April 1, 2023

Unlearning Boundaries

II Kings 5:1-14
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.

Unlearning Boundaries
Moved, Touched and Saved

Naaman was his name. Naaman was a mighty man of valor. Under his leadership the Lord had given victory to Syria. Naaman was a powerful man. But (and there should be a “but” in this as in any story) he was a leper. Naaman, the mighty man of valor, conqueror of armies, could not conquer a terrible illness that was eating his flesh away. But Naaman nevertheless was a powerful man. And the mighty and powerful like company. He hears about this prophet in Samaria who could heal him and win the battle over his flesh. From this point on, a story of powerful men unfolds. Naaman goes to his king who writes a letter to the king of Israel introducing Naaman and requesting that he be cured. But the letter does not say anything about the prophet in little Samaria. Kings speak to each other, not to marginal subjects of the kingdom.

When powerful men meet each other, and when one is even mightier than the other, a request is not a request, it is a demand. And the failure to deliver is a total capitulation. It is a shame and also the assurance of pending destruction. The king of Israel knew this quite well. He knew that he must either deliver or else. The king of Israel in desperation rent his clothes. And it made news at the time. This is then the first lesson: when mighty men of valor meet they are moved only by the power they can summon. When Elisha, the prophet, heard that the king had rent his clothes he told the king to send Naaman to him. This is another lesson: When the powerful despair they will accept any help they can get, even from annoying prophets. A little humiliation is still better than total capitulation. So the king accepts Elisha’s offer and sends Naaman to him. Naaman goes with his whole entourage to the prophet’s house. One must imagine that Naaman
was already suspicious of this move. He was probably thinking, as the powerful do: the king of Israel is playing games in order to buy some time. And Naaman knew better. He would not be fooled around by this hide-and-seek game, designed only to postpone the inevitable. So, Naaman being a reasonable mighty man of valor decides to give the king a chance. And there he is at the prophet’s front door. Elisha sends him a messenger and tells him to wash in the Jordan seven times. This was more than the mighty man of valor
could take. Let alone the fact that the prophet did not even come to greet him or to perform personally the healing ceremony, asking him to wash himself in the waters of Jordan! Bathing in that insignificant creek called Jordan was adding offense to insult. Now Naaman had, so to speak, the smoking gun. He left the place in rage. This is then the third lesson: mighty men of valor do not like to be pushed around. Mighty men of valor do not like to feel that they are not in control. They especially do not like when they are told to take a medicine when they know that they have better and more potent drugs and powerful waters than the ones being prescribed. Mighty men of valor have better science, so they know better. They know, for example, how to compare the healing quality of waters. And between the rivers of Syria and all the waters of Israel
there was no comparison.

Great tragedy was approaching. And it was halted only because Naaman’s servants, wiser than he, proposed to him: If the prophet had asked him to do a great thing he would certainly do it. He had the power to do it. Why not give it a try and do—even if unworthy of his valor—a very simple thing, like dipping into the Jordan creek? Though not uncommon these days, mighty men of valor do not like to be mis-underestimated, Naaman conceded. And because he conceded and dipped into the Jordan seven times, exactly as the prophet had ordered; because Naaman suspended his well informed judgment on the prophet, whom he had regarded as a charlatan, and obeyed; because he left his pride and not only followed the prophet’s advice but also the wisdom of his own servants, he was healed, and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, just like
the flesh of a little child.

The flesh of a little child, unlike the flesh of a leper, is gentle, with the color of life and very sensitive. A leper’s skin turns gradually snow-white and the senses are progressively impaired. Readings about Hansen’s disease, named after the scientist who isolated the bacteria that clinically cause leprosy, say that in ancient times many different skin diseases were labeled as leprosy, but they were not all that infirmity that Hansen
classified. Leprosy stood for a terrible condition in which one progressively loses the sense of touch. Hence, someone who does not feel the touch of another, who is not shaken, who is not moved is often considered to be a leper, and mighty men of valor fit this diagnosis: they often resist being moved, they resist the touch of another.

Consider then this question: What was Naaman really cured of? I think the point of the story is not a medical miracle, but a much more important healing. By entering the Jordan, by assenting to the prophet’s order, by listening to his own servants, by showing sensitivity, by submitting himself to those poor waters of Israel covering gently his whole body seven times, Naaman was healed. Naaman got his sensitivity back. That was his cure; this is what having a flesh like a little child means, a body that listens, is moved by others, is sensitive to others. Notice that in the stories in which Jesus cures a leper, as in the gospel reading, the point of the cure is that Jesus reaches out his hand and touches the leper. A cured leper is the one that knows she or he has been touched, has been moved.

As any sickness has an etiology, a cure has also an etiology. It starts somewhere. It starts with good news that might not even be at first acknowledged. It starts with a good angel, which means, with a good messenger. And there is an angel in this story. There is an evangelical beginning of Naaman’s healing. The text tells us that in a raid into Israeli territory a young girl was taken to be a maid in Naaman’s house. We do not know her name. We do not know how they took her. We do not know about the family and friends
she was taken away from. But we know that she was moved by Naaman’s condition. And she talked to another anonymous woman, Naaman’s wife. She was also moved, and she believed enough to tell her sick husband that there was hope in Samaria, not in his mighty army, but in Samaria, at the site of a local prophet. The fact that Naaman listened set in motion a healing that would finally restore him to health, to have a body that would feel the sensations of this world, that would be touched and known to be touched, that would be moved by words of promise and not of threat, having a flesh that would be sensitive
like the flesh of a young child.

That little girl whose name is not recorded, whose story we do not know except that she moved a mighty man of valor, was God’s agent for the healing, for the salvation of a man who did not even belong to the covenant people, but a man whose story is told to this day because more important than pedigree, more important than his power, he felt the presence of a touch that was caring, though it was just from a little maid, from a
countryside prophet, and from the waters of a river that was for him really not more than an insignificant dirty creek. But he let himself to be moved, he let himself to be touched. And in this allowing himself to be moved, in allowing himself to be touched there was healing. This is the story of a mighty man of valor, who finally did not resist grace, and so he was moved; he was healed; he was saved. Saved not least from the leprous
insensitivity of his might, his valor, his power.

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