2 Kings 5:1-14
Our worship series this summer is A Summer with the Prophets and, so far, we’ve met Elijah and Elisha. Prophetic texts don’t often show up in the worship and preaching of the church, and many of us may not know much about the prophets. But they matter to us because they give us theology and language for our own prophetic imagination. They help us gain perspective, give us language for lament and grief, and they inspire us to join God in making things right. So, listen now to this story from the life of the prophet Elisha. Hear the word of the Lord.
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.
This is the word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
In a way, this story is about making the right diagnosis. Have you ever seen the TV show House? It was on ten or fifteen years ago, and you can stream it now. Dr. House is an irascible and brilliant doctor, who also has an opioid addiction, and leads a team of residents at the Princeton Plainsboro Regional Hospital. Dr. House’s primary gift is reading the symptoms well and making the right diagnosis. Every show follows the same format: a patient has increasingly worse symptoms that have been misdiagnosed or mistreated, and Dr. House and his team must discover the right diagnosis and the right treatment just in time.
House was created based on a column in the New York Times Magazine called “Diagnosis,” written by a real doctor at Yale named Lisa Sanders. Last week, she told the story of a 69-year-old man in South Carolina who lived an active life and loved to play golf, until he started to lose feeling in his fingers, and then his feet. His legs became weak, and he began to lose weight and muscle mass.
He was tested for every autoimmune disease conceivable, but no one had answers. Finally, he got a telehealth appointment at Penn Medical, and then he connected with the right doctors who could read the symptoms well and discover his real diagnosis. He has amyloidosis, a very rare liver disease. Now that he knows, he can treat the disease and at least stop the deterioration.
Naaman is in a similar predicament. Naaman was an accomplished and important man in the country of Aram. Aram was on and off at war with Israel, and Naaman was a military man and a close confident of the king. But his life was troubled because he had a skin disease they called leprosy, which affected him physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially. Though he had access to the very best medical treatment available, nothing helped.
On one of Naaman’s military raids, he enslaved a young Israelite girl and gave her as a servant to his wife. When the enslaved girl saw how much Naaman was suffering, she said to her enslaver – with both kindness and probably the hope of freedom – that there was a prophet in Israel who could help.
Naaman asked the king of Aram if he could go. Now, remember, Aram and Israel were often at war and there was a delicate truce. Naaman was no ordinary citizen. The king said, “Of course,” and drafted a diplomatic and vaguely threatening letter to the King of Israel, which caused a minor meltdown in the royal palace.
When Elisa heard about this, he told the king to send him on. Naaman arrived at Elisha’s simple home in all his glory: chariots, and horses, and servants, and hundreds of pounds of silver to pay for medical care. Many people in Israel had leprosy, but they were not so privileged as Naaman. When he stopped at Elisha’s door, the prophet did not even step out to see him. He sent a messenger to say, “If you go and wash seven times in the Jordan, your flesh will be restored, and you will be clean.”
Now, remember Elisha is master diagnostician. He already knows what Naaman’s real disease is – and it’s not leprosy. Naaman’s real disease was pride. When Naaman heard the instructions, relayed through a servant, his real disease flared up, and Naaman made a spectacle of himself.
“What is this!” he said. “I thought he would at least have come out himself, and called on his God, and waved his hands over the sores, and cured the leprosy. The rivers of Damascus are far better than the Jordan!”
It probably never occurred to Naaman, who had slaughtered Israeli towns and taken children into slavery, that Elisha might not want to come out to meet him – probably never occurred to him. Instead, Naaman’s poisonous pride broke out all over the place, oozing from every pore.
Naaman stormed off in a rage. He was just about to get into the chariot when his servants intervened. They knew how to massage his ego – they had to do it all the time. You know they had seen this kind of outburst before. So, they calmed him down, and reasoned with him. What do you have to lose? Just try it.
So Naaman did. Seven times he went under in the muddy water of the Jordan, and it was just like Elisha said: his flesh became like a little child’s. And it wasn’t just his skin that was like a little child’s – it was also his heart. Naaman went immediately back to Elisha, grateful and humble, and declared himself to be Elisha’s servant.
Like a U Penn physician, the prophet Elisha read the symptoms well. He studied the whole patient and treated real sickness.
