3 things about Naaman: humility, compassion, and breaking the silence.
One of the things I’ve learned about these scripture stories is that if you hold them loosely enough, they’ll always have something to say to you. It may not be at first glance, but if you sit with it and give it some space, something will always rise up. Sometimes it’s just one thing, and other times, like this time, it can be a bunch of things. So instead of choosing just one, here are three things this ancient story says to us today, and for each thing, a question we should wrestle and sit with.
So first thing.
So the story we heard is from the Hebrew Scriptures. It’s from this book called Kings. It’s a story about a guy named Naaman. And the problem in the story is that Naaman has leprosy.
Now, that’s not leprosy as we know and understand it today. That’s just a bad translation error that became so common place people just gave up trying to fix it. When we hear about leprosy in the Bible, it’s really this catch-all term for ancient skin diseases or irritations. But that’s not to belittle it. To have leprosy was a huge deal, and we’re not just talking medically. It was a big deal socially and religiously too. Having leprosy made you religiously unclean which made you socially untouchable; it would have literally separated you from your community, from your work, from your faith community, and from God. You may very well survive the disease, but it was a social and spiritual death-sentence. Until you were healed or even cured, you’d be cut off from everyone and everything.
And side-bar: that’s what we’re really looking at whenever we have these kinds of stories about disease and ailments come up in the Bible. They're not so much stories about the actual disease, but more about the stigma, disconnection, and dehumanization that happens because of it.
Now in this particular case, Naaman getting leprosy is an extra big deal because Naaman is an extra big deal. He’s this rich, powerful, important person in King Aram’s army. For it to get out that he had leprosy, it’d mean losing pretty much everything he had. It’d be rock bottom for him. His life would shrink to absolutely nothing. His power, this influence, his status, his role … it’d all be gone. So he’s seeing it all about to slip away, his life is about to collapse, and then … and then who helps big, powerful, important Naaman?
And not just any slave, but a female Hebrew slave. The person as far beneath him as you could possibly get. This person who is so thoroughly and completely the Other.
She tells Naaman he should go see Elisha, this Hebrew prophet who has a reputation for healing people. So he goes, he rolls up in all his glory and power and fame, but what happens? Elisha snubs him! Elisha sends out his own servant to deal with big, powerful, and important Naaman, and the servant’s all “Oh sure, we can heal that. Just go bathe in the Jordan river 7 times.”
But instead of doing what is asked, Naaman rejects it. He says ‘No way.’ Not because he doesn’t want to be healed, because he’s insulted. Not only is the help not coming from the actual prophet himself, but it’s way too simple a plan. It’s not grand enough! Bathe in the the small, dirty Jordan river some magical number of times?! Umm no, thank you. Naaman wants a show or at least to be told to go to a big, powerful, and important river. So he leaves. He’d rather keep the leprosy.
But again, who steps in? Who helps him?
A slave. His own slave convinces him to go back and accept the help.
So Naaman goes to the Jordan river, dunks himself 7 times, and lo and behold, he comes up renewed. He gets his life back! He’s restored! He’s saved from shame and stigma and freed to go back home to experience the very fullness of life. And that’s pretty much where the story ends.
Now one of the questions the story seems to ask us is: “How is Naaman saved?” The obvious answer is ‘God’ but I think there’s a deeper and better answer for us in here.
Naaman isn’t just saved by God in this story. He's saved by humility.
We often say humility is to think less of yourself, almost poorly of yourself, but true humility, the kind of humility Jesus teaches, the kind that Naaman had to learn here, the kind that this story is saying is necessary for experiencing the fullness of life, it’s more of an open willingness than anything else:
Humility is the willingness to not see yourself above anything or anyone. It’s the willingness to be human and have needs. It’s the openness to receive. It’s the openness to be moulded into something new.
The story begins with Naaman refusing to seek out help, let alone receive it or even acknowledge he has a problem. But over the course of this rather hilarious story, Naaman learns that in order to be healed, in order to get his life back, he needs to become open to things that are different, scary, other, and even “beneath” him.
He has to become willing to accept help from a slave. He has to become willing to believe in different kind of God. He has to become willing to accept that Elisha won’t help him directly. He has to become willing to listen to his own servants. He has become willing to go into the muddy Jordan.
The power of this story isn’t that Naaman gets healed. The power is in HOW he gets healed. He’s healed through humility. He’s healed through finding the will to let himself be human and receive help from the least of those around him.
