Rev. Megan L. Castellan
July 7, 2019
Ordinary Time, Proper 9
The story of Naaman’s healing is one of those Biblical stories that is internally famous in scripture. Jesus mentions it in his first sermon in a synagogue in Nazareth, and it’s part of what gets him in trouble. (We will see why in a minute.)
This story gets cited a few times within the canon itself.
But it might strike our ears as a bit odd this morning. Because there is nothing about Naaman that seems like he’s a sympathetic character in any way. We’re told he’s an Aramean general. Arameans, during this time, had a group of small kingdoms that were constantly scuffling with King Saul and then King David, pushing the boundaries a few inches back and forth every so often. They were the eternal, annoying enemy. And evidently Naaman is so good at his job that he has even taken a child captive to give to his wife as a servant. Awesome. Great. Upstanding guy, this Naaman. Why does he get a story?
And then Naaman gets leprosy.
Leprosy, in the biblical world, was a pretty vague diagnosis. It wasn’t exactly the dire disease we know today. Leprosy was a general category for “Something That Is Suddenly There, That Should Not Be There.” Any time some spot, rash, or blemish appeared, it was leprosy, and had to be dealt with—you called the priests, spent a while in time out, kept a watch on it, and most times, it went away on its own. Because so little was understood about how the world works, leprosy was understood as Something Very Bad, which needed Divine Intervention.
Freckles could be leprosy. A mosquito bite was leprosy. Baldness, also leprosy. Houses could get leprosy—though we would call this mold, or mildew. Books, clothing, scrolls—all could come down with leprosy, which would require the person to immediately get right with God. It wasn’t necessarily that the person had sinned; but if leprosy appeared, something had gone awry in God’s order of things, and needed tending to.
So, the fact that Naaman gets leprosy after he’s won a battle against the Israelites, and carried off their children as slaves——would not have been surprising to the earliest audiences. OF COURSE he should get leprosy. Good grief, of all people, he should get so much leprosy!
What IS shocking is what happens next.
It is arguable that Naaman is actually not the protagonist of this particular story, given his clear misdeeds, and now his problems with leprosy. It is arguable that, actually, the captured slave girl is our protagonist, and here she finally takes a bow. She sizes up the situation, and suggests that Naaman ask Elisha, the new prophet in Israel (you know, the guys he just defeated) for help.
Naaman suspects a trap, but he is also out of options. So Naaman sends a whole ton of stuff to Israel, hoping to make nice. Gold! Silver! Horses! Rhinos! Monkeys! That whole Prince Ali parade from Aladdin! Remember, he KNOWS they don’t like him, and now he sort of needs their help.
The King of Israel sees all this coming and also thinks it’s a trap. He thinks the Aramean general is basically back for more, since they did so well in the first battle. Elisha finally steps in, tells everyone to simmer down, and tells Naaman what to do: go wash in the River Jordan. Boom. Problem solved.
Naaman is now CONVINCED this is a trap. Sort of hilariously. The back and forth between Naaman, and the King of Israel, and his servants is pretty great. Naaman is NOT going to wash in that dumb river, because that’s way too easy. Shouldn’t he have to do something hard? What was all the gold and silver sent over here for?
It’s worth noting that so far in this story, only the slave girl, Elisha, and now the other servants of Naaman, have showed much common sense. The people of high status are having a hard time trusting anything anyone else does. Naaman, in particular, is beside himself—he both knows he needs help desperately, but cannot bring himself to accept it, because the source of that help is historically suspect to him.
It may be that what Naaman expected was something along the lines of what the King of Israel expected: a tit for tat retaliation, a continuation of the cycle of vengeance that they had been waging. Israel strikes Aram, Aram strikes back. On and on and on. Naaman doesn’t expect the slave girl or Elisha to actually direct him to healing—why would they? He enslaved a child! He was an enemy of Israel! Naaman is pretty in touch with who he is and what he has done, and it is that consciousness that tells him to expect some harsh treatment from his servant girl. After all, that’s what Naaman would do. That’s what makes him a great general.
But that’s not what the slave girl does. She alone stands up, and breaks the cycle. She could, of course, go a different way—the way Naaman expects. But she doesn’t. She sends him to healing, because she knows that the God of Israel is a God who heals everyone. The God of Israel is a God who extends mercy to everyone. It is only Naaman’s shame, and inability to think differently that stands in his way.
Naaman has trouble moving outside of the cycle of violence, but God is already there.
Sometimes, what prevents us from being made whole is not our lack of faith, it’s not our ignorance—it’s our suspicion. It’s when we are clinging so closely to our own sense of our own unworthiness that we cannot let God do anything with us, because SURELY there would have to be more, right? SURELY God would require much more from us than just this? SURELY we have to be over here wallowing a bit more in our own guilt a bit longer, right?
But as Naaman learned, guilt is not always a helpful emotion. So long as Naaman was parading around with all his wealth, feeling bad about himself, he also was managing to avoid rectifying what he had actually done wrong. So long as he was worrying over whether he had cleansed himself enough in the right river, or paid enough money to the right king, he also wasn’t setting the slave girl free. He wasn’t taking care of the soldiers’ families in his army. And he also wasn’t getting any better himself. There was a lot he could be doing that he wasn’t to actually bring about healing. But he was stuck on his own sense of importance, which blocked his ability to heal.
I found it hard this week, to read about the slave girl in this story, and not think about the children at the border of our own country. The thousands of young people separated from their families and held in brutal conditions by our own government. It is easier than ever, I think, to become overwhelmed, guilt-ridden and paralyzed when we hear about the horrible things taking place in our world, many of them on our own doorstep. It can be easy to sink into a quagmire of despair, and convince ourselves that, like Naaman, only a huge enormous effort far beyond any of us can possibly make any difference. It’s too awful for us to fix or contemplate.
But God isn’t interested in our beating ourselves up. God doesn’t need our outsized offerings of guilt. God asks of us only that we do what we can, whatever we can, to make this better. That we do our little bit, all together. That we pray, we call, we march, we donate, we pray some more—we each figure out what we’re called to do to push this world into the dream God has for all God’s children. Guilt doesn’t save us; God alone saves us, through following Jesus. And all Jesus asks of us is that we try our best, in all the ways we can. For that slave-girl’s sake, and for Naaman’s sake, and for all our sakes.