2 Kings 5:1-18 – Read it this week. You’ll be glad you did.
This is a disaster. An unmitigated, unpredictable disaster. The powerful king of Aram (incidentally, this ancient kingdom in middle Syria includes the modern day city of Allepo) had sent his highly successful and valued general to the tiny, struggling, village kingdom of Israel for a healing.
I use the word disaster because this sounds to the king of Israel very much like a pretext for a war that the little kingdom could ill afford and would be very likely to lose. When he gets the message, he tears his garment (an ancient demonstration of grief), and despairs for his life.
And he should. The Aramites were a warring people, strong and proud. They looked for fights and usually won. Their children’s children would be a challenge for Alexander the Great’s Greeks and the later Roman legions. Naaman, the mighty warrior coming “to be healed” meant that he would be bringing his personal guard which might mean a few trusted warriors or it might mean a legion to skilled Soldiers for which the weak king of Israel had no match.
Israel is suffering from the ramifications of it’s own civil war. The split that came after King Solomon left the Northern tribes in a weak position and that kingdom quickly degenerated back to it’s tribal village roots. They had become prone to invasion and oppression with each king getting weaker and weaker.
But Israel had a prophet. Elisha was the man of God. The prophet held an interesting place in ancient Israel. He (or she) not only spoke for God, they also were something of a diplomat. They could be a powerful representative of the king or one that stirred the people against him. They were individuals in a world where only households mattered. Others would not know “you” in the ancient Mediterranean world, they would know your family, your house. But the Prophet – if they were a true prophet (false prophets are villains in Scripture and dealt with accordingly) – everyone knew their name! They operated above the political sphere as a balance of power to both kings and priests. Non more so than Elijah and his protege, Elisha.
Elisha hears about the predicament that the king is in and comes to his aid. “Send him to me” he says, “and he will learn that there is a prophet in Israel.” A bold statement from a man know is confident in his God.
So confident is he that when the mighty warrior comes, the Prophet does not even come out to meet him. He sends his servant.
We Americans love to think of ourselves as the supreme equalitists. Everyone rises or falls on their own merits. Everyone has the same chance to succeed or fail. Everyone has to put on their pants “one leg at a time.”
At least, this is the myth we tell ourselves.
The truth is that we very much tend to pander to power. Humans always do. Whether out of fear or love – even the chance at our very own “15 minutes” – we all love to be around powerful people.
The Army does this really well. Let it be known that the new Colonel so and so, Command Sergeant Major so and so, the new General whatever is coming and stress factor goes through the roof. Protocol gets called, impromptu inspections happen, latrines get cleaned and food that never gets eaten is brought out.
Elisha sends his servant… to the guy that commands thousands… to tell him to take a bath. Yeeahhh, that happened.
General Naaman is not impressed.
I’ve been around leadership when they get bad news before and I’m guessing that the writer here chose to leave out the more colorful language. The General is not used to candor and he is not used to being ridiculous orders given by lesser people.
“What is wrong with my rivers?” What is wrong my my lands?” The General rightly asks. Insult is added to injury. Elisha does not come out. Does not offer the respect due the man.
What is Naaman expecting here? What is he wanting?
Ritual. Holy. Sacred. Ritual.
He wants the Prophet to come and do what prophets do. Wave his arms, put him in a stressful position, make him drink some kind of nasty drink, sacrifice a bull or two. Make a show, make a spectacle. This is what prophets do!!
The General is used to a certain way of doing things. He is, as we are, resistant to change and takes pleasure out of things being done in a complicated and powerful way. He has a skin condition that has bothered him for years and this prophet tells him to go wash?? Common!! At least give me a show!
Ritual does that for us. It gives us a connection to the past and the “warm fuzzies” that it’s all going to be ok. By they way, it does not matter what ritual a person ascribes to, it accomplishes the same thing. I enjoy and connect with ancient rites of worship, confession and pardon, robes, stoles, call and response, etc. There was a time in my life when I connected with loud, epic worship music, lights, drums, production value. Ritual is ritual. We like what we like for whatever reason it connects with us.
The problem is when we attach significance to the ritual.
As though the ritual itself is what matters.
Naaman, the Aramite, worships the God Rimmon, the chief Aramite deity – the God of storm and war. You can imagine what kind of ceremonies would be necessary in the worship of the god of storm and war!
Elisha speaks for God. Yahweh is the God of gods. Elisha speaks the Word of God, a word of promise and command. A word that demands not ritualistic dancing about but obedience. A simple command costs the proud General more than he is willing to pay.
He must humble himself, take the word of the servant as the word of the prophet, as the word of Yahweh, and go take a bath in a sub-par river. Simple, direct, devoid of ritual and symbolism, easy and terribly difficult.
What a symbol of God’s grace! Forgiveness is not something to be worked for or attained through struggle – it is asked and received. The cost is pride.
We humans love to put a price on it though. It is never enough to just be forgiven, we need to pay a little first. Maybe it’s because I’m a prison chaplain right now but daily I witness the destructive nature of our refusal to forgive. Inmates can’t forgive themselves, Christians will not forgive other Christians, children will not forgive parents, parents will not forgive their children.
Forgiveness cannot be earned, else it it not forgiveness.
This is not to say that people are not to be held accountable, they must be. This is not to say that people should not experience the natural consequences of their behavior – they should. I am saying that the call to forgive frees us from carrying that burden.
Forgiveness is given freely, without restraint, or it is not forgiveness. It is a debt that has been re-payed not forgiven – its just that the terms are changed.
Forgiveness is an act that takes place with the offended not the offender. Rage is carried by the offended. Anger is nurtured by the offended. Thus forgiveness, the releasing of the offender from their debt, can only happen with the offended.
It is freely given by God.
If we confess. If we humble ourselves. If we seek it.
Saints, there is no twelve-step program, 40 day Bible study, degree or special book that can give us peace of mind. It is simple seeking out of forgiveness and accepting that it has happened. We’ll still have to live with the ramifications of our sins but us and God will be ok. Clear.
I love this story. I love the human element. The proud general getting convinced by his staff that maybe it’s worth a try. The despairing king getting bailed out by the prophet confident in his God. The young handmaiden who just wants her master’s most valued general to be healed. The greedy servant (oh it gets better…)
The best parts of our faith are the simplest. They are stripped from the dogma we surround them in. They transcend the cultural rituals that we wrap them in. They say the same thing no matter the story – God loves all of us. God is willing to extend grace to ALL of us. We need to swallow our pride and obey.
Epilogue: As an aside to this story, the General claims Israel’s God as his own. He does ask for one exception though from Elisha – when he goes home to serve his King, he’s going to have to worship at the alter of Rimmon (since that is still the chief deity in Aram) – would that be ok? He asks the prophet. “Go in peace.” Is the answer. Elisha seems to give him the clearance to worship this other god since it’s a necessary part of his role as a general to his king and country. Isn’t that interesting…