Surprising Prophets (Jun. 28-Jul. 4)
Sunday, July 4
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
God of fresh beginnings, you make all things new in the wisdom of Jesus Christ. Make us agents of your transforming power and heralds of your reign of justice and peace, that all may share in the healing Christ brings. Amen.
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.
All Readings For This Sunday
2 Kings 5:1-14 with Psalm 30 or
Isaiah 66:10-14, with Psalm 66:1-9 and
Galatians 6:(1-6), 7-16 and
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
1. When have you transformed a situation by a simple observation or suggestion?
2. Who are the ones who exercise power in your community in quiet but important ways?
3. What miracles do you dare to hope for in your own life?
4. When have you felt powerless but then received help from the most unlikely source?
5. How is God calling you to be a source of healing for others?
Text for Meditation
All he said to you was, / ‘Wash, and be clean.’
by Kate Huey
Like so many stories in the Bible, the story of Naaman is about power. But it’s about “little” people, too, the ones who are so often missed in the larger scheme of things, especially in the way history is written. (Barbara Brown Taylor, in her beautiful sermon on this text, “The Cheap Cure,” says that it’s also about freedom, an apt subject on this Fourth of July.) The little people in this story make things happen, so, in some interesting way, they have their own great power. Or, if they don’t have the power, they at least don’t stand in its way, as Naaman and the kings seem to do.
The movers and shakers in this story, Naaman the great general, two kings, and one prophet, are all men with names. They are big men in the eyes of the world; even Elisha, who mostly just sends messages here, is a Man of God. But the dramatic story of healing wouldn’t happen if the “little people,” the unnamed ones, didn’t move things along. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see the story through the eyes of these “surprising prophets”? They live their lives in the shadow of the king’s power and magnificence, but Naaman is the star general of the king, a celebrity, if you will, even if he does have an excruciatingly painful flaw, his skin disease. Of all physical ailments, a skin disease is one of the hardest to hide, and it makes Namaan, the mighty warrior, strangely vulnerable. Barbara Brown Taylor’s re-telling of this story explores what the great general must have felt like in the simplest of everyday encounters, when his success and fame and power meant very little before the awkward discomfort of someone who might not want to shake his hand or stare too long at his disfigurement. Walter Brueggemann is also eloquent in describing the secret life of this mighty general as “an invisible nobody. He must have wept in the night even while he put on a brave face in public.” Still, this humiliation doesn’t prevent him from having a certain sense of his own place that puts him above ordinary people, and ordinary rivers. Brueggemann says, “We move with him in the zone of greatness.” He walks and talks with kings, he rides at the head of an army, and he has the wherewithal to assemble a great treasure to offer in return for a cure he thinks he can buy, “the best available health care, no doubt anticipating a private, luxurious room for his period of confinement,” Brueggemann writes. Everything can be bought, after all, when you live on top of the world.
That’s how the king of Aram approaches it. He, too, is above working with a foreign prophet (probably not too well-groomed and definitely uneducated), even to get what he wants for his favorite general. So he does what comes naturally: he talks to his “own kind,” and sends a message to the king of Israel; Walter Brueggemann includes this in a very short list of “biblical narratives in which kings write” such letters, and calls this “healing on demand, by royal memo.” Power talks to Power–for what it’s worth, in a situation like this one. So far, however, there is a whole lot of powerlessness on the part of such powerful men! James Newsome notes “the hollowness of such arrogance,” no matter how impressive the general and the king might appear in all their trappings. In the life of nations, powerlessness and power are related to politics and fear, so the king of Israel immediately goes to the place of thinking that Aram’s king is trying to find a reason to attack him. He rips his robe and cries out, and Naaman is left without help.
Of course, Naaman wouldn’t even be standing before the king of Israel if an unnamed little girl hadn’t ventured to suggest that he consult “the prophet who is in Samaria.” She is undoubtedly a captive, one of the countless victims of war between the powerful, and she must have some memory of what Elisha could do and what he represented. People without power have to work between the lines and behind the scenes, and this little girl gets things started with her observation. But when Naaman finally finds his way to the prophet and “gets stood up,” or at least left standing outside, waiting, we hear him talking out of his pride and sense of place when he takes offense at not being received more respectfully by the prophet, and not being provided with a more impressive, dramatic cure, something worthy of his status, something that would reinforce his stature in the eyes of all who would witness such a miracle. Brueggemann’s account is amusing: “Obviously, he has been watching too much television….The prophet….only sends an LPN out with a prescription,” but it’s not a prescription Namaan finds worthy of his standing.
