Title: Oh that, would that, if only…
Text: 2 Kings 5:1-14
Date: July 4, 2010
Author: Catherine Thiel Lee
Our story tonight comes from 2 Kings and it is about a man named Naaman.
Naaman is a “great man.” Hebrew narrators are usually sparse, even terse with their descriptions. But here the narrator goes on and on, falling all over himself to tell us how great a man Naaman is. He is the commander of the army of Aram, a decorated general in “high favor” with the king. The king has noticed him, has literally “lifted his face.” He is a mighty warrior, a “man of substance” who, through Yahweh, has won a great victory (2 Kings 5:1). The narrator tells us all that. And then, after this tumbling of descriptive words, great words, we reach one word, the last word of the verse. It is a word that stops us, stops its original hearers even more, stops us all cold. The great man is: a leper.
Leprosy. A dreaded skin disease which causes it to flake and deteriorate painfully with large open sores.
The physical contrast in this picture of Naaman is striking. He is a successful warrior, in a time before smart bombs and droid strikers. This is a man who kills people with his hands and simple weapons. He is strong. Yet, this “great,” strong man: the skin covering his muscles and brawn is marred by open sores, flaking flesh.
And the torment of leprosy in that time is not only, or even primarily, physical. Leprosy is a disease of extreme social stigma. The leper is, in a word, a terrible, excluding word: unclean.
“Leper” redefines Naaman. It, in effect, negates all the positive, lofty description that comes before. His leprosy socially confines him. This is a man used to access in lively places, red carpets and military dress (Walter Brueggemann, Testimony to the Otherwise, 47). Leprosy brings a drastic change to his life. With one word the narrator rewrites Naaman’s place in society.
And with this striking opening description, the story moves on into a dizzying sequence of exchanges and a meandering plot. Naaman’s wife has a slave girl, taken captive from her home in Israel during an Aramean raid. She takes note of Naaman’s suffering and tells her mistress of a prophet in Israel who could, who would cure his leprosy. Naaman acts quickly, tells his king, who acts quickly and sends him to the king of Israel.
Now remember who Naaman is: the commander of the army of Aram. Aram is nothing less than the sworn enemy of Israel. They’ve been doing battle for a long while in the book Kings, and will again in just a few chapters. There is great irony here. It’s like a Pakistani general rushing across the border, with permission, to find a prophet in India. An Israeli commander seeking out a radical imam in Palestine. Naaman the “great man” is so desperate that he would follow the whim of a slave and run to the prophet of some foreign deity of his enemy.
He goes with a great load of riches and gifts (or perhaps bribes?, we’re not told…). A letter from Aram’s king asks Israel’s king to cure Naaman, which, of course, Israel’s king cannot do. The king of Israel tears his clothes in outrage and despair, certain that the king of Aram is stirring the waters, trying to create an international incident.
Oh the kings of the Bible! Here, as is many places, they are powerless and inept. Both kings are impotent in the face of disease. The king of Aram gets the message wrong (whether by accident or on purpose we do not know); he asks the king of Israel to cure Naaman, but doesn’t he remember it is the prophet he should be asking for? The king of Israel flies off the handle and, perhaps, is on the verge of starting a war in response. No great and majestic monarchies here.
But, never to worry, enter the prophet. Elisha, whom we’ve been anticipating all along, finally appears center stage. This story comes after a string of accounts of Elisha’s great deeds: among other things he divides the Jordan, heals contaminated water, foretells an Israeli victory, provides oil for a widow, bestows a son on a barren woman and later brings him back to life, and feeds a hundred men from a few loaves. He has been acting, speaking, bringing hope, holding center amidst scenes of culture and creation itself gone awry in sickness, death, poverty, and war. If we have been reading along in Kings, if we know anything about Elisha, we have been waiting since the slave girl spoke of him. We have been waiting for Elisha to appear.
And appear he does. The story pauses, regroups. “And it was so, when Elisha the man of God…” (2 Kings 5:8).
Elisha is, after all, the center of the story. The prophet is the bearer of Yahweh’s transformative power (Brueggemann, 50). Calm and cool, he knows what has happened and he knows what to do. “Calm down,” he says. “Send the man to me. And he will know that there is a prophet in Israel” (2Kings 5:8, alt trans). By the story’s end, Naaman, and the king, and all of us—we too will know there is a prophet in Israel.
