Rev. Jay Rowland
First Presbyterian Church, Rochester MN
Texts: 2 Kings 5:1-14, Galatians 6:1-18
Compared with, say, Moses or David or Esther, Naaman is a lesser-known character in the Bible so I thought it might be good to unpack this passage from 2nd Kings. There’s a great deal going on there.
Naaman is Commander of the military forces of Aram--modern day Syria. So the first thing to know about him is he’s not an Israelite--not one of the Chosen People. He is a decorated warrior and commander. His success on the battlefield has earned him fame, fortune and the loyalty of his king.
And this is why Naaman's story is worth some reflection. Most cultures, certainly our own, are deeply invested in what I call the warrior myth. Naaman fits the warrior archetype: he leads men into battle and returns victorious. He has conquered every foe, perhaps even death on the battlefield. We don’t know anything about Naaman’s life prior to his appearance in 2 Kings 5. But it seems clear that his valor on the battlefield has elevated Naaman to nearly god-like status.
In spite of all that, Naaman has a serious problem which is identified almost as an afterthought at the end of verse 1: “The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy."
The term “leprosy” usually comes footnoted in the Old Testament to explain that the Hebrew word can refer to a variety of different skin afflictions--including the worst one of all, actual leprosy. We don’t know which one afflicts Naaman. All we know is that this mighty warrior and commander is suffering, not from combat wounds or even what we now call post-traumatic stress, but from leprosy. [see Endnote]
On the battlefield, Naaman is a conqueror. He has successfully navigated combat with all its carnage, chaos and brutality. He commands and leads men in battle. Many to their death. He has authority, actual power over others. But none of that is of any use against leprosy.
The influence of the warrior archetype upon culture can be seen whenever it’s presumed that fighting is the only response to anything we cannot bear, such as illness or any threat to our existence. For example, when someone is “fighting cancer” or “fighting for their life” (or “lost their fight with” some illness). On a larger scale, we have waged wars against communism, poverty, drugs, and lately against terrorism, none of which has yielded.
Whenever “we” declare that by sheer force of willpower, we can defeat any problem that’s a clear example of the warrior myth at work.
It has been a very destructive myth, at least in my lifetime. We have invested trillions of dollars in the warrior myth since WW2, most recently in VietNam, then again in Iraq & Afghanistan post 9/11. We have no clue what to do with our warriors off the battlefield. We’ll root for them wherever they’re deployed but after they return, do little/nothing to equip them for the transition back to “normal” civilian life. For every warrior who successfully adapts from battlefield to home-field, multitudes do not. Yet the warrior myth persists.
Jesus is the antidote, the antithesis, to the warrior myth. The outcome he seeks is connection never conquest. Jesus lives (and died) to connect us to God, to each other, to creation. The mightiest forces of this world conspired to oppose him, discredit & shame him, then kill him. Even so, Jesus opposes these mortal enemies not with force in return, but rather with spiritual resolve to keep both his humanity and his divinity intact--come what may. Jesus refuses to use force to overthrow the Roman occupation of Israel, thereby draining the warrior myth of its lifeblood. Jesus understood that using “any means necessary” to accomplish any positive outcome will ultimately corrupt the outcome.
I would venture to guess that Jesus knew the story of Naaman quite well. In particular, the fact that even though Naaman doesn’t “know” or even worship God, God knows Naaman and cares about him.
The sound of Naaman’s reputation precedes him as he and his entourage invade Elisha’s quiet, hobbit-like neighborhood. No need to ring Eilsha’s doorbell the whole town knew who was coming. When the procession halts at the entrance of Elisha’s house, you can almost hear the thunderous horsepower grind to a halt.
Elisha responds to Naaman’s show of power by sending a messenger out to meet him.
The Great and Mighty Naaman is insulted. Warrior Naaman had assumptions about how this was going to go, “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! …” (2 Kings 5:11)
Nope. Elisha sends a messenger (I would not want to be that messenger!). This messenger bravely gives an order from Elisha to Mighty Warrior and Commander Naaman:
“Go wash in the Jordan seven times.”
Naaman is enraged. He fumes: “Are not the Ab’ uh-nuh and the Phar-par, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters here in Israel? Could I not wash in THEM and be clean?” Naaman storms off in a rage. (2 Kings 5:12)
I believe that’s what’s known as “righteous indignation”. Notice: where does Naaman’s righteous indignation get him? Disconnected. And alone.
Most of us find it hard – if not impossible—sometimes even unacceptable – to give up control especially when our future is on the line. Like Naaman, we have expectations about how life is supposed to go. Even when life goes wrong, even then we likely have expectations about how that’s supposed to be resolved. Like Naaman we become righteously indignant when our expectations are not met. We invest a great deal of energy into controlling things beyond our control, which often disconnects us from the God who brings light out of darkness, order out of chaos, life from death.
