2 Kings 5:1-19 (NRSV)
Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the Lord had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy. Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said. And the king of Aram said, “Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.”
He went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. He brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy.” When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, “Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.”
But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, “Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.” So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house. 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 Abana and Pharpar, 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. But his servants approached and said to him, “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’?” 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.
Then he returned to the man of God, he and all his company; he came and stood before him and said, “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel; please accept a present from your servant.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, whom I serve, I will accept nothing!” He urged him to accept, but he refused. Then Naaman said, “If not, please let two mule-loads of earth be given to your servant; for your servant will no longer offer burnt offering or sacrifice to any god except the Lord. But may the Lord pardon your servant on one count: when my master goes into the house of Rimmon to worship there, leaning on my arm, and I bow down in the house of Rimmon, when I do bow down in the house of Rimmon, may the Lord pardon your servant on this one count.” He said to him, “Go in peace.”
God wants you to know something. God has long wanted all of humanity to know something.
Naaman was one of those people who struggle to hear God’s basic message to humanity. He was a powerful man, and with that power came a degree of arrogance. He was a violent man, one likely to look down his nose at the people he had raided and captured.
He also, however, was a man of suffering, bearing a disease that would have made him an outcast except for his brilliance on the battlefield. It ultimately was through the suffering and shame that God was able to reach Naaman. It is clear from the story the warrior craved healing, the kind of healing that would restore him fully to his community.
His arrogance almost undid his healing. How could the Prophet Elisha’s miraculous cure be so easy? Shouldn’t he at least come out of his house, wave his hands and do his prophet dance? How could a river like the Jordan, one in what he considered a backwater place, be superior in any way to the great rivers of his homeland?
Thank God for the sound, sober thinkers around Naaman, people able to inject a little rational thought past his emotional arrogance. This is easy, so easy, they told him. Just do it. And he did, and after the seventh immersion he found himself restored.
And by restored, I mean more than just his skin. Certainly, he had fine skin, the soft, unscarred skin of a boy, the kind of skin that would make him a wonder among his people. But other changes happened, too.
He had brought gold and silver, worth more than $2.5 million in today’s money, as well as fine clothing. Naaman, used to power and wealth counting for everything, had naturally assumed healing from his terrible disease would have to cost a fortune. He offered it to the prophet as a gift of gratitude. Imagine his surprise when the prophet refused!
But again, God wanted Naaman to know something, something beyond the powerful truth that God has the power to heal anyone.
And Naaman finally understood. Instead of offering gifts, he had one last request. Could he take some of this dirt from Yahweh’s homeland to use as the base for an altar of worship? In Naaman’s limited understanding of the world, he saw Elisha’s God as a god of a place, even though the warrior was beginning to hold the conflicting thought that Yahweh must be the only true God. Surely dirt from that place would be needed to build a proper altar.
Elisha didn’t try to engage in any deep theological conversations. Naaman had understood what was important. Naaman had learned that God’s grace flows freely; Naaman understood that the primary response God seeks is worship, a humble acceptance of God. In his time and with his background, this Aramean’s understanding was a remarkable breakthrough. It was enough.
Elisha even accommodated Naaman’s request that he be able to continue to treat his pagan king’s practices with respect.
This story is a loud whisper of what was to come. God’s grace freely given would overcome everything, even the treasured laws of the Jews.
The day would come when restoration for all would be possible, regardless of our particular sins, regardless of how far away from God we may find ourselves. In an act even stranger than a healing dip in the Jordan, our faith in Jesus Christ’s work on the cross immerses us in the blood of one slain like a lamb, and we know we will be made whole and new for all of eternity.
In the meantime, there is worship, glorious worship, heart-filling worship, with no mule-loads of dirt required. After all, we know Christ as King of Kings, Lord of Lords, the ruler of all of creation.
The featured image is “Elisha Declining Naaman’s Presents,” Abraham van Dijck, circa 1655.