, you all talk a lot about God, but you don’t have a clue.
We can see how people might have taken offense. The question is, why does Jesus take such a nice story and turn it into something accusatory? Was Jesus just trying to cause problems?
Actually, I would argue that it is not such a nice, innocent, happy story. It is a story about a healing, yes, and about a religious conversion. But more than that, it is a story about power.
And the thing is, in this story from Second Kings, the people who we assume have the power are shown to be powerless. Utterly inept.
First we have Naaman. Our story opens with a description of him: Naaman, commander of Syria’s army, was a great man. He was in high favor with the king, because he won many battles. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy.
Laura, president of the PTA, was a great woman. She was highly valued by the principal because she organized successful fund raisers for the school. The woman, though a great parent, suffered from depression.
Chad, chair of the department, was a great man. He was highly respected by the other professors because he published many articles in peer reviewed journals. The man, though a great scholar, suffered from Alzheimers.
Say all of the positive things you want about a person, it is the last word that lingers: Alzheimers, depression, leprosy. The seemingly powerful one is powerless against a disease. Naaman, the man who has commanded armies, the man who commands a great fortune, has no control over his own body. His toes go numb. The lesions multiply and ooze. And there is nothing he can do. He is powerless.
The king of Syria is supposed to have even more power than Naaman. His power, of course, is dependent on his military might, which is dependent, it seems, on his accomplished military commander, Naaman. So just as the leprosy leaves Naaman powerless, the disease also threatens the power of the king.
Desperate for the health of his military commander, the king sends Namaan off to Israel—enemy territory—with an official letter to that country’s king. And with loads of silver, gold, and garments—the wealth that symbolizes power.
Titles and money are still the currency of power. I can count on one hand the number of times people in this room have called me “Reverend,” including the number of times I have referred to myself with that title in this group.
But when I signed a letter this week urging the governor and state senators to abolish the death penalty, I signed it “Rev. Joanna Harader.” It’s my official letter to the king. I’m doing the best I can, but ultimately my title only grants me the power that those who read the letter are willing to grant.
The Syrian king knows that the power to save his military commander rests in another’s hands.
The King of Israel is also supposed to have power. Politically speaking, Israel is a weaker nation than Syria. Still, Naaman and the king of Syria expect that there is power in Israel to heal Naaman’s leprosy. If the power exists in the country, surely it rests with the king.
Israel’s king, of course, cannot heal leprosy. And what feeling is more powerless than being expected to do something that you are utterly unable to do?
It’s like the poor girl in the story of Rumpelstiltskin, locked in a room, expected to spin the straw into gold.
It’s like the father sitting up at night with his sick daughter. She thinks her daddy can make everything better. But all he can really do is give her some medicine, put a cool cloth on her forehead, and pray that she feels better soon.
When I first read this story of Naaman, I thought the King of Israel’s response was a bit over the top—tearing his clothes, anticipating the worst. But it’s actually a reasonable response to that feeling of powerlessness.
Naaman’s leprosy upsets the power balance, and things are simply spinning out of control. The military commander and the kings cannot seem to assert their authority. They are each unable to do—or to make another person do–that thing that they most want accomplished.
This story is only possible because of the utter powerlessness of the powerful figures involved. Had Naaman been able to fight his way to health, had the kings been able to legislate health, then noone would have bothered to listen to the servants.
But in the face of his own helplessness, Naaman actually listens to the advice of a servant girl. It is this girl, taken captive as a slave from Israel, who sets the action of the story in motion. Based on her gender, her social status, her age, this girl should be utterly powerless. Yet it is her words which send Naaman to Israel and almost set off an international conflict.
The power that this girl possesses is completely internal. It is nothing granted to her based on external physical or social factors. It is power that she earns because of who she is. Because of how she lives in the world.
