October 4, 2016 by
David Jackson in
Reflections on Sunday Gospels
Lessons from lepers.
Introduction: The first reading and the Gospel today speak about persons with leprosy. There is healing and thanks are returned by one of the ten that Jesus heals.
Homily: The first reading today is obviously chosen because it like the Gospel speaks of a cure from leprosy. But this brief passage that we read does not do justice to this story in the Second Book of Kings. Much of the drama and message of this story is contained in what comes before today’s Gospel passage and what comes after it. In my own words I’d like to retell you the story. Namaan was the commander of the army of the King of Aram. He was held in high esteem by the king. But he was a leper.
In Naaman’s household was a young girl captive from the land of Israel. She had been captured in one of the Arameans raids on Israel. She served Naaman’s wife. This nameless slave girl knew of a prophet in Israel in the land of Samaria. She told her mistress that this prophet could cure Naaman. We are not told how the mistress communicates this message to her husband. But the next thing we know Naaman is telling his king what the young girl said. (Already we have a rather strange phenomenon taking place, the slave girl tells the mistress, the mistress tells her husband and the husband tells the king. It would be rare that the words of a slave girl would have such an impact.)
The King on hearing what the slave girl said, sends Naaman with a letter to the King of Israel. Naaman takes with him large sums of money. But Israel’s king is afraid that the King of Aram is trying to pick a quarrel with him. (We are not told how, but Elisha heard that the King of Israel had torn his garments in fear.) Elisha sends a message to his king to send Naaman to him. So Naaman came, the writer of the Second Book of Kings tells us, “with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house.”
But at this point the story takes a peculiar twist. 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 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.
So here we have a bit of a paradox. Naaman heeded the word of the Israel slave girl but he does not heed the word of the prophet Elisha. The reason he can’t listen to Elisha is because he had a preconceived idea about how this healing should take place. The author of 2 Kings strains to tell us in detail how Naaman thought the healing should go. Elisha did not follow his preconceived ideas. Elisha didn’t come out but sent a messanger. Elisha didn’t call on the name of his God. Elisha didn’t stand before him. He didn’t wave his hand over the spot. We almost have to stop and pause for a moment before going on. Though we wonder at Naaman’s response, there is a dynamic of the story that catches us. We probably sense a certain resonance here with people and dynamics in our own life. Does this dynamic between Naaman and Elisha capture something that also happens in my life? Do my preconceived ideas hinder good from happening?
Curiously enough it is the servants who confront Naaman with his foolishness. His servants approached him and said, “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?’” Naaman has to be an impetuous man (makes quick decisions). We are then told: “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.”
Naaman then returns to Elisha and says, “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.” Naaman wishes to give a gift to the prophet. But the prophet won’t accept it. We almost wonder if Naaman is going to get angry again and go away in a snit. But no, this time Naaman’s reaction is different. Naaman asks for two mule-loads of earth and promises he will not offer holocaust or sacrifice to any other god except to the Lord. (This is where this Sunday’s passage ends. But there is still more to the story)
Naaman is in a difficult position because on his return to his own country he must accompany his master to worship services to the god Rimmon. Naaman asks that Elisha pardon him on this one count. Elisha tells him, “Go in peace.” We almost feel like we’ve been part of a confession.
But the incident is still not over, there is a kind of epilogue (after story). In contrast to the way the servants have served Naaman we are now told how Gehazi, Elisha’s servant, now does his master a disservice. Gehazi thinks that Elisha has left Naaman off too easily by not accepting what was offered. Gehazi decides to run after him and get something from him. Gehazi lies to Naaman and says that unexpectedly two prophets have come from the hill country and need assistance. Gehazi is well paid. Two of Naaman’s servants accompany him back to the city. Gehazi hides the treasure he has wrongly acquired. When asked by Elisha where he had gone, Gehazi lies. But the prophet who worked the cure on Naaman says that he had accompanied Gehazi in spirit, while Gehazi lied and accepted money. Now Elisha says to his servant: “Therefore the leprosy of Naaman shall cling to you, and to your descendants forever.” And the writer of Second kings tells us, “So he left his presence leprous, as white as snow.”
There is much to reflect on in the persons of this story. Naaman He can accept a message that comes to him through his wife who heard it from her slave girl and share it with his king. Maybe it is the desperation of the leprosy that allows him to do this. (In the Gospel it is this same desperation that puts together the Samaritan leper and the Jewish lepers.) But he seems to think that he can buy his cure from the prophet of Samaria. He comes with his preconceived ideas about how the cure should take place and because of his anger and impetuosity almost misses his cure. But when cured he accepts that “there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.” He wants to present Elisha with a gift. When refused he doesn’t turn away in anger this time, but asks for two mule loads of earth. Interpreters tell us he wishes to worship the God of Israel on dirt from Israel. And finally Naaman asks pardon on one account. He knows he cannot sever himself from his responsibility to his king who will worship a different god. He asks and receives permission to accompany his master. “Go in peace.”
The nameless slave girl of Naaman’s wife. It must have been a bit of a risk to share her information about the prophet in Israel in the land of Samaria who she said could cure Naaman. But the slave girl is courageous.
The other servants of Naaman who remain nameless. They take the risk to confront Naaman with the foolishness he has just engaged in. “If he told you to do something difficult you would have, why not wash and be clean?”
The servant of Elisha, Gehazi. He is a wheeler dealer and can’t let his master be gypped. Or is he more concerned about getting wealthy?
We may want to think about the Samaritan leper of the Gospel who was cured and came back to give thanks. Nine did not. It may take guts, but I believe we are called to recognize ourselves in some of the people of these scriptures.