Monday, July 4, 2016

Sent to change the world

The story of Elisha healing the Aramaean general Naaman is over twenty-eight hundred years old.[1] Yet the story, one of the best-known Old Testament stories, peopled with characters that even now seem true to life, retains a fascination through its dynamism and a focus that shifts between the local and the global.[2]
Naaman was a common Ugaritic name derived from an adjective meaning pleasantness or loveliness, an ironic name for a general.[3] Obviously, parents then as now were poor prognosticators of a child’s vocation.
The text refers to Naaman’s disease as “leprosy.” The disease we call leprosy, formally known as Hansen’s disease, did not arrive in the Middle East until it arrived via Alexander the Great’s troops returning from India four hundred years after Naaman died. Nobody knows the exact nature of the disease that afflicted Naaman; one scholar hypothesizes that the disease may have been psoriasis.[4]
A young Israelite, a female slave, a prize of war, served Naaman’s wife. The slave saw her master’s condition, pitied him, and suggested to her mistress that the general consult the mighty Israeli miracle worker, Elisha. The wife passes along this recommendation to her husband.
Naaman may have suffered physically from his chronic disease; he certainly suffered from being a social pariah. The text does not hint at how many remedies Naaman tried unsuccessfully. However, having learned of a possible new cure, Naaman, like any good military officer or engineer, acts. He obtains a letter of introduction from his superior, the King of Aram, to Elisha’s ruler, the King of Israel. Taking a fortune with him – apparently healthcare was no cheaper then than today – he personally carries his introduction to the King of Israel. The King panics. He’s no miracle worker and probably sees Elisha as a quack faith healer.
Even before the Internet, rumors spread quickly. Elisha learns of Naaman’s arrival and the King’s panic. He sends word to the King: Don’t worry. Send this foreigner to me and everything will be well.
Imagine Naaman’s excitement and the King’s trepidation as Naaman leaves the King’s court to meet with Elisha. The King of Israel rightly worries that if Elisha fails to heal the great man, Israel will find itself at war with the local superpower. Naaman hopes, yet doubts. Will this be just another alleged miracle cure whose hype far exceeds reality?
Upon arrival, Elisha triply insults Naaman.[5] Not only is there no welcome befitting a dignitary of Naaman’s rank but Elisha doesn’t even deign to meet with him. The prescription, given by messenger, is the third insult: wash yourself in the Jordan seven times. At that time, Damascus was considered the “garden of the world,” a prosperous and historic city like today’s Paris, London, or New York. People viewed its rivers, the Abana and Pharpar, as the source of its beauty and wealth. By comparison, the Jordan was a second-rate creek in a third-rate country.[6]
Naaman’s fury erupted as he hastily departed. But his servants approached him – a sign that he was neither arrogant nor impetuous – and encouraged him to at least try Elisha’s prescription, for had the prophet prescribed something difficult Naaman would surely have obeyed.
What happened to Naaman as he washed in the River Jordan? Scholars and theologians no more understand the cure than they can explain the nature of Naaman's disease. We have a great story, but no factual details of what actually happened.
What intrigues me is that the lectionary compilers juxtaposed this particular Old Testament reading with this morning’s gospel reading in which Jesus sends out seventy disciples, in pairs, to heal the sick and to announce the arrival of God's kingdom.[7] Jesus instructs those he sends forth to carry no purse, no bag, no sandals, stay in the first house they enter and rely exclusively on the occupants to emphasize that God's gracious power is responsible for the results the disciples achieve. Through the disciples’ actions, they implicitly reenact the story of Elisha and Naaman, announcing the presence of God's kingdom and healing the sick, reconciling the estranged, and liberating the enslaved.
Episcopalian and prominent biblical scholar Marcus Borg has observed: "Rather strikingly, the most certain thing we know about Jesus according to the current scholarly consensus is that he was a teller of stories and a speaker of great one-liners whose purpose was the transformation of perception. At the; center of his message was an invitation to see differently."[8] Our transformation enables us to perceive God at work in our midst and enlists us in building God's kingdom.
In June 1979, more than a million people gathered in a field outside Krakow to hear Pope John Paul preach and celebrate Mass. One person present
was an unemployed electrician who had hitched a ride from the coastal city of Gdansk. Barely more than a year later, at his home shipyard, that electrician used a souvenir pen he had bought at the pope’s Mass to sign the founding charter of the illegal trade union Solidarity. He was Lech Walesa, and, having heard Wojtyla, he found it possible to act as if he were afraid no more. In Wojtyla’s presence, the solidarity of subjugation – the universal shame that was the first bond of victims of the Soviet imperial system – was transformed into a solidarity of resistance. The Solidarity Walesa and his fellow workers established, and the solidarity it embodied, would lead to the nonviolent overthrow of the Communist regime in Warsaw and, ultimately, to the demise of the Soviet Union itself.[9]
In Naaman's healing in the Jordan, God used ordinary elements and human hands to transform a leper into esteemed member of his community. The seventy whom Jesus sent out similarly were ordinary humans who communicated God's transformative presence to broken, hurting people. This happened again in a field outside Gdansk when Pope John Paul spoke to millions, changing at least one man's perspective so radically that it rippled across Europe and the globe.
And we expect that it will happen again today when we receive the sacrament of Holy Communion. We confidently take, break, bless, and receive bread and wine in God's name that we whose sight God has transformed will experience spiritual renewal and discern God's acceptance, forgiveness, healing, and love. Then we before leaving we recommit ourselves to go into the world, sent by God just as were Elisha, the seventy, and John Paul before us, to transform broken lives.



[1] 2 Kings 5:1-14. Norman H. Smith, Interpreter’s Bible, ed. G.A. Buttrick (Nashville: Abingdon, 1954), Vol. 3, p. 210.
[2] T.R. Hobbs, “Naaman,” Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992), Vol. 4, pp. 967-968.
[3] J.M. Ward, “Naaman,” Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, ed. G.A. Buttrick (Nashville: Abingdon, 1962), Vol. 3, p. 490.
[4] A. Graeme Auld, I & II Kings (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1986), p. 167; J.M. Ward, “Naaman,” Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, ed. G.A. Buttrick (Nashville: Abingdon, 1962), Vol. 3, p. 490.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Smith, op. cit., p. 210.
[7] Luke 10:1-11, 16-20.
[8] Sallie McFague, Life Abundant: Rethinking Theology and Economy for a Planet in Peril (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001), p. 172.
[9] James Carroll, Christ Actually: The Son of God for the Secular Age (New York: Viking, 2014), p. 180.

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