The primary source of her power is love. She must have been a girl simply filled with love for the people around her, and this astounds me. A fairly civil domestic picture is painted here of a child, well cared for, serving the kind lady of the house. But we know the back story. This girl was kidnapped by warriors. It is likely that one or more of her family members were killed by the Syrian army. It is possible that she was abused. And now, regardless or how kind her mistress might be, the girl is a slave in a foreign land.
Yet she cares about Namaan, the man who commands the army that destroyed her village.
Ryan and I were discussing the counter protest against Fred Phelps that Dar helped organize at Lawrence High School last week. We decided we hadn’t seen much of Fred lately and Ryan said, “Doesn’t he have cancer?” I said, “I hope God has smote him with something by now.”
As my husband pointed out, that was not a very Mennonite—not a very Christian—response. But it is a human one. I could understand if the servant girl were somewhat pleased to see the progression of the leprosy as it spread across Naaman’s body. Each new sore would be a slight vindication for all of the pain and suffering he had caused her and her people.
But this girl is not happy to see him suffer. Instead, she remembers the stories from her homeland—the place from which she has been taken. She remembers the stories of a prophet multiplying food and raising the dead. And she thinks that this prophet might be able to help Naaman.
She speaks out of love, and her words start Naaman toward healing. There is power in her love.
And then, later on the journey, we again see the power of Naaman’s servants. Naaman’s feelings of powerlessness have only been made worse by the fact that Elisha would not even come out of the house to see him. And then the word from Elisha’s servant to go dip in the Jordan River.
It’s like if you traveled to Texas to see a wart specialist and his secretary handed you a note from him that said to go kiss a frog. Infuriating.
Only Naaman’s anger only makes him even more powerless. The servants with Naaman may or may not love him. But they certainly realize that it benefits them to have a healthy and happy master. If the leprosy progresses, Naaman will loose his status in the military and likely much of his wealth.
These servants want Naaman to at least try what the prophet suggests. So the servants use what we might call the power of persuasion. It is a two-fold power; the first aspect of the power is that they remain calm and level-headed in an emotional situation.
These guys have had a long journey. They have been hauling around over 1000 pounds of silver, gold, and garments. They are being shuffled around from place to place. And Naaman is sick. It’s no wonder that when Elisha sends them to yet another place Naaman looses it. He is ranting and raving. We are told that he was angry and went away. Then we are told that he went away in a rage. This is an emotional scene.
The servants could have been sucked into the emotion, but they weren’t. They are in a position of power because they are calm when Naaman is not.
This is not a surprise to anyone who has spent much time with children. The best way—the only way—to handle a temper tantrum is to remain calm.
The second aspect of the servants’ power is their courage. If you have witnessed a temper tantrum, you know that you have to stay calm. You might also have learned that for some kids in some situations nothing will infuriate them more than you staying calm. Or maybe you have learned this power trick in arguing with your teenager or your spouse. They yell. You smile and nod and speak reasonably. They stomp out of the room in a huff.
Only Naaman wouldn’t have to stomp out of the room in a huff. He could simply leave the servants in Israel. Or have them killed, I suppose. He is already furious and they risk turning that fury on themselves. But what they say needs to be said: “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’?”
These servants have the power of reason and courage and it moves Naaman to bathe in the Jordan.
And so it is by listening to those who should be powerless that Naaman regains his health and thus his power. But we are told that when Naaman comes up out of the river after dipping seven times his flesh is like that of a “young boy.” This term for “young boy” is a grammatical variant of the term used earlier to describe the young slave girl.
Naaman is restored, but he is different. He is empowered, but he has learned to respect the power of other people.
And, as evidenced by his return to Elisha and his declaration of dedication to Elisha’s God, Yahweh, Naaman has learned that true power, ultimate power, rests only in the hands of God.
That’s the message of this nice little story. That only God really has power. And the powerless actually have more access to that power than the powerful. The ones who claim to know and even control God are the most powerless of all.
The last shall be first and the first shall be last.
No wonder they tried to throw Jesus off a cliff.