Narrative Lectionary Year 1
2 Kings 5:1-15a
With today’s story, we are leaving behind Kings David and Solomon and the united kingdom of Israel. After Solomon died, the kingdom split into the northern kingdom, which was called Israel, and the southern kingdom, which was called Judah. We have skipped over the many stories of Elisha’s predecessor, Elijah, and his battle against King Ahab and Queen Jezebel for the soul of the northern kingdom and who the people would worship: the gods of Jezebel or the one God, the LORD. Elijah has ascended into heaven, and Elisha is carrying on in Elijah’s footsteps, being a prophet for the LORD. Elisha, like Elijah before him, is operating in the northern kingdom of Israel. It’s not clear from the text who the king of Israel is at the time today’s story takes place; the last king named in a preceding chapter is Jehoram, the son of the wicked king Ahab, so it may very well have been him. But we can see from the context that Israel is not on good terms with the neighboring country, Aram, which covers what is now Syria. So, it is a time of political tension for Israel, which includes skirmishes and raids from one nation into another.
Today, I want us to first take a look at the slave girl that clues Naaman in to the fact that there is a prophet in Israel who could heal him from his leprosy. Our text says, “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 [the capital city of Israel]! He would cure him of his leprosy.” Think about that for a moment. This was a young girl who had been ripped from her family in a raid and taken to serve the enemy, and not just the enemy, but the wife of the commander of the army of the king of Aram. If that had been one of us, would we have said anything that could help our enemy be healed from a disease? Or would we have prayed to God for the leprosy to cause our master a slow and painful death?
While we sit with this discomfort for a while, I want to offer up another, more recent, picture for us. Last week, a gunman entered a synagogue on the Sabbath, during worship services, and killed eleven people there, all the time shouting out anti-Semitic words. This man was injured as law enforcement came and took him down, and his injuries required healing at the hospital. When he was brought to the hospital, the man was still shouting anti-Semitic slurs. The doctor and some of the staff who worked to heal him were Jewish. And when asked, the doctor said that he was proud to offer medical care to a human who was wounded. These are just two examples of what loving your enemies looks like. Would we who are Christians, whom Jesus taught to love our enemies, do what the slave girl and what this doctor did? Give our enemies hope for healing? I think that’s something for us to sit with, to meditate on, to pray on, and then perhaps to repent and to ask forgiveness for. And then, ask God to help us to do better at loving our enemies.
But let’s move on to the rest of the story now, for there is more that this Scripture text has to teach us today. Naaman hears about this prophet in Israel who can cure his leprosy, and he goes to his king, probably to ask permission to go to Israel, with whom his country, remember, was not on the greatest terms, in search of healing. But here’s the interesting thing: Naaman and his king hear the Israelite girl say “prophet,” and they think, “king”. Because, in their world, kings are the ones with all the power, including, apparently, the power to heal. And when the king of Israel receives this distinguished guest from the enemy country, he has no idea what they’re talking about. So of course he’s going to think that the king of Aram is trying to pick a quarrel with him and start a war. As I looked at the chapters that came before our story today, it seems that the prophet Elisha has had prior contact with the king of Israel, so I’m not sure why the king did not think to summon Elisha. Maybe he did not think that healing leprosy was among Elisha’s many gifts from God.
But, Elisha hears about what has happened and tells the king to send Naaman to him, “so that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel”. And what Naaman discovers, when he arrives, is that prophets are not like kings. Elisha does not even deign to come out to see Naaman. Elisha is not interested in all of Naaman’s wealth, pomp and circumstance. Instead, he tells Naaman to simply go and wash in the Jordan River, and he will be clean. And Naaman, who is used to great displays of power and who is used to people bowing before him, is angered and disappointed. He thinks, “I came all this way to simply be told to go and wash in the Jordan River? What’s wrong with the rivers in my country? Why didn’t the prophet at least come out and say, ‘Abracadabra!’ and wave his hand over me and heal me that way?” But, his slaves persuade him to give Elisha’s prescription a try, and when Naaman washes in the Jordan, he finds that his leprosy is gone and he puts his faith in the God of Israel.
We tend to look for miracles, healing miracles and other kinds, as big and flashy events, too. We all want to be the one whose disease seems incurable, and then when the doctors say that there’s nothing more they can do, something happens and our disease is miraculously gone. We want to be the one who gets their 5 minutes of fame, the one who says, “Oh, those silly doctors couldn’t do anything, but look! Here is what I did, and I’m healed!” Or, we want to be the one who gets credit for solving a huge problem in the community, or even to be that one congregation who was on the brink of closing and then, miraculously, revived and renewed and is thriving. We want those flashy miracles, just like Naaman wanted a flashy cure for his leprosy.
But what God teaches us through the prophet Elisha is that miracles come through the mundane, the everyday routine, and the ordinary things. By washing in a muddy stream, Naaman’s leprosy is healed. Healing from an autoimmune disease comes in the form of an injection that the patient must learn to give to herself over the course of many months, even though she is deathly afraid of needles. The work of healing and renewing a congregation comes in all of the little things, the seemingly small ministries that it does, that work out over a long period of time, in spite of conflicts that come along the way. God works miracles through the ordinary and the everyday, through the research and efforts of doctors, through the simple acts of kindness and love that the people of the church show to the community. And God works salvation through a baby born in a manger and through a man dying on a cross. And if we are not paying attention, we just might miss these ordinary, everyday miracles.
But there’s even more to this story than just looking for the miraculous in the everyday and the ordinary. In the Gospel of Luke, when Jesus is speaking to his hometown people in Nazareth, he says, “There were also many lepers in Israel at the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” First of all, Jesus’ reference reminds the people that God chooses whom God wills for healing, regardless of nationality or status as enemy of God’s people. That’s a reminder to us today, when we are wrestling with the question of why some experience healing and others don’t, that we don’t know the why behind God’s actions. But second, it is yet another reminder to us that God loves all people, even those we consider our enemies, and that we are to pray for all people and to act in love towards all people.
We’re not going to get this living as Christ taught us to live right. Today we celebrate All Saints’ Day, when we remember all of those who have gone before us in the faith. And we remember that, just like Naaman, who didn’t understand at first that healing could come through following a very ordinary command, those whom we honor on this day did not always get everything right. My paternal grandmother, as an example, was ornery. It seemed like she wasn’t happy unless she was complaining about something. The words that I remember that she said to me shortly before she died were, “Never marry an engineer, because you won’t get anything new.” But I knew that she loved me and she loved all of her family with a fierce protectiveness. She even overcame her phobia of snakes one day to chase off a snake with her cane that was going after a bird family living in her back yard. My grandmother didn’t always get it right. But I am confident that, right now, she is resting in the arms of Jesus and that I will see her again one day.
One day, the kingdom will come in its fullness, and we will be reunited with those whom we have loved, our family and our friends. And, we will be reunited with those whom we did not know, but who died trusting in the Lord. We may get to meet Naaman the Syrian, and hear his firsthand account of how God healed him from leprosy by washing in the Jordan. And we may get to meet the Israelite girl who became a slave in Naaman’s household, and ask to hear more of her story, and how she found it in herself to wish for healing for her enemy. You may have a list of people you want to meet and talk with one day; I know I do. But in the meantime, today, you can get a foretaste of what it’s going to be like by coming up to receive Holy Communion. In many churches, the altar rail has been designed in a semicircle, with the idea that the rest of the circle is in heaven, with people there sitting at the banquet. So today, and any day you receive communion, remember that you are feasting with your loved ones in the heavenly kingdom, who complete the circle. And that the Lord Jesus is present with us, even as he is present with them. Amen.