It isn’t hard to imagine what the architects of the lectionary were thinking when they decided to pair our two readings tonight. The obvious connection is leprosy, and specifically the healing of two individuals living with some skin condition or other that left them both labeled as “lepers.” Yet is that enough to really hold these two stories together?
We have first the story from Second Kings, where we meet Naaman, a man who suffers from leprosy. In his cultural and religious context, this condition hasn’t resulted in his being labeled as an outcast. He’s the commander of the army of the king of Aram, and identified as “a great man” and “a mighty warrior.” In his household is a slave girl, a “captive from the land of Israel” who serves his wife, and this girl tells her mistress that back home there is prophet who could cure Naaman’s leprosy. Well one thing leads to another, and before you know it Naaman is off to find this prophet, though it all looks more like a heavy-duty diplomatic mission than it does a pilgrimage. Accompanied by a retinue of horses and chariots, and carrying both a serious payload of gifts and a letter from his king, Namaan marches up to the Israelite palace to bargain for his healing.
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The Israelite king receives this as a political set-up: “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 Elisha—the prophet to whom the slave girl had been referring—sends message to the Israelite king to have Naaman sent out his way, “that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.”
Yet when Naaman arrives at Elisha’s house, the prophet doesn’t even come out to speak with him, instead sending out a messenger to tell the great warrior to go and wash seven times in the Jordan River.
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?’
Do you hear the tone of Naaman’s response? He’s traveled a long way, and brought loads of riches and a royal letter, and he’s told to go and wash in that muddy desert river? Surely something a bit more grand and impressive should have been offered… might as well have stayed at home and had a bath in one of the rivers of Damascus…
Once again it is a servant who comes through with the word Naaman most needs to hear: “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’”? Swallow your pride, Naaman. Forget the treasures you’ve brought, the reputation you’ve built, the assumptions you live by. Take the advice of your servant, and submit to the instructions of the Israelite prophet.
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.
“Like the flesh of a young boy.” And what is it that Jesus says in the gospels? “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Forget your status, Naaman; forget your pride and presumptions. Pay attention to what your slave girl and your servant know.
And notice, too, that for all Naaman had wanted Elisha to perform some showy miracle the prophet actually doesn’t do anything. God does, which is what Naaman acknowledges in the next verse after tonight’s reading ended: “Then [Naaman] came and stood before [Elisha] and said, ‘Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.’”
Now alongside of this story, we read a brief account from the Gospel according to Mark of one nameless man’s healing. As Mark relates this story, the focus is actually less on the event of the healing and more on what Jesus tells him to do next.
After sternly warning him, Jesus sent him away at once, saying to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.”
Don’t tell anyone about this life-changing and impossible event, but instead just go to the priest, in order that the ritual requirements of the law be fulfilled. And it is “sternly” that Jesus tells him this?
The directive to remain quiet about events such as this healing is actually characteristic of the Jesus we meet in Mark’s gospel. Sometimes referred to in the scholarly literature as the “messianic secret,” Mark seems to be suggesting that at least in the first half of his ministry Jesus was intent on trying to slow down the spread of the news about him. Jesus wasn’t particularly interested in being fashioned into a religious superstar or miracle-dispensing wonder-worker. It would appear he didn’t want news about him to spin out of control and result in the sort of populist movement that might attract the big crowds, but for all the wrong reasons. Maybe if the spread of news about him could be slowed, he could actually be for them the Good News.
Yet how does the newly healed man respond to Jesus’ stern words?
[T]he man went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.
Well, Oscar Wilde famously wrote, “I can resist anything but temptation,” and it would seem that this man was cut from pretty much the same cloth. But who could blame him? Once as good as dead, he’s got his life again. Wouldn’t you want to spread that kind of news? And if Jesus can do such things in the lives of broken people, isn’t it right that crowds should flock to him?
The promise of healing, of course, is hugely attractive; just ask anyone living under the burden of some illness or condition—be that physical, emotional, or even spiritual—from which he or she would like to be relieved. And so the crowds flocked to Jesus, desperate to receive what they heard he had to offer. The kind of healing and restoration that he embodied—that he was—isn’t really even in view anymore. The crowds want a commodity they believe Jesus can dole out. Not unlike Naaman wanting Elisha “to wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy,” the people who flocked to Jesus wanted him to do for them something very specific.
I’m not going to downplay how much we would desire to have our own illnesses, burdens and conditions lifted, in the way that the leprosy of these two characters was lifted. I’m also not going to try to answer that terrible question of “why this person, and not that”; “why Naaman (who didn’t know God in the slightest), and not me (who has tried to follow Jesus as faithfully as I can)?” I don’t know.
What I do know is that we can’t turn the Good News of God in Jesus Christ into a machine that dispenses the answers and solutions that we want, and we sure can’t make God in our own image and after our own likeness. Along the way we might have to learn the same sort of lessons as Naaman, dropping our pride and presumptions, and learning to be open to the kind of wisdom and insight that comes from unlikely people and places. It is a kind of a surrender that is called for here—a dying to self and being made alive in Christ, marked by a fundamental sort of trust in the character of God. And that isn’t always the easiest thing to do, particularly when we’re not getting quite the answer we think God should be giving. But it just might be that in the hardest and darkest of times, such trust does its deepest work in us.
Hear the Gospel proclaimed this night, of the hope and promise of healing; and know that in the fullness of time it shall be given.