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. 6 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.
Our reading today is one the great stories from the books of Kings, even of the whole Old Testament. The healing of the Syrian general Naaman is complex and full of characters. It contains lots of drama, and has a great outcome. It may even make a great movie one day.
To some it may seem a gentle, comforting story of the healing of Naaman by the kind prophet Elisha. But it is worth remembering that Jesus was nearly killed when he mentioned it in Nazareth at the beginning of his ministry.
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus, following his temptations in the desert, returned to his home town of Nazareth and while in the synagogue read the famous prophecy from Isaiah – and referred to a story about the prophet Elijah, and this morning’s passage, saying:
“There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” [Luke 4:27]
Such was the anger of the crowd at hearing these words, thatJesus was forced to the edge of the cliff where many of the faithful Jews present would have expected him to die a worthy and justified death.
What is so scandalous about this passage that the Jews of his home town were driven to kill him?
To know and follow Jesus, a task we share at PTC, encourages us to understand why this story caused such a deep offence.
Let’sreturn then to Naaman and Elisha.
Naaman was a mighty warrior in the service of a Syrian king. God had given him many victories. But he was also afflicted with leprosy.
This is one of the challenging aspects of the story for Jews – Naaman is a leper, which would have made him unclean in their eyes. Yethe still wins God’s favour. So much so, that according to Jesus, he is healed while other lepers in Israel remain afflicted.So in spite of his leprosy and his threatening status as a foreign general who has previously defeated the Israelites, he remains in God’s favour.
Some commentators suggest that Naaman’s leprosy would have excluded him from society. Yet there is little evidence for this in the text. In fact, in verse 19, which follows our passage, he seeks forgiveness in advance for his sin in offering physical support to the King of Aram in his idolatrous worship in the temple of Rimmon. That he was a leader in Syrian and that the King would touchhim in the temple, suggests that the Syrians accepted him, adding to the belief of the Hebrews that the Syrians were a corrupt and dangerous society. Israelites hearing this story probably were scandalized at a society that not only posed a military threat to Israel, but also allowed a leper to mix with a king.
Nevertheless, God had been good to Naaman. This story is scandalous partly because we hear that God is not simply the God of Israel,but the God of all peoples, including the Syrians.Naaman is just one of several gentile figures in the Old Testament through whom we learn that the God of Israelis the true God of the Gentiles too.
There is another scandalous aspect to the story. This is the relationship between official and political power and the humble and outsiders.
Naaman is a powerful man working for a powerful King. It seems that the Syrian king is the dominant one who gives orders to the King of Israel.Upon receiving the letter from the king of Syria, the Hebrew king rents his clothes knowing that he is militarily inferior. Foolishly,and demonstrating his lack of faith, he thinks that his survival depends on his own power and not the power of God.
Despite the presence of these kings, this is anti-political text. It undermines the pretensions of those in power and who think that having political power makes things happen.Recall that the kings are nameless. Rather than being the main characters, as rulers are often tempted to think of themselves, they are props in the narrative to merely drive the story forward
The Syrian king assumes that the Hebrew King has power to heal. This is a pagan belief. And our neo-pagan rulers today retain misplaced self-belief in their power to effect change and heal nations.
But both kings are powerless in dealing with Namaan’s leprosy. However, there are two others in the story who have the confidence that God can cure Naaman. The first is the slave girl, the lowly captive whose words reach the King of Aram. Second is the hero of the story, the prophet Elisha.
Here are two examples of the how the God uses the weak to shame the strong.God raised Naaman up, but to make him whole he had to take him low, through the slave girl’s advice, to hearing the word of an aloof prophet, to washing in a second-class river.Yet, through all this,somehow hemaintained enough faith to be healed by the power of God.
Let’s return to Jesus who cited this story in the Synagogue in Nazareth. This visit was a homecoming for him. He had been away and now he came back a man at the start of his ministry.
As I’ve already said, Jesus readthis famous prophecy about himself from Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor.”
The reading from Isaiah is sweet to the ear– with good news to the poor and release to the captives.
Luke records the congregation’s favorable reception of Jesus’s words: “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”
Yet moments later, after Jesus recalled to their minds the story of Naaman, they want to kill him.
I want to suggest that while they could agree with Isaiah, the real challenge comes with Elisha.
I think that they were upset that Jesus was linking his task to that of the prophet who adopted a universalistic task of the healing the nations and not being a parochial, nationalistic messiah.
Peace for some in Israel at Jesus time meant a nationalistic messiah to come and rid the land of the occupying Roman force and their local collaborators.
This desire showed a limited political imagination and a theological one too. God is limited to Israel. Jesus would be, like the prophet Elisha, a healer to the nations and Gentiles, even Syrians or Romans who had defeated Israel.
No wonder the crowd was upset – to them Jesus had twisted the meaning of their sacred texts and brought them together in such a way that meant that he claimed to work for peace and justice in ways that could accommodate gentiles and even Romans within God’s love.
This crowd would have known Jesus – they would have known Mary and Joseph and been curious to hear what their son, Jesus, had to say. They were amazed, happy,then scandalized to the point they wanted him dead. Immortal are Jesus words “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.”
Students be warned! When you complete your studies here are PTC, people at home will be wanting to know if you have changed during your time here. Maybe some have feared that too much learning strange theology in a foreign colonial language ways would change you.Curious, they might even come to church to hear you preach.
But like Jesus, when you return home the lessons learned in the desert, by temptation, and through the faithful reading and study of God’s word will serve both you and your communities.
People long to hear comforting words that reinforce their own prejudices. But sometimes truthful words that need to be spoken can challenge and cause disruption. I would encourage you all to practice the virtue of courage so that when the time comes you too can speak prophetic words at home.
My prayer for you is that if you be disruptive, let it be the holy disruption of God.