18 Pentecost C—10/13/19
2 Kings 5:1-3,7-15c, Luke 17:11-19
Pr. Scott Kramer
What would you do if you were Naaman?
Today’s reading from 2 Kings is the story of a powerful general who has everything going for him. Everything!–except for one important thing: He has leprosy. Leprosy—Hansen’s disease, as it’s called today—is not on our radar. It seems like an exotic disease from ancient times in far-off places. Although it’s still around in the modern world and it is contagious, there’s a vaccine for leprosy so for the most part it is not feared as it once was.
I always thought of leprosy as a skin disease, and it is that. But google “leprosy” and you will see heart-rending images of people badly disfigured, including missing fingers and toes. On a visit to India decades ago, I remember seeing such things first-hand.
You just heard Lisa read the story of Naaman. Lisa e-mailed me a link this week for the Molokai Leper Colony in Hawaii. My wife’s hometown in China likewise still has an island that was once a leper colony. People with leprosy around the world have long been feared and therefore isolated.
Naaman was not a nice guy. The story shows us that like many powerful people, he was arrogant, self-serving, and entitled. He likely would have lived his whole life accordingly. But because he had leprosy, Naaman was also terrified and desperate. Naaman’s desperation led to his transformation.
How desperate was Naaman? He actually listened to the “invisible people” around him!
It all started with a lowly servant girl. The circumstances of her life could hardly have been more different from Naaman’s. She was 1) female, 2) young, 3) a captive slave, and 4) a foreigner. And yet, this same girl knows that in her faraway homeland there lives a man by the name of Elisha who might be able to cure Naaman. She speaks up and tells this to her mistress, Naaman’s wife. And, guess what–Naaman listens to his wife!
But the story is just getting started.
Off Naaman goes, seeking Elisha, the prophet and miracle-worker. He arrives with his horses and chariots and finds Elisha. (Notice that Elisha is a Samaritan–an outcast) But apparently Elisha has better things to do, so instead of coming out to meet Naaman in person, Elisha sends a simple message: Wash in the Jordan River seven times and you will be healed.
So, what does Naaman do? Wash in the Jordan River, right? Wrong! No, Naaman throws a fit. 11But 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! 12Are 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.
Then, improbably, Naaman’s own servants speak up. “Father,” they say, “if the prophet had asked you to do something difficult, wouldn’t you have done it? How much more, since he asked you to do such a simple thing?” And then, a miracle happens: Unexpectedly, having first listened to his wife, Naaman now listens to his servants, does what he is told, and is healed!
Here’s a chart that describes the relationships of the characters and their roles in the story:
If you follow the news today you will hear echoes of Naaman: the tantrum, the selfishness, the entitlement. But the Naaman who listens to the “invisible people” you will not find. The priorities of our nation and its leader often appear to be these: the voices of the immigrant and the refugee, the poor, the black, the brown, the foreigner, are not to be listened to but ignored, favoring the white, the wealthy, and the powerful. The evidence is in the news every day. Here’s a story on p.2 of this morning’s paper about a Trump plan to allow states to block refugees.
In today’s reading from Luke Jesus takes the Naaman story to a new level. Ten individuals approach him. Unlike Naaman, these ten are not privileged people but outcasts. Like Naaman, however, they have leprosy and therefore are desperate. They all are healed, and they all go away joyful. One, however—a Samaritan, a despised foreigner–returns to give thanks. And Jesus asks, 18Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”
“…Except this foreigner?“
As he did throughout his ministry, Jesus listened to this outsider. Gave dignity to this outsider. Empowered this outsider.
It’s a lesson often lost even on religious people, then and now, as demonstrated when Jesus himself told the story of Naaman. One day, as Luke tells it, he was enthusiastically welcomed home by the people of his hometown. They had heard about the great things he had done in other places and said to him,
‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.'” 24And Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. 25But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when there was a severe famine over all the land; 26yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” 28When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. 30But Jesus passed through the midst of them and went on his way. (Luke 4)
Taking to heart the story of Naaman could get you killed! Like that hometown crowd, we’re not likely to accept what we don’t want to hear…unless, like Naaman, we are desperate. Desperation is often the key to transformation.
The story of Naaman is a baptismal story: “Wash in the river seven times.” Naaman was desperate enough to do so!
Baptism can be an empty ritual. But for disciples of Jesus, baptism is the beginning of a lifelong journey that can lead to transformation. This transformation is evident in a different set of values founded on the example of Jesus himself, who listened to and empowered ten lepers. Baptismal identity is marked by gratitude—not a simple “thank you” but a life that longs to conform to the mind of Christ, listening to those whom society has labeled the “least” among us.
We don’t know how Naaman’s life played out after he was healed. Once healed of his leprosy, it’s possible that he returned to his self-serving ways. Maybe his “baptism” didn’t “take.” But there are hints that his transformation was for real, and for life. At the end of the story we learn that Naaman’s flesh was restored…like the flesh of a young boy. Notice that the story doesn’t say “restored to what it was like before” but like the flesh of a young boy.
Something’s going on here! And the formerly narcissistic Naaman says, “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.” Here is a foreshadowing of the Roman centurion desperation in Matthew 8, and a centurion’s surprising confession of faith at Jesus’ crucifixion. (Matt. 27:54)
Something miraculous definitely is going on here. Maybe having been washed, Naaman’s confession of faith and physical healing indicate that he has embarked on a lifelong baptismal journey of transformation. The old Naaman is becoming new!
As people of privilege and power, it is our challenge and opportunity, especially those of us like me who are white and middle or upper class—to courageously identify in ourselves signs of the “old” Naaman. Wherever we embrace and defend privilege and entitlement, there is the “old” Naaman.
Our willingness and ability to listen to and serve the outcast and the stranger, the poor and the persecuted, the despised and rejected; these things mark us as disciples of Jesus–in need of healing? Yes!–but, well on the way to being transformed into the image of Christ…for the sake of the world God loves!