July 7, 2019
When the powerful become powerless – J. Barry Vaughn – July 7, 2019
The story of Naaman the Syrian is one of the most powerful stories in the Old Testament.
Naaman was a man of enormous power and high status. The text tells us that the “commander of the army of the king of Syria, was a great man with his master and in high favor, because by him the LORD had given victory to Syria. He was a mighty man of valor…” In other words, Naaman was chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. But listen again to one phrase: “the Lord had given victory to Syria…” I’ll bet if you had asked Naaman he would have said that he had been victorious because of his superior skill. The narrator is signaling to us that Naaman is about to be given his come-uppance.
But powerful as Naaman was, he had a secret problem that could undermine his whole life, a secret that would take away his power and prestige. He is like a presidential candidate who has been treated for depression or whose wife has been a member of the Communist party. Or maybe he just secretly speaks French and writes poetry! In Naaman’s case, he is a leper.
Now, leprosy in the world of the Bible was not Hansen’s disease, the terrible disfiguring disease that we’ve read and heard about. In fact, it is not at all clear exactly what kind of disease Naaman had. But in his time and place, just about any skin disease could be called leprosy. The problem was not the disease itself; the problem was that it made him religiously unclean and being religiously unclean undermined Naaman’s status. To be religiously unclean meant that he could not participate in worshiping the Syrian gods, and that was not just a religious duty, it was also required of all those who were part of the ruling class or party.
Naaman doesn’t just need physical healing; he needs to be saved. The problem isn’t just his health; the problem is his life.
The word we translate as “healing” means more than just physical health. It means to be made whole in every way – physically, mentally, and spiritually. Naaman’s whole life is at stake.
Salvation, health, healing comes to Naaman from the most unlikely place. Naaman’s wife’s maid is a slave. Now, a slave in the ancient world was not like a slave in the 19th c. South. In the ancient world one usually became a slave because of two things: being in debt or being a prisoner of war. Naaman’s wife’s slave was a slave because of the latter condition. She had been captured in Syria’s war against Israel.
So Naaman’s wife’s servant, this slave, this prisoner of war that Naaman had captured, says, “Would that my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.”
In other words, salvation comes to the oppressor from the oppressed. Even though slavery in Naaman’s world was different from slavery in the 19th century South, that was often the case in the antebellum South. The slaves, the African captives who had been cruelly kidnapped, forced into slave ships and transported thousands of miles in unspeakable conditions, embraced the Christian faith of their captors, when they should have felt nothing but rage and hatred and contempt from those who had deprived them of freedom, of their very identity, and even of their humanity. It was from these very captives that we continue to learn the power of Christianity, the power of the Cross, the power of Jesus, to free us, to heal us, to make us whole, and to save us.
When we sing the songs of these captive Africans we learn what they had learned, namely that even in darkest despair, there is hope:
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
During Dr. King’s voting rights’ march from Selma to Montgomery, a group of Episcopalians organized an informal service of communion right in the middle of one of the streets in downtown Selma. They sang “were you there when they crucified my Lord?’ but they added a new verse: “Could you tell whether he was black or white?”
But back to Naaman…
Naaman the powerful, Naaman the prestigious, Naaman the captor is saved by the word that comes from his captive: “Would that my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.”
And so he goes as she has suggested to Samaria. Now Samaria meant the northern kingdom of Israel.
Naaman went to the king, the same mistake that the magi would make when they went to mad, bad King Herod seeking “one who has been born king of the Jews.”
The powerful think that only the powerful can heal them, and they also think that salvation is a transaction.
So Naaman is told to go to Elisha but he still thinks that healing is a transaction. He wants to pay for it and so do we.
The theologian Frederic Buechner said that the meaning of grace is this: There is NOTHING you have to do to be saved; there is nothing YOU have to do to be saved; there is nothing you have to DO to be saved.
But we want to do something! We want to believe that we have agency, control, but the truth is that when it comes to the most important things in life, the last things, the ultimate things, the things having to do with life and death, we actually do not have control. We cannot give life, and we cannot prevent death.
Also, we live in a world in which we believe that everything has a price, everything can be sold and bought, so we believe that if something is free, then it is really of no value. But what price can we put on the love of a spouse and our children, a beautiful sunset, a nighttime sky full of stars? These things are both free and of infinite value.
And again, the saving word comes from an unexpected source, “But his servants came near and said to him, “My father, if the prophet had commanded you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much rather, then, when he says to you, ‘Wash, and be clean’?”
The simple act of washing in the Jordan was more difficult for Naaman than giving Elisha “ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments.”
Where do you or I see ourselves in this story? Do we see ourselves as Elisha, a prophet, powerless when it comes to military, political, or economic might but possessing a word of great power, a word that can bring wholeness and healing?
Perhaps we see ourselves as one of the servants, insignificant and powerless, but able to speak truth to power, to point others in the right direction.
Or do we see ourselves as Naaman? Powerful but needy, prestigious but in need of healing and salvation that no amount of money can bring us?
I want to tell you a story about a man who was a little bit like Naaman.
Dwight Eisenhower was a man of great power and status. He had commanded the Allied forces in Europe in World War II. He was the mastermind of D Day, the invasion of Normandy that brought the war in Europe to its conclusion. And finally, he was President of the United States. And I believe he was a great president. He not only built the interstate highway system; he also led the US during the first phase of the Cold War against the Soviets and their client states.
But Eisenhower was a little like Naaman. He also had a secret that could have threatened his power and status. Eisenhower’s family were Jehovah’s Witnesses. They were members of a small, obscure, and unpopular religious group that is sometimes said to be a cult. Although Eisenhower never formally joined the Jehovah’s Witnesses, he kept his family’s association with it a secret for fear that it might be used against him.
So when Eisenhower was elected president he had never been baptized. It was only after he became president that he went to a Presbyterian church in Washington, DC, and received the sacrament of baptism. Like Naaman, Eisenhower was sent to the water to be washed. He wasn’t sent to the mighty Mississippi or the historic Nile; he was sent to a bowl of plain water. The minister who baptized him did not perform some elaborate ritual, but rather, like Elisha, the minister was a man with no political, military, or economic power. All he had was a commission from God to pronounce the words, “I baptize you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” It was a word that can neither be bought or sold.
I wonder what that was like for Eisenhower? I wonder if he also felt powerless and helpless like Naaman?
Ultimately, whether we are as powerful as Naaman or Eisenhower or as powerless as the slave girl from Israel, all of us have to confess that we are powerless, that we cannot help ourselves, that our only hope is in God. We must kneel in God’s presence and acknowledge that our only hope in life and death is the power of God to make us whole.