Happy Independence Day weekend! Nothing says celebration like a good Bible story about a leper! By now you probably know enough about my preaching style to know that I’m going to have to unpack this story. It’s a richly evocative one that invites us to find ourselves and God in the telling. So here goes…
“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.”
There you have it. We are dealing with an army general who is powerful, successful, and held in high esteem by the ultimate power in his world, the king of Aram. It doesn’t get much better than that, does it? However, and this is a big however, Naaman suffers from leprosy. The word leprosy as used in this story could refer to several skin diseases, none of which were pleasant, and all of which would render a person repulsive, someone to be avoided, even scorned. What’s a mighty warrior to do when brought low by a disgusting, painful disease?
Interestingly enough, help arrives in the form of a slave girl who has been taken captive on a raid to Israel and now serves Naaman’s wife. She volunteers to her mistress that there is a prophet in Samaria who could cure Naaman. Armed with this knowledge Naaman talks to his boss, the king of Aram, and the two of them agree to a high-level protocol in which Naaman will be referred to Israel’s king with a letter of recommendation. Naaman takes ten talents of silver (in today’s market worth close to $200,00), six thousand shekels of gold (today worth over two million dollars) and ten sets of garments (of the finest sort!) to present to the king.
Sounds good, right? Actually, this is where things start to fall apart…
The king of Israel reads the king of Aram’s letter of recommendation, explodes in anger, and tears his clothing because he wrongly fears that his counterpart is mocking him or trying to pick a fight. “Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy?” he shouts. This is either a case of mistaken identity or a very poorly thought out referral. Fortunately, Elisha, the prophet, hears about the king’s little temper tantrum and tells the king to send Naaman to him, the true healer.
So now we’re back on track. Naaman comes to Elisha’s house with horses, chariots and riches, expecting to buy his healing from this famous prophet and healer. Except for one little thing. Elisha never so much as shows his face. Instead he sends a messenger to tell Naaman that if he washes seven times in the Jordan he will be completely healed.
Time for temper tantrum #2—this time on Naaman’s part. Naaman is furious that the prophet has not personally greeted him. He is furious that the healing hasn’t happened according to his expectations. And for extra measure, he rages about having to wash in the Jordan when he has two wonderful rivers back at home, thank you very much.
Fortunately for Naaman, his servants are able to convince him to take the prescribed cure. He immerses himself seven times in the Jordan and his flesh is restored. It’s a beautifully understated ending — “his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean”. Naaman is not only restored in the flesh, but restored to a respected position in the community because he is no longer a loathsome, source of contagion to those around him. He is free–of illness, pain, and shame.
How about this for a tale of upended expectations? All Naaman’s worldly power, staggering riches and preconceived notions of how things ought to play out amount to nothing. He is healed by a mud bath in a part of the world for which he appears to have little regard. The famous prophet whom he expected to charm and win over with his wealth and power is nowhere to be seen. Indeed, the whole story is moved along by “the little people”–a slave girl from Israel who raises the possibility of healing, a nameless messenger of the prophet who instructs him on how to be healed and his own faithful servants who finally talk him into “letting go and letting God.”
I am powerfully convicted by this story. I wonder how it strikes you. How often do we insist that we know the way things ought to unfold and then become downright petulant or even enraged when things don’t go our way? How often do we rigidly cling to our own visions of what it means to be healed, and plummet into despair when our expectations are not met? How mindlessly do we define ourselves, and claim our salvation, by whatever power and privileges we enjoy?
Having worked in hospitals and counseling centers throughout my career, I have learned that there is a real difference between being cured and being healed. Some folks are cured of the symptoms that ail them, yet remain sick in soul because of fear, bitterness, or sad belief that they must go it alone, as if everything depended on them. On the other hand, I’ve known people who’ve lived and died with incurable diseases, but found peace and wholeness as they surrendered their lives and wills to God.
If you read on in 2nd Kings–and I hope you will–you will discover that Naaman is not only cured of his symptoms but truly made whole. His eyes are opened to God’s power and he becomes far more humble and faithful. He has learned what we all need to learn over and over again–ultimate power and ultimate grace reside with God whose ways are often surprising and never anything we can manipulate.
Naaman’s story seems uncannily appropriate on this Independence Day weekend. We are a nation desperately in need of healing and wholeness, despite our many gifts and strengths. We cannot deny the reality that we suffer greatly from racism, violence, fear mongering, hate crimes and an obscene divide between great wealth and great poverty.
So perhaps rather than wishing us a Happy Independence Day it would be more appropriate to wish us all a Happy Dependence Day. Naaman’s healing speaks volumes to us when we are tempted to place our faith in human symbols of power rather than the power and grace of God. As we give thanks for our blessings and grapple with our woundedness, may we acknowledge that of ourselves we can do nothing. In the end, it is always God who makes us whole.
That doesn’t mean we don’t work tirelessly and passionately for justice and healing, but it does mean that the way God makes us whole is not something we can control. Naaman’s story reminds us to remain open to the surprising ways and surprising people God uses to set us free. It reminds us that God longs to liberate us from what Alcoholics Anonymous so aptly describes as the bondage of self.
In a few minutes we will partake of a holy meal. You will be invited with these words, “This is the Lord’s table. Our Savior invites all those who trust him to share the feast which he has prepared.” At this table there are no earthly powers and no little people. We didn’t earn this meal and we cannot earn God’s love. But we can, and we must, lay down the illusions of power that hold us captive, open ourselves to God’s will for us as individuals and as a nation, and trust in the words of Paul, that “no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him.”
Thanks be to God!