Naaman said, “When my master goes into the house of Rimmon to worship there, leaning on my arm, and I bow down in the house of Rimmon, may God pardon your servant.” Elisha said to him, “Go in peace.” - 2 Kings 5:18-19 (NRSV, adapted)
Naaman is a proud general with a skin condition doctors can’t fix. A servant urges him to go to enemy Israel and consult the prophet Elisha. Naaman’s offended. That backwater? But he goes. Elisha tells him to bathe in the Jordan. That trickle? He’s offended again. But Naaman relents, bathes, and is cured. Humbled, he believes in the living God.
We usually stop reading here. But there’s more.
Before departing, Naaman pulls Elisha aside. “I know God is God alone,” he says. “But it’s complicated. Back home, I have to accompany my king when he worships the old gods. And I have to bow down, too. Not good, I know, but maybe God would look the other way?”
You’d expect Elisha to angrily invoke the first commandment. But he doesn’t. He pre-pardons Naaman’s compromise. Even the God who commands “no other gods before me” is apparently not as touchy as we think about occasional lapses of integrity.
Human progress towards wholeness is a ragged affair: one step forward, two back. God accepts Naaman’s stutter-steps. It’s progress enough for now. God takes whatever God can get.
That's good news for us who demand moral purity and perfection in ourselves and others, yet always end up compromising. Life is indeed complicated. You might not dare ask God to pre-pardon your eventual lapses like Naaman did, but aren’t you glad God would?
It’s a relief when Elisha waves off Naaman’s future failing. A relief, an antidote to perfectionism, a reproach to judgmentalism, a cause for praise.
Merciful God, we both know I’m going to compromise, so please pre-pardon me. Tell me that progress enough for now is good enough for you.
Mary Luti is a long time seminary educator and pastor, author of Teresa of Avila’s Way and numerous articles, and founding member of The Daughters of Abraham, a national network of interfaith women’s book groups.