The difference little things can make
Fortunately, his servants have more sense of the possibility that the moment holds, and these nameless folks, little ones in their own turn, coax Naaman into forgetting his own importance (wouldn’t we say his “ego” today?) and going for what will really matter, a cure. Dianne Bergant points out the double meaning of the term, “to go down,” not just into the waters of the river, but as a demonstration of humility in obeying “a lowly prophet from a nation not his own.” And in keeping with our perception of the importance of the “little people” in this story, we might appreciate the way they encourage Namaan, Frank Anthony Spina writes, to “do this implied ‘little thing’ of washing and becoming clean.” They understand the difference that “little things” can make.
Barbara Brown Taylor’s sermon provides a moving description of what it must have felt like for Naaman to plunge slowly into that muddy river, the place of healing, a most unexpected thing. Again, God works through the unexpected, the little ones, the unnamed, the muddy river, while the mighty are not only humbled but healed. Isn’t it interesting that the young girl at the beginning of the story is the agent for the great general being given the skin of a young boy? In his own way, Naaman is healed of being “a big deal,” and renewed by his openness to the power of the One True God. Because the lectionary text ends at verse 14, we miss a very important part of Namaan’s story, including his gratitude and his acceptance of the One True God of Israel (even though, oddly, Elisha seems to give him permission to appear to be worshipping the “required” god of his homeland, as was customary in those days–it was the expected thing, after all). While Namaan may have brought treasure as a kind of payment for the cure he needed, Dianne Bergant says that his offer of a gift in verse 15 “should not be construed as payment for services but rather as an expression of gratitude.” Brueggemann, on the other hand, sees the offer of a gift as “a characteristic attempt to recover from the humiliation of being reduced to a recipient of a folk remedy,” although he does move “from leprosy to wholeness,” a miracle so amazing that “we do not easily notice the drama and the wonder…unless we have had leprosy lately.”
Gifts from the outsiders
Dianne Bergant says that this little story “champions monotheism and universalism,” because Namaan not only professes faith in the One True God of a different nation, Israel, but his healing also demonstrates “God’s love and concern for all, Israelite and non-Israelite alike.” It’s thought-provoking to approach this story from both directions of “outsider-hood.” Yes, Namaan was an outsider in Israel, in fact, Frank Anthony Spina describes him as “a man at the furthest possible remove from Israel” because he was a military leader from an enemy land as well as being ritually impure because of his skin condition. But it’s even worse, because verse one tells us that Namaan was helped by Israel’s own God in vanquishing them, and Spina calls that “galling” to the Israelites. However, approaching it from the opposite direction, Namaan the outsider humbled himself before the prophet of a God not his own, so really Israel, to Namaan, was the outsider. Just as we want to think that we offer hospitality, justice, and healing to “outsiders,” we’re called to be open and humble enough to receive in turn the gifts and hospitality, justice, and healing that “outsiders” bring to our lives and communities. Brueggemann is reminded by Namaan of Karl Rahner’s “anonymous Christians,” calling Namaan, when God earlier helped him defeat Israel, “an ‘anonymous Israelite,’ doing the bidding of the God of Israel, all the while thinking he is only a good Syrian military man.” After his healing, Namaan is no longer “anonymous” in his relationship with God, except for those times he will have to bow before his own nation’s god, out of deference toward his king.
Barbara Brown Taylor’s sermon on this text draws a comparison between Naaman and our nation, so powerful, so mighty, and yet so in need of health. Perhaps we too might consider how to listen more to the “little ones” in the midst of our own society, and be restored to health–and a new kind of freedom–ourselves. “You may never hear it again on a Fourth of July weekend,” she writes, “but maybe the next time you are saying your prayers for this great, shaky nation of ours, you will remember that great, leprous man Naaman, whose wealth and power turned out to be useless to him in his search for health, and who was ready to trade it all in when God surprised him with a cheap cure that made him truly free.”
A preaching commentary on this text can be found on http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel.
For further reflection
Drew Barrymore, 21st century
My whole life, I’ve wanted to feel comfortable in my skin. It’s the most liberating thing in the world.
Tori Amos, 21st century
Healing takes courage, and we all have courage, even if we have to dig a little to find it.
Hippocrates, 4th century B.C.E.
Healing in a matter of time, but it is sometimes also a matter of opportunity.
Simone de Beauvoir, 20th century
I wish that every human life might be pure transparent freedom.
Frederick Buechner, 20th century
Compassion is sometimes the fatal capacity for feeling what it is like to live inside somebody else’s skin. It is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.
Joseph Campbell, 20th century
We must be willing to get rid of the life we’ve planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us. The old skin has to be shed before the new one can come.
Weekly Seeds is a source for meditation and prayer based on the readings of the “Lectionary,” a plan for weekly Bible readings used in Protestant, Anglican and Roman Catholic churches throughout the world. When we pray and study the Bible using the Lectionary, we are praying and studying with millions of others.