Sunday, 7 July 2013

1 Now Naaman, captain of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man with his master, and highly respected, because by him the Lord had given victory to Aram. The man was also a valiant warrior, but he was a leper. 2 Now the Arameans had gone out in bands and had taken captive a little girl from the land of Israel; and she waited on Naaman’s wife. 3 She said to her mistress, “I wish that my master were with the prophet who is in Samaria! Then he would cure him of his leprosy.” 4 Naaman went in and told his master, saying, “Thus and thus spoke the girl who is from the land of Israel.” 5 Then the king of Aram said, “Go now….” 9 So Naaman came with his horses and his chariots and stood at the doorway of the house of Elisha. 10 Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh will be restored to you and you will be clean.” 11 But Naaman was furious and went away and said, “Behold, I thought, ‘He will surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and wave his hand over the place and cure the leper.’ 12 Are not Abanah and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be clean?” So he turned and went away in a rage. 13 Then his servants came near and spoke to him and said, “My father, had the prophet told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more then, when he says to you, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” 14 So he went down and dipped himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God, and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.
–2 Kings 5:1-5a, 9-14 (NASB)

Naaman was a man with two problems.  The first was obvious: he was a leper.  It was obvious because it was a skin condition so he couldn’t hide it, and it was obvious because everyone understood that its ramifications were dire.  Leprosy made people outcasts, and not in the cool way that Hipsters nowadays try to manufacture.  It meant lonely, miserable, and possibly prolonged suffering, likely with little support from anyone.  Lepers were frequently forbidden even to approach their own spouses and children, no one wanted to risk spreading the disease.

Naaman’s second problem was everything else in the description of him:  he was a famous and well respected man with an important job, a track record of significant success, and the sort of personal qualities that made praise seem appropriate.  He was a celebrity, a champion, and a role model, and he knew it.  Why are those things a problem?  I’m certainly not saying that they’re inherently bad, but they were bad for Naaman because they got in his way.  They were obstacles between him and the truth.

Those obstacles had to be addressed first, and the solution starts with a little girl.  The significance of her part is easy to miss, though.  You have to remember that Naaman was a manly hero in a patriarchal society.  Suddenly, if he wants to avoid the terrible future that awaits him because of leprosy, he has to take the advice not just of a woman, but of a little girl, a foreigner, and a slave.  She was about as close to the opposite end of the social ladder as it was possible to get.  Nevertheless, he listened to her and approached the king with what she said; that’s how desperate he was.

It was probably humiliating.  He was a famous and tough soldier confessing before the king that he wanted to follow the flight of a little girl’s fancy.  He probably felt exposed and pathetic.  At the very least he was admitting that, valiant warrior image notwithstanding, he was scared and helpless, with no ability whatsoever to solve the problem he faced.

That admission was the first part of the solution he needed.

The next part came through Elisha’s seemingly dismissive behavior.  Elisha didn’t even speak to Naaman personally, he couldn’t be bothered to get up and talk to the man at the door, he just sent a message:  “Go do this; you’ll be fine.”  It might seem rude–Naaman certainly thought it was–but I think that it was actually God guiding Elisha to be helpful.

Naaman’s outrage is indicative.  He wanted Elisha to put on a good show, to say some religious things, to make some mystical gestures, or at least to use the right sort of water.  In short he wanted magic, not a miracle.  The purpose of magic has always been control, and through control safety.  It’s like putting giant puppet strings on the universe.  If you learn the right secret knowledge and perform the right rituals, you pull on the right strings and can guarantee the outcome you want.  Magic is a safe way of relating to gods, because however obscure and indirect it might appear, the outcomes are supposed to be predictable.  On the other hand, miracles aren’t the controllable choices of a puppet, but the free choices of a powerful other.

Naaman was upset because he wanted the safety of a guarantee based on necessity and obligation.  He wanted to be able to trust that, since the right puppet strings were pulled, God had to heal him.  God, of course, refused to be anyone’s puppet.  Naaman had to accept that God was free to act or not to act, that God couldn’t be controlled, and that Naaman’s only hope rested on the free choice God would make.

That divine freedom was the second part of the solution Naaman needed though.

The next part came with help from some more servants.  As Naaman was storming away, they came to him with the obviously question:  why wouldn’t he obey such a simple command when he would most likely have obeyed a harder one without complaint?  If the help he wanted was placed so easily within reach, why wouldn’t he seize it?

I think the answer lies in some of what we’ve already been told.  Naaman was successful and respected; he was an important man.  His arrival at Elisha’s house–he brought his military entourage of horsemen and charioteers–was designed to announce this to everyone.  He expected Elisha to come out to him because he (Naaman) deserved that kind of treatment.  He wanted to be healed for the same reason, because he deserved it.

Had Elisha given him a difficult task, a quest of mythical proportions, Naaman would have accepted because it would have let him prove his own worth.  He could have won the prize of healing, so to speak, and had something to brag about when he got back home.  There would have been some glory in it for him.  Instead there was no glory for Naaman at all, just a gift with all of the glory being God’s.

Naaman did finally accept that offer.  He let God set the terms and gave up on the idea of earning the miracle.  That was the third part of the solution to his problem.  The moment that Naaman got out of his own way and accepted his utter helplessness before God, God could work.

Which brings up the last and most obvious thing Naaman needed: healing.  After all of this talk about the problem with Naaman’s perspective, maybe it seems trivial to remember that he also had a problem with his health.  Overlooking this last step would deprive us of a beautiful truth however.  God didn’t give Naaman what he needed; God didn’t give Naaman what he sought; God gave him more than he would ever have sought.  Naaman wasn’t given the healthy skin he probably wanted, he was given perfect rejuvenated skin, better than he knew to want.  Because God was perfectly free to give what wasn’t earned, he gave better than would have been wanted, and certainly more than could have been bought.

It’s no wonder that centuries later, Naaman’s story was seen as foreshadowing Christian baptism, the miracle associated with salvation in Christ.  Christians have to recognize the dire need we have because of sin, a need we can’t address on our own.  We have to understand that we can’t control God to make him help us, that he’s free to do what he wants.  We have to understand that we can’t earn what he offers and that we certainly could never deserve it.  What we learn though is that God wants better for us than we could have dreamed, and that he uses his freedom for our amazed benefit.

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