Naaman goes to Elisha’s house and stands outside with all his regalia: horses, chariots, gifts, and servants. And the prophet…
…sends out a messenger. He doesn’t even make an appearance. Doesn’t offer his guest hospitality, doesn’t show his face. Just sends a message. A secretary. Texts him. “Go wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh will be restored and you will be cleansed” (2 Kings 5:9).
That’s it. That is our big prophetic utterance. And Elisha doesn’t even utter it, doesn’t speak it directly. It’s just a message. Naaman is bewildered, and I am too. I mean, that’s not what I expected of the prophet! Nor what Naaman expected. He is furious. Surely the “great man” is insulted. He’s not used to be being received as such, or rather not received. He is a general who keeps company with kings.
And he had it all worked out in his head, how the interaction with the great prophet would go. He says, “I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy” (2 King 5:11). He had imagined his moment, anticipated it, hoped and longed for and believed in it. But this? Go take a bath? In the Jordan? (It’s large in our imaginations, but in actuality the Jordan river wasn’t very big…) The puny little Jordan river? Are you kidding? And Naaman goes off in a huff.
Fortunately for him there are servants. It is the servants, the nameless, status-less servants, who save Naaman. First a slave girl who tells him of the prophet. Now his servants who talk him into taking the prophet’s advice. “My father, if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, you would have. How much more when he tells you something easy?” (2 Kings 5:13, alt trans). So he goes down to the Jordan and dips himself in the water seven times.
The “great man” had to “go down” (2 Kings 5:14). He had to physically lower his strong warrior’s body down into the water. Into a small river. Seven times, over and over again. Maybe he was taller than it was deep? Maybe he had to sort of awkwardly kneel or lie down to let the water cover him completely?
Whatever the scene, though, the ending is clear. “His flesh [is] restored and [becomes] like that of a young boy” (2 Kings 5:14). And Naaman is healed. Just as Elisha said he would be.
Prophets speak. They often act too, but even their actions are forms of speech, enacted ways of speaking to God’s people. So it makes sense to pay attention to speech in this story of the prophet Elisha. And speech unfolds here in unexpected ways.
The most unexpected of which is that Elisha the great prophet, the one who delivers the word and healing of Yahweh himself, Elisha never speaks. Never. Only two verses in the whole story even render his words, and neither is direct speech; they are messages sent by others, one to the king, the other to Naaman. Elisha in this story is a mute prophet.
The “great men” of the story, the kings and Naaman the general, they speak. But the speech of the great men, not unexpectedly, accomplishes nothing. Their speech transfers responsibility; the kings declare their inability to heal and ask others to do so. Their speech causes confusion; the kings almost start a war. Their speech misunderstands; the king of Aram misunderstands who can heal, the king of Israel misunderstands the other king’s intentions, and Naaman misunderstands Elisha’s command. The speech of great men fail to bring healing, fail to bring change, fail to bring hope.
But it is the servants whose speech is effectual. Servants deliver all the good news. The speech of slaves brings healing into reality. Elisha’s messenger delivers healing instructions to Naaman. Naaman’s servants get him into the water, they command the resounding double imperative, “Wash and be cleansed” (2 Kings 5:13). And the slave girl, her speech is the most striking, and important, of all.
She who is captive in a foreign land has mercy on her captor. She remembers the faithfulness of Yahweh and has faith in his prophet to bring healing. She who is nameless and marginalized, the least powerful person the narrative, she is the one who remembers and speaks hope into reality.
“Oh that, would that, if only…,” she says (2 Kings 5:2). The Hebrew is subjunctive, a funny little tense of speech that speaks “contrary to fact.” According not to what is, but what could be, maybe… “Oh that, would that, if only my master would see the prophet!” (v.2). Her simple remembering, her simple wistful utterance is what sets the whole story in motion. The hopeful speech of a slave girl saves Naaman.
My job here today, our job as we speak to each other as brothers and sisters, is not to deliver great truths or solutions. That is the job of the prophet speaking the word of Yahweh, the Father; it’s the job of the Holy Spirit enlivening Scripture; it’s the job of Christ within and among us sharing himself: the Word of life. Our job is more like that of the slave girl:
“Oh that, would that, if only!”
