2 Kings 5:1-14
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. 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.
One of the delights of a Masterpiece Theater series like Upstairs Downstairs and now Downton Abbey is the look we get into two different cultures that live just a few floors apart in one house. Whether it’s the Bellamy’s and their servants Rose and Mr Hudson or whether it’s Lord and Lady Grantham and their servants Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes, both series seem to make the point that while the two classes, aristocrats and servants, lead lives that are quite different, they are, nevertheless, deeply intertwined.
And so we watch as the vocational, financial and personal lives of the aristocrats profoundly affect the lives of the people whose job it is to serve them, and, likewise, we watch as the servants, sometimes for good and other times for ill, intervene in the lives of their aristocratic employers.
Today in our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures we get to hear about the lives of these two same groups: the aristocrats and the servants. The story is the story of the healing of Naaman, the great commander of the Syrian army who has been diagnosed with leprosy. It’s a story of commanders and their ladies along with both the king of Syria and the king of Israel. But in this story there are other characters as well: the great uncredentialed and powerful prophet Elisha who is the presence and power of God in the narrative and two unnamed servants, two servants without status or entitlement who not only influence their masters, but who in their self-possessed manner and simple words open up possibilities, avert disaster and lead a needy and arrogant commander to the waters of healing and release.
But let’s start by going over this story, one of the most expertly crafted narratives in all of Hebrew Scriptures.
Naaman, a great Syrian commander, someone who has lived a privileged life, has been diagnosed with leprosy. What this means is that he will go from being at the center of Syrian society to being outcast by it. But Naaman’s wife just so happens to have a young Israelite girl as her servant who upon hearing of Naaman’s illness makes a simple compassionate declaration: "If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy." Naaman’s wife then tells Naaman who in turn goes to his own king and tells him about the words of the young servant girl.
What happens next is fascinating and perhaps predictable. Upon hearing about the prophet, the Syrian king decides to send Naaman not to the Prophet Elisha but to the King of Israel with a letter asking the kingto cure Naaman. Naaman takes this letter to the King of Israel along with an array of gifts meant to seal the deal. But, of course, the King of Israel does not know how to heal Naaman. This ignorance quickly turns to paranoia in that the King of Israel, we are told, suspects that the letter and the effort is all a ruse meant by the King of Syria to pick a fight with him.
Luckily Elisha hears of these goings on and sends a message to the King of Israel telling him to send Naaman to him for the healing so that Naaman may know that there is a prophet in Israel. The king responds and Naaman comes with his array of gifts to Elisha. When Naaman arrives at Elisha’s home, Elisha does not come out to meet him but instead sends out a messenger to meet him with a simple message of how the healing can occur. “Wash seven times in the Jordan,” the messenger tells Naaman.
Naaman immediately takes offense: “Why hasn’t Elijah deigned to come out to meet me? I I am a great commander, and Elisha is an uncredentialled prophet. How dare he?”
Naaman turns to leave when Naaman’s own servant says this to him: “If the prophet had asked you to do something difficult you would’ve done it. Why not do something easy to be healed?”
The great commander acquiesces. He goes to the Jordan and washes himself seven times. And then the narrator tells us that the great commander’s “flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.” What we cannot see in the English here is that the Hebrew word for young boy is the masculine of the same word used for the young servant girl in the beginning of the story. And so in the end the great commander’s healing bears the stamp of the young Israelite girl who set the story of healing into motion in the first place.
It seems to me that this story suggests a few things:
First, it suggests that God’s healing energy is forever coming from “below stairs,” as it were, where it intrudes, upends, undermines and redeems the often bureaucratic, pompous, paranoid and ultimately stalled narrative that lives above stairs. This, of course, is utterly consistent with Jesus who is—one who comes, if you will, as a servant from “below stairs” with a perspective and action that entices, intrudes and heals.
Second, a gentle touch, simple words, the non-coercive but open offer, the calm encouraging reassurance—these things and not big promises or big threats—are the way that the sick and the incapacitated are guided to restoration and health. Here I see a real parallel between the actions of the servants in this story and Jesus’ words in our Gospel for today which send the disciples into their mission. They are to travel light and to move gently but definitively among those to whom they are sent. They are to declare that the kingdom of God has come near without razzmatazz or coercion.
And, finally, my last point related to that delicate choice of words that links the young servant girl to the nature of Naaman’s healing at the end of the narrative: while we can never know where our gentle touch, our simple words, our non-coercive but open offers, our calm and encouraging reassurances will lead, the healing and restoration that these actions may lead to somewhere down the line bears our stamp, has our fingerprint on it. In other words, our part, however small, in the healing process is never lost.
Where do you find yourself in this story? Are you one of the characters “above stairs”? Are you, for instance, the commander who is desperate for a cure but too proud to receive it? Are you one of the two kings who from his perch of too much responsibility and power and too much hyper-vigilance can neither listen nor figure out how to help a good thing happen?
Or are you one of the characters “below stairs”? Are you the young servant girl who simply makes a wish of health for someone else that then opens a path that would not have been there without her? Or are you the commander’s servant who talks an upset person down to accept the gift of healing that is right before him.
Or perhaps you are none of these…perhaps you are the muddy Jordan, that unremarkable river that simply receives those who needs healing and, by the grace of God, is the place where it occurs.
Some scholars believe that the narratives of Elijah and Elisha provide the framework out of which the Jesus narrative, itself, is constructed in the early Church. That may be so. Today I prefer to think about the stories of Elisha and of Jesus as one great narrative revelation of the way that our God works through the lowly, the powerless and the humble to redeem and heal a world of power and presumption. To the lowly, these stories say: Speak what you have to say simply, directly, compassionately about the things you know of where healing can be found for your words will not be lost. To the proud and the powerful, these stories say look and listen for around you and below you are the ones who know where healing is to be found, the ones whose stamp, if you let them, will be upon your flesh in its restoration and new youth.