In a crisis, perhaps our greatest barrier to resolution is our expectations. Too often, like Naaman, our expectations wall us off from support. In a crisis, expectations can quickly disrupt our connection with God and God’s community at a time when we need more of both.
When we’re preoccupied with who we think we’re supposed to be or how we expect things are supposed to go, we leave no room for Who God Is. It’s so easy to get stuck living out some image we have of ourselves, which we may have forged from long, lonely hours of fighting some enemy all alone, all by ourselves, in the darkness. And where does that battle get us but more and more isolated, lost, and disconnected from the God in whose image we are created.
Even so, God’s love comes through.
See how God’s love prevails, how it comes to Naaman first through a Hebrew servant girl (2Kings5:3)!, then, after he rejects the gift handed to him in the prophet Elisha, through the wisdom of his own servants who, at the risk of offending him and drawing his wrath, boldly say (paraphrasing here), if that prophet ordered you to do something really difficult, you’d do it: if the prophet had said ‘go and fight a hopeless battle, go and lay your life on the line, the odds are against you but just go and do it now and trust that your leprosy shall be gone’ you would do it without hesitation. We know you would … we KNOW YOU. Yet all that was asked of you was, ‘go and wash in the Jordan ’…”
Next thing you know, there’s Naaman in the Jordan river after all. And lo, his leprosy is somehow washed away and with it perhaps some of that warrior image he’s clung to for most of his life.
How could this be? Naaman must have thought, the prophet isn’t even here.
That’s right. The prophet isn’t. But God is. No magic. No drama. Just the mysterious, unpredictable love and presence of God, surrounding him there in the waters of the Jordan River of all rivers. The river he cursed in his righteous indignation. And there, Naaman of all people, Naaman, warrior and demigod experiences the steadfast love of God.
There are times when we must wade into the Jordan, perhaps cursing it all the way, as we leave one reality for another. Whether it’s graduation, job loss, end of a relationship, divorce, diagnosis, or the birth of a child, death of someone we love, whatever it may be. Amid so much uncertainty while it’s happening we feel like we're unraveling. That's usually because we are ... but fear not: God can work with that.
Our faith in Jesus Christ is all about wading into the swift, dark currents of the Rivers Jordan. And, one day, crossing over Jordan. Our faith promises that resurrection is on the other side … of the cross; that the end of one reality is also the beginning of another. We who are the people of the cross find it hard bear, this oft-repeated and inferred phrase and pathway is difficult to see let alone accept. Throughout our life, we will face situations requiring us to transition, to wade into the Jordan. And ultimately we will wade into that river to cross over. Perhaps over time we can and shall learn to embrace these moments, trusting Jesus Christ, the timeless Alpha and Omega, our Beginning and our Ending, wading with us every step of the way into every River. So it is and ever shall be with Jesus Christ as he comes to heal the warrior within us all. May this be so.
 There are many ways and various strains of “leprosy” most all of which seem able to bring “suffering”. I offer the following citation as evidence of the complexity of skin disorders in general and the complex range of leprosy in particular even in our modern era with so many medical advances and advantages (emphases mine in bold),
“… the worst form of leprosy creates extensive involvement of the skin and nerves. The complications that may occur include eye involvement and deformities of the face, hands, and feet. Deformities of the face can result from destruction of the partition in the nose that divides the nostrils (nasal septum) and other facial tissues. In advanced disease, persons with lepromatous leprosy may lose their eyebrows and eyelashes, and the eyelids may become paralyzed so that individuals cannot blink or close their eyes properly. The earlobes may enlarge or become wrinkled. Deformities of the hands and feet may result from muscle paralysis and repeated trauma that is not felt due to sensory loss. The most serious complication of leprosy is the nerve damage that may occur sometimes even after treatment is begun. Much of the nerve damage occurs during a type of immunologic problem … in 25 to 50% of patients during treatment and is … the patient’s own immune system reacting against the dead bacteria that are still in the skin and nerves. Patients with the intermediate or borderline type of disease may get a type of reaction known as reversal reaction, in which there is redness and swelling of the skin lesions and swelling, tenderness, and pain in the nerves of the hands and feet. During this process, nerve damage can occur. … (It) may also be associated with joint disease (polyarthralgia), eye inflammation, and inflammation of the testicles. The second type of reaction occurs only in borderline lepromatous and lepromatous disease, and is known as erythema nodosum leprosum (ENL). There may also be pain and tenderness of the nerves with subsequent nerve damage in the hands and feet. During reactions and at times without any signs of reaction, there may be damage to the nerves of the face resulting in weakness of closure of the eyelids and loss of feeling in the cornea (corneal anesthesia). This can result in corneal dryness and scarring and lead to blindness. Persons with lepromatous leprosy may also have inflammation of the iris and the sclera of the eye, which can lead to visual impairment and, in some cases, blindness.”
NORD National Organization for Rare Disorders, https://rarediseases.org/rare-diseases/leprosy/