It is wistfulness. It is speaking the unlikely thing. It is foolishness. It is contrary to fact. It is hope despite all the evidence. It is defiant prayer.
If only! peace would come in Afghanistan. In east Africa. In the slums of Asia and the neighborhoods of North America.
If only! the cancer would disappear.
If only! the addiction would release its grip.
If only! I could love, really love the Lord my God with all my heart and my neighbor as myself.
Oh that, would that, if only!
We speak. To remind ourselves and each other that the world we see is a shadow side, that there is another reality, another kingdom at work in the world, breaking in around us. We speak to call it into being. We speak to hope. We speak to create that which is not yet. Jesus’ reign is “contrary to fact.”
And our other job is: to listen. To listen for the word of God. To listen to the word of God. To listen to the word of the prophet, to the word of the servants who are delivering the word of God to us.
Who are those servants in our lives? Are they, like those in the story, the marginalized, the poor, the unnamed, the ones whom we fail to notice, fail to care for, fail to remember? Who are our servants, bearing the word of God to us? Dare we listen to them?
But back to Naaman the “great man.” Because he is important, I think, for us.
You see, we are, if you will, “great men” too. We make our home in a region with one of the highest levels of education in the country. I get letters every so often from the people selling the fancy condos down the street encouraging me to move in, where I can mingle with the up-and-coming, best and brightest, the now and future doctors and lawyers and professors, the movers and shakers of American society, right here in Chapel Hill. We are citizens of the most powerful, richest nation in the world. Our daily security rests on the might of the American military and the bloated influence (if not concrete value) of the American economy. We might not be decorated warriors, but we are over-educated, protected, and wealthy. We are “great people,” and we have a lot in common with Naaman.
And great people have a lot to lose.
I have long been fascinated by, drawn to, and, quite frankly, terrified by the Mary song sings in Luke’s gospel after she learns that she will give birth to Jesus. It is a song of reversal. She speaks of God “lifting up the humble” and “fill[ing]the hungry with good things.” But she also tells of God “scatter[ing] the proud,” “[bringing] down rulers from their throne,” and “[sending] the rich away empty” (Luke 1:51-53). It terrifies me because, when I’m honest, I have few illusions about where I stand in that list. I fear that Mary foretells my downfall. And no one wants to fall.
Naaman didn’t want to fall. He wanted to be healed, but he had a pretty clear idea of what that would look like. Elisha, the great prophet, knew both what healing word Naaman needed and how he needed to hear it. Yahweh’s healing word involved a literal stripping of Naaman, of all his prestige and honor and privilege. No great ceremony, not even simple hospitality. Just stripping down and placing his needy body in the water.
But here it is: the really good news. Naaman’s downfall, difficult as it was for him to accept and participate in, humbling and circuitous and unexpected—it’s so easy! So absurdly… gracious. He just takes a dip in the river. “Wash and be cleansed” (2 Kings 5:13). That’s all. It must have felt good, after all that riding and negotiating and tension, to strip down the layers of impressive clothes and armor, to float in the Jordan. The swirl of water around his body, the touch of cool of water on skin, on open sores.
It’s all so strikingly, amazingly—gentle. Thrillingly gentle. A great man scourged by a disease of deep physical, psychological, and social significance—and all he has to do is go for a swim.
The process of getting there is hardly simple and straightforward. It is a rambling little story. But in the end, Naaman receives a gracious, lovely, even easy word from God. Naaman was a great man prepared to do great things to be free, but all he had to do was receive.
Here is a warning as we approach the word of God—we should be prepared. We should probably be ready for a cross. The kingdom of God is marked by nothing if not reversal. The hungry are satisfied. The weeping laugh. The poor inherit the kingdom and all its riches (Luke 6:20-23). But there is a flip side to the reversal and God’s way of being in the world involves bringing things down. We should remember that there will be death involved before new life comes. We are “great ones” in the world by anyone’s measure, and we, likely, will be brought low. God’s word involves divesting. We will, like the great man Naaman, have to “go down” (2 Kings 5:14).
But don’t be too nervous. The good news of Naaman’s story is not only—as if it weren’t enough—that he receives healing. The good news lies too in how he is healed. Gently. Easily. “Wash and be cleansed.”
For God’s ways with his children are full of kindness and great love. And in the end, they may be just as gracious, just as gentle, as going down for a swim.