2 Kings 5.1-14 and Mark 1.40-45
I have only visited the holy land once. However those six days have left an indelible impression. There is a sense of awe while walking the bustling streets of Jerusalem knowing that somewhere my path would have intersected with where Jesus walked. Or a different sense of reverence standing on the more silent hills of Galilee where one looks out across the timeless sea below and contemplates the meaning of eternity. During this past week I had memories of the time at the ancient Roman site of Caesarea Maritima. The clue is in the name. It is located beside the Mediterranean and a number of our group took the opportunity for some sea bathing. Believe me as I looked out at snow drifts this week – I certainly knew where I would rather be.
Yet there is another memory I wish to share with you today of my time in the holy land. One afternoon we were taken by coach to see the baptismal site of Jesus. There was a sense of anticipation – the very place where John the Baptist met Jesus, and the Spirit descended in the form of a dove. I knew this was going to be special. As we drew near I was struck by the presence of barbed wire and signs warning tourists not to stray from the road, and even clearer signs of the presence of minefields – a reminded that the river was the border with Jordan. We disembarked the coach and went down to the bank. I looked and took in the scene. I surveyed the thick reeds, and what was called a river – so narrow that a Dutch dyke jumper could traverse it. I was so, so disappointed that I turned to one of my travelling companions and said, “this is not very impressive, I expected this would be a wide flowing river.” As quick as anything, he responded “Are the rivers of Damascus not greater than the rivers of Israel.” Since that day I have had a lot of empathy with Naaman.
Our Old Testament reading presents an evocative story, rich with a cast of multi-faceted characters. First Naaman, the commander of the Syrian army. We are told that Yahweh had given him many victories. Yet we are left wondering whether Naaman knew that his success was a gift from Yahweh. Then we come across two unnamed female characters. The first is a young slave girl taken captive from northern Israel or Samaria. While outright war was not constant between Syria and Israel, border raiding was. The more powerful Syrian forces would engage in grab and run tactics, harrying and despoiling neighbours to the south. The captive young child had become the maid-servant of Naaman’s wife. This carefully plotted narrative also informs readers that Naaman, the great military leader of Syria suffered from leprosy. Actually if we understand Naaman’s skin condition to be equivalent to modern leprosy we are sorely misled. Modern leprosy or Hansen’s disease was unknown in this period in ancient Israel. Instead, Naaman was afflicted with some debilitating and perhaps disfiguring skin condition. Thus, we meet a proud and successful military leader, who is also a tragic figure. Providentially the captive slave girls tells Naaman’s wife of the existence of the prophet in Samaria. This, in turn, is communicated to the king of Syria who sends his trusted commander to Samaria with a message for the king of the northern tribes of Israel.
The next scene takes us briefly into the court of the king of Samaria. The letter bids him to cure Naaman of his leprosy. The king of Israel assumes that the request is a diplomatic rouse by the Syrians to pick a fight with its weaker southern neighbour. It is at that juncture that the prophet Elisha appears in the story. Somehow news has come to him of the predicament. In contrast to the panic of the king of northern Israel, Elisha sends a terse but calm reply. He asks the king why he has torn his robes in distress. Then we might expect the message to say “send Naaman to me and I will heal him for you.” Yet, it does not. Instead it says, “let the man come to me and let him know that there is a prophet in Israel.” Elisha’s agenda is not the agenda of the king, nor the agenda of Naaman. There is something else that is at stake here. Next we are told that Naaman travelled to meet Elisha in his pomp and splendour, with his horse and chariot, no doubt carrying all his silver and gold and the presents of fine clothes. Then something strange happens. Something that is insulting, and maybe which could be read as a provocation to the war that the king of Israel feared. Elisha refuses to meet Naaman. Instead, he sends his servant to tell Naaman to wash seven times in the Jordan. Naaman is infuriated. Doesn’t this upstart Elisha from the puny kingdom of Samaria not know who he is. Naaman exasperatedly states “I thought that he would surely come out to me, stand here, and call upon the name of Yahweh his God, and wave his hand over the infected place and cure the leprosy.” Then Naaman’s classic comment follows – “Are not Abana and Pharpar, rivers of Damascus, better than all the rivers of Israel?” On that score, I have to concur with Naaman. However, it is not the greatness of the river that is at stake, but the greatness of the God of Israel. At this point Naaman storms off in rage.