Pride, in the Christian moral tradition, is the most fundamental of the deadly sins. Now, of course, I don’t mean the good kind of pride. There is a good kind. The kind that comes from a job well done, or from accomplishing a goal, or just taking care of yourself. It’s the pride of self-respect. There is a pride in respecting yourself as a unique and valuable person made in God’s image. That’s a good kind of pride that we need more of.
The bad kind of pride, on the other hand, is poison. In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis writes about the classical deadly sins, and says that, “Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison [to pride]….Pride is a spiritual cancer: it eats up the very possibility of love, or contentment, or common sense.”
This is the kind of pride that elevates the self above others. The prophets like to talk about pride as having a “penchant for heights.” Proud people have “lofty eyes.” We might say they look down their nose. They’re high and mighty, or puffed up, or full of themselves, or just arrogant. They set themselves apart from the rest of us. There is no appreciation of our shared humanity. There is only endless comparison and competition. The American theologian William May said this kind of pride is the “sin of the first person singular.” It’s the “I” that says I have more, I am doing more, I am getting more, I am being more, I am more, I am winning where others are losing.
This is the kind of pride that led Naaman to enslave a young girl and give her to his wife as a servant, as if she were his property! The prophets of Israel were endlessly pointing to the disease of pride, in leaders and in nations. They railed against its symptoms: corruption, and oppression of the powerless, and rampant greed, and excessive consumption, and the illusion of self-sufficiency. But those were just symptoms; the disease was pride.
What hope do we have of being healed of our unhealthy pride? We have some part of Naaman inside each of us; you know we do. You and I are capable of taking advantage of others, of being blind to our sense of entitlement, of raging when we don’t get our way, of believing that our opinion must be the right one, of dismissing the very people who hold out the hope of our salvation. We each have some part of Naaman. And we can see people like Naaman close to the centers of power in our society. So what hope do we have?
So many clues to our hope are here in this story. Did you notice who helped Naaman along his way? The girl that Naaman enslaved. The lowly messenger that bore the brunt of his wrath. The servants, used to massaging his ego and dealing with his outbursts. These were marginalized people, with virtually no power, and they were God’s agents of healing. God was working on Naaman from the outside in and the bottom up. Very often, that’s how God works on us too. We too find healing for our pride in the voices of the people we reflexively discount.
And did you notice how Elisha’s treatment pushed Naaman out of his comfort zone? I mean, Elisha could have healed him by making a big deal of it and waving a hand over his sores, but that would have only compounded Naaman’s superiority. Naaman didn’t just need to be treated; he needed to submit to the treatment. He needed to be uncomfortable, to be decentered, knocked off his high horse. It is so hard for any one of us to be decentered. We work so hard to get a handle on life and feel competent. But this too was God’s grace to Naaman, and it is very often God’s grace to us – to make us uncomfortable on the road to making us well.
Now, when Naaman returned to see Elisha, after the bit of the story I read, there are more clues for us.
Naaman came back grateful. Gratitude is perhaps the best antidote to pride that there is. Every day, we could list of all the people (and animals and plants) that made our day possible and be grateful. None of us are self-made, not even for one day. If poisonous pride is the feeling that we are above others, gratitude reminds us that we are dependent on them – we need others. There is no greater antidote for pride than practicing gratitude.
And Naaman also returned to Elisha ready to acknowledge that the Lord is God. This is the message of the Hebrew scriptures in a nutshell. If pride is the fundamental disease, acknowledging that the Lord is God is the way of life. This is the real prescription of every prophetic sermon you’ll find in the prophets: acknowledge that the Lord is God.
Acknowledge that the Lord is God, and acknowledge we are not our own masters.
Acknowledge that our lives are a gift from God, and a gift from others; none of us are self-made.
Acknowledge that, while we are free to choose and arrange life in many ways, God has shown us what is good and what leads to life. Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with God.
This is the final clue we receive from the story of Naaman’s healing. It was God’s grace to Naaman, and it’s God’s grace to us – especially on this Independence Day weekend. The way to be truly free – that is, the way to be whole and healed – is to acknowledge that we belong to God and we need each other. That’s what Naaman learned at the Jordan River. We’ll learn that too if we gather with the saints at the river.
Rev. Patrick W. T. Johnson, Ph.D.
First Presbyterian Church
Asheville, North Carolina