For those of us looking for the same kind of life Naaman was - a life without stigma and shame, a life connected with God and community, a life that isn't shrinking but expanding, the question this story asks us is:
Are we open and willing to let others mould us into something new?
The second thing in this story.
Who helps Naaman? Who’s responsible for getting him the help he needed?
The slave girl. His wife. Elisha’s servant. His slaves.
We could put it another way: all the people who shouldn’t have helped him.
“But hold on, they are his servants and his wife, helping him is their job."
Well, yes and no. It’s their job to serve Naaman, but to offer him unsolicited advice? To speak up without being spoken to? Absolutely not. Not their place or their role. These are people who aren’t supposed to have a voice. These are nothings and nobodies. The fact that they aren’t even named is indicative of that status. And they would know this. This was simply how their world worked - they knew their role and place.
So we have to ask: what made them speak up? Literally up to the people in power? What made them, despite the risk and their ranking in the world, tell their boss what he should do?
Just as much as this is a story about Naaman, it’s a also a story about them. It’s a story about their courage and compassion.
It’s a story about people having the courage to speak up because they felt compassion. It’s a story about people choosing to break the rules because they saw someone in need. It’s a story about how the needs of others takes priority over the norms, rules, and structures that govern our world.
As people who are learning to follow the way of Jesus, this way of justice and peace, the question this story gets asks us is a pretty important one:
Does compassion move us to speak? Are we willing to risk it all when we see someone in need? Will we break the rules in order to help someone?
And finally, the third thing.
But for this one we need to hear the rest of this story.
So the story we heard today is from the lectionary - this schedule of Bible passages churches around the universe use over a 3 year period. The whole point of it is to expose people to as much of the Bible’s themes and scope as possible, and not just fixate on the easy or fun parts. But one of the problems is well, there’s simply too much Bible. So to make it all fit and be nice and tidy, the editors had to make certain cuts. They’d cut whole stories out, but they’d also redact stories, making them seem smaller than they really are.
This is one of those stories. The story doesn’t end where we left off.
It goes on to say that after Elisha refused payment for his healing, Naaman went home. But Gehazi, that’s Elisha’s servant (whose now named … that’s an important detail … it means he’s now worth remembering), he’s all: “What?! He just offered us insane amounts of wealth and Elisha turned it down?! Screw that, I charge my worth even if you don’t.” So he ran after Naaman, lies to him, saying “Oh, Elisha changed his mind and wants your payment,” and pockets the cash for himself. The problem is that he gets caught by Elisha, and Elisha, as a punishment, as a consequence for conning Naaman, transfers the illness he just saved Naaman from onto Gehazi.
And that’s where the story actually ends. It ends with Gehazi getting leprosy. Which remember, that’s a big deal. Gehazi is now an out-cast. He’s an untouchable. He’s now banished and alone. And why?
All because of God’s prophet Elisha. All because of someone who works for God.
Now we can and should be “what the hell?!” That seems a bit reactionary, doesn’t it? That seems a bit inappropriate. That’s not how we think someone in that powerful position should conduct themselves. It’s not the way we think someone should act in the name of God.
But the thing is, this isn’t even the first time .
A few stories earlier, Elisha is out and about and a bunch of kids make fun of him because he’s bald. So in retaliation, Elisha uses his God-given powers and sends a pack of hungry bears on the kids, killing every single one of them.
Again, “what the hell?!” It’s a bit much. How could someone like Elisha act that way?!
But perhaps even more astonishing: God is silent. God doesn’t say a word - in either case! Why doesn’t God say something? Why doesnt God beam him up for a stern talking to?! Why is God silent?!
It’s a good thing to ask with because, as a friend of mine pointed out, it raises another really huge and important question: “what do we do when people in power do things that don’t line up with their position or with their beliefs?"
Sub into this story any current politician, community leader, celebrity, church leader, or anyone else with an amount of power who does terrible things or acts in a way that’s out of sync with their beliefs, and our question is still the same:
Why is God silent on this?! Why isn’t God doing something?! How can God let them get away with this?!
But here’s the thing this story may be asking us in the silence:
What if God is silent because God's waiting for us speak? What if God is waiting for the God within each one of us to speak out?
So there questions for us to all wonder about:
“Am I open and willing?”
“Does compassion move me to speak up?”
“What if God is waiting for me to speak up?”
May you sit with these and give them the time and space they deserve, and may you wonder well and find they take you deeper into the kind of life you’re looking for.