Next, a new set of characters are introduced. In many ways these are the wisest people in the story. Naaman’s attendants see what is really at stake and calm their Master. Addressing him as “Father”, they ask “if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? Now all he says to you is, wash and be cleansed.” These calming and wise words result in Naaman following that advice and being healed. So what is going on here? Elisha’s refusal to meet Naaman is in my opinion not some crass ethnic prejudice against Syrians, neither is it an attempt to belittle a wealthy person. Instead, I suggest, Elisha is undermining Naaman’s presuppositions. The great military leader turns up and he believes he can classify Elisha as some wonder-working healer, who will do the things that exorcists and shamanistic healers are supposed to do. He will get himself into a trance-like state and mutter some incantation and then the healing will take place. By contrast, Elisha wants Naaman to know that he is not able to categorise the one who will heal him. The healing is not attributable to human power, and even the brackish little waterway in which he is to bathe has nothing to recommend it. Naaman has to realise that he is being healed by none other than Yahweh, the God of Israel, the God of the universe.
After this story and its sequel in the remainder of the chapter, Naaman disappears from our view. We know nothing more of him and he is almost forgotten in the rest of scripture. That is, apart from a recollection of him by another Jewish prophet-like figure. In the Gospel of Luke, among other characters, Jesus recalls Naaman. He says, “there were many lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha, but none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian” (Lk 4.27). Here, Naaman is recalled as an example of the universalism of human salvation made possible through Jesus.
It is this same Jesus we meet in today’s gospel reading, encountering another individual described as a leper. Here after a rapid sequence of preceding events, Jesus is sought out by a man in need of healing. This is no prestigious military leader. In fact this man’s presence is a threat to Jesus’ own state of ritual purity. Jesus heals the man with the skin condition, but then he does something unexpected. Instead of declaring the man clean, he becomes indignant with him and commands him to silence. The man is told to go to the religious leaders and make a thanksgiving offering in line with Torah stipulations. Then Jesus says something strange. The man is to carry out those actions “for a witness to (or maybe against) them.” In the same way that Namaan assumed that he could categorise Elisha as a healing shaman, it appears that Jesus wanted to challenge the priestly perception of the day. Had they categorised Jesus as no more than a Galilean wonder-worker, or perhaps even worse – they had forgotten the power of the God of Israel to heal the sick. Like the actions of Naaman, those of Jesus challenge false perceptions about human ability to understand spiritual power and to categorise the actions of God.
We are living through a time when we too need healing. We often pray for the healing of the nations and that the resources of the world will be shared with equity. Those are good prayers, but now they take on a greater sense of urgency and there is a more concrete picture of what those prayers might be seeking. This time has been a period of frustration. Personally, I have felt that large projects have been put on hold. Instead, I have had to spend more time on small things and having to adjust the pace at which things are achieved. It feels like foregoing visits to see the great rivers, and instead being forced to bathe in the insignificant and brackish Jordan. However, what the encounter between Naaman and Elisha teaches us is that it is not the size of the river, but it is the degree of our faithfulness in carrying out the will of the one we serve. Jesus’ own encounter with one who would have been considered an insignificant leper teaches us that God is just as much God over the small matters of life as over the great matters of state. Perhaps during recent times we have all had to adopt a simpler piety, and to carry out smaller acts of faith. Those acts are no less consequential because of the way we might perceive their size.
Yahweh, who is the God of Elisha and the God of Israel, calls us to be faithful in the small things. Jesus himself heals a forgotten human being and then seeks to deflect attention from himself. Instead, he wants the act of healing to testify to the fact that the God who is able to heal is still at work. Today in our own lived-experience, the Holy Spirit is still working through the people of God often in what we perceive to be small acts, which unbeknownst to us serve to bring about the healing of the nations. It is to that God who works mightily through the small things, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, to whom we now give thanks and praise for his mighty power constantly at work even in the smallness of human lives. Amen