Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Reflections on the text – II Kings, 5:1-17

Read the text of the story here: 2 Kings 5:1-17

A Story for Our Time
Namaan was a big deal! He was rich.  He was successful. He was important. He had a position.  He was the kind of guy that got what he wanted, when he wanted.  But Naaman was also sick.  He had a serious disease that threatened to take away everything he had in life.  Surely a man as important and as wealthy and as connected as Naaman could use that money and status and connections to do something about this disease. But there was nothing that he seemed to be able to buy or command that made any difference.  It wasn’t until a young Israelite slave-girl proposed a solution: a prophet in Samaria who has the power to heal.
Now let’s stop and consider this much of the story.  Here is this important and rich man, well connected and a successful field commander.  He is used to getting what he wants.  He is used to having other important and wealthy people do his bidding.  But here he is in a situation where, for perhaps, the 1st time in his life, his wealth and position and power and importance is irrelevant and can do nothing to help him with this situation.  Bear that in mind as the story progresses – for that point is not an easy one for Naaman to accept.  But here at the beginning we find that the only one who can offer any assistance at all is a young, foreign slave-girl.  And this is someone who is the lowest of the low = young, that is a child; foreign, that is actually someone who was captured and brought into the household as a spoil of war; slave, that is someone with no rights and no power and no possessions; girl, and on top of it she is a girl, which within the context of this time and place lowered her status even farther.  The contrast between Namaan and this child could not be more extreme.
So Namaan puts a plan into effect.  His King sends a letter to the King of Israel (the Northern Kingdom – probably Jehoram the son of King Ahab) demanding that the King heal his commander.  Of course we start with a letter from a King to a King.  It seems like that word about the “prophet in Samaria” has gotten lost.  The King of Aram doesn’t mention of it and it doesn’t seem to occur to the King Jehoram of Israel. This is yet another high stakes power game being played out on the international stage of (ancient) global politics. But the prophet, himself – Elisha – gets wind of the letter and Namaan’s predicament and sends a message to King Jehoram to send this important general to him. 
What a scene it must have been.  The great, wealthy and important military man moving in procession to the place of the prophet’s home.  But before they can go very far this procession is interrupted.  A messenger from the prophet arrives with a word from the prophet.  And this word stops the procession in its tracks.  No need to go any farther, the message says, just go on down to the Jordan River and wash yourself seven times in the river.  That’s it!
And this message infuriates Namaan.  Who does this prophet think he is anyhow?  Here is Namaan, a very important and wealthy man.  No one gives him orders.  There should have been a display of some kind.  Namaan was expecting the prophet to treat him with submission and awe, like everyone else; Namaan was expecting the prophet to put on a show, a spectacle of some sort.  But instead all he gets is an order to wash in a dirty, muddy river.  We might imagine that Namaan was beside himself with anger and indignation.  But again, his servants come to him and encourage him to give the prophet’s command a try.  He receives God’s blessing and he is healed.
In many ways this story is one for our own time. 1st - Like Namaan and the other characters we too put a high value on wealth, position, success and importance.  Like them, we also really and truly believe that all of those things can get us absolutely everything we need and want; and like the characters in the story we too are guilty of expecting that others should bow to those things and those who possess them with deference and submission.  We think we are entitled – that is the word.  But this story lets us know that God is not impressed with wealth, position, success and importance; God, in fact, knocks the supports right out from under all of those things in the way the slave-girl and then the prophet relate to Namaan.  What is important to God, according to this story?  Humility, openness and faith!
2nd – In this story all of the “important” people seem to both presume and value self-sufficiency.  Namaan is used to getting whatever he wants when he wants, and he expects everyone to submit to his desires.  The King of Aram seems to think that his power gives him the right to order his fellow (and lately defeated) King Jehoram to do what he thinks needs to be done.  And for his part it seems that it never occurs to King Jehoram of Israel to consider dealing with this situation by looking outside of himself for help.  These characters are the quintessential rugged individualists! And this sense of rugged individuality, this assumption of self-sufficiency is completely rejected by God in this story.  Only by being willing and open enough to receive advice and help from others is Namaan able to find healing.  If he had continued to rely on himself he would never have accepted the gift of grace and healing which was being offered to him.  And it is worth pointing out again that these others were not equals – they were servants, slaves and a prophet – people who had little to no value in this culture.  And that is how God worked then and continues to work now.
3rd and last – God not only works through others, but through unusual and unexpected means – specifically in this story: the River Jordan.  While it is true that the river was a little bit more substantial in ancient times, it still was never much of a river except at the headwaters.  In many places the River Jordan was more of a creek.  Sometimes it would dry out completely, sometimes it seemed like it was standing water.  But at all times, especially downriver, it was dirty and muddy.  This river, such as it was, was a part of the every day life of the people who lived near it.  They washed in it, they brought animals to drink, they used the river for all kinds of ordinary things – some of which we would no longer permit today.  And for a river that was more of a creek, some of this could be, well… let’s just say I can understand why Namaan might have been reluctant to bathe in this river.  But God takes the common and the ordinary; God uses that which interacts with human life in a mundane way and brings life from it; God provides healing and blessing not in a spectacular way, using the purified and sanitary water that might have been obtained elsewhere.  No, God provides life, healing and wholeness; God blesses in the midst of the ordinary, the dirty and even in spite of sinful resistance.
This story of General Namaan is really a story for us and for our time.  We who too often put so much value on power and wealth and position; we who prize our rugged individualism and our self-sufficiency; we who think that God’s blessings come only in spectacular ways coerced by “good” and “right” attitudes and behavior.  This story teaches us that in fact – God doesn’t care about power and wealth and instead empowers the powerless and the voiceless to encourage faith and humility; that we are called to be a part of a community and that God works through community.  That individualism can actually hinder and subvert our relationship with God because we experience God through community.  And God works through the ordinary stuff of our lives – water, bread, wine, friendship and love - to shower us with unexpected and unconditional blessings.  And God’s blessings upon us individually, as a church community and as a nation are not dependent on our holding the “right” or “holy” attitudes and positions, and not even dependent on our being “good.”  But God’s blessings are showered upon us unconditionally on the basis only of God’s grace.  Thanks be to God!

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