This story of the healing of Naaman is another one of my Old Testament favorites. It takes place in the latter part of the ninth century B.C. Ancient Syria, which was then called Aram, had recently won a military victory over Israel, with Naaman as the commander of the Aramean army. Right off the bat, we are told that, “The Lord had given victory to Aram,” which is an interesting line all by itself. The God of Israel had allowed the army of a foreign nation to defeat the chosen people. According to the Israelite understanding at the time, no foreign army could defeat Israel unless it was the will of Yahweh, Israel’s God. The message is, that in allowing this defeat, Yahweh had some larger purpose in mind, and the healing of Naaman proves to be that larger purpose.
At some point during the earlier conflict, a young Israelite girl was captured and set to work as a servant in Naaman’s household. Eventually, the conflict ends, an uneasy truce is established between the two countries, and Naaman has time to turn his attention to personal issues. It seems he was plagued by some type of irritating skin disease, which the ancient world called leprosy. When Naaman’s servant girl learns of his illness, she is convinced that Israel’s great prophet Elisha would be able to cure him. She suggests to her mistress that she tell Naaman about the prophet, which she does. Naaman, then, decides to give it a shot. He asks the king of Aram for leave to visit Israel, and receives a letter of introduction from his king, instructing the king of Israel to “cure him of his leprosy.”
Now imagine that you’re the king of Israel. You’ve just been defeated by Aram, and now the king of that country sends you the commander of his army politely suggesting that you heal him. How do you think you would react? The king hits the roof. He tears his clothes, an ancient symbol of grief and anguish. He loudly laments that he does not have the power of life and death, and states, in no uncertain terms, that the king of Aram is just looking for an excuse to start the fighting all over again.
Fortunately, Elisha hears about it. He tells his king, “Not to worry. Send Naaman to me,” and Naaman, with his entire entourage, “his horses and chariots,” proceeds to Elisha’s house. Now clearly, the commander is a very proud man. He expects to be greeted like the foreign dignitary that he is. Elisha, however, can’t be bothered. He sends out a lowly servant to deliver his instructions: “Go wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.” Naaman is deeply offended. He had expected the great prophet himself to come out and provide a show; wave his arms around, call upon the name of his God, perhaps some fireworks, a little lightening and thunder. But no. None of that. Just, “Go wash in the river.” Naaman storms off in self-righteous indignation muttering that he can just as easily take a bath in the rivers of his own country.
Eventually though, his rage subsides and his servants are able to reason with him. “If the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, wouldn’t you have done it?” What a great line. As I said, the commander was very proud. Apparently, he thought that doing something simple would be an affront to his manhood. But when he calms down, he decides, “What the heck. Nothing else has worked.” He goes and takes a bath in the Jordan River. Lo and behold, he is cured of his leprosy, and ends up praising Yahweh. “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.”
And when he said, “in the earth,” we need to understand that he was speaking literally. One of the ancient beliefs, you may know, was that the gods of a particular people were literally attached to the land of their people. Think of the line from the psalm, which was used in the play Godspel,about the Israelites who had been taken into exile in Babylon. “Our captors mocked us saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion,’ But how can we sing the Lord’s songs in a foreign land?” What they believed was, when they were taken into exile, they not only left Israel behind, they also left Yahweh. Or when Naomi encouraged Ruth to return to her homeland after her husband, Naomi’s son, had died. Ruth refused to leave. In a beautiful act of loyalty, she said to Naomi, “Where you go, I will go. Where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” If Ruth had wanted to remain faithful to the god of Moab, she would have had to go home. This idea, that a god was attached to a particular place, was very common.
That’s why, when Naaman experiences the healing of his leprosy, he makes a request which, to us, just sounds weird. “Please let two mule-loads of earth be given to your servant; for your servant will no longer offer burnt offering or sacrifice to any god except Yahweh.” Apparently, Naaman planned to take the very soil of Israel, to which he believed Yahweh was attached, back to Aram in order to set up a little shrine in the heart of his homeland. Standing on the dusty earth of Israel, he had come to the conclusion that God was, literally, in this place and no other.
Now isn’t that interesting. Naaman was probably as close to what we would call a cosmopolitan person as the ancient world had. He had seen many countries. He had defeated many armies. All of these countries had their own god, or gods. Yet, none of these gods had proved effective in protecting their people. Naaman’s soldiers had rolled over them all – including Israel. It’s not hard to imagine him deciding that there wasn’t much point in believing that any one religion was any better than any other. Especially when we consider his personal troubles.
But … he had a disease. We have no idea how long had he been plagued with leprosy? Again though, it’s not hard to imagine him tossing and turning in bed, or scratching away in public at embarrassing moments, feeling the discomfort, the social stigma, trying every home grown remedy he could get his hands on, and, of course, praying to any or all of the various gods he had come across. When we don’t feel well, if it goes on long enough, eventually we’ll try just about anything. In a book called, “Leaving Church,” Barbara Brown Taylor tells a story of a time when she got scratched in the eye by a tree branch. She spent hours in the emergency room in excruciating pain. Nothing seemed to help. Now, Taylor is a very sophisticated pastor and theologian, but in the middle of the night, she was so overwhelmed with pain she said, “I found myself praying to a God I don’t even believe in.”
What causes a proud man to seek out the help of some broken down old prophet from a defeated nation? You can bet Naaman was at his wits end. He found himself praying to a god he didn’t even believe in. And when, finally, he happens upon some relief, is it all that surprising that he would cling to the very soil of the land from which he thought his healing had come? Maybe this ancient belief isn’t so far-fetched after all.
I remember an experience I had when I was in the Coast Guard. All these years later I am very grateful to have been in the service. It taught me many lessons that have served me well over the years. At the time though, it was very difficult for me to see it as a good thing. After three years of active duty, I had just about had all I could take. I was impatient, angry and depressed much of the time. With more than a year remaining, I had about as bad a short-timers attitude as anyone could have.
I can’t say what it was that caused me to turn to God. I grew up in the church of course, but it had been a long time since God and I had been on anything like speaking terms. As I said though, when we don’t feel well, if it goes on long enough, eventually we’ll try just about anything. So, hesitantly at first but with increasing energy, I began pouring out all my anger, frustration, and impatience in prayer. I had no idea how furious I had become until I began praying. Then it all just came tumbling out. I’m not sure exactly what I expected. I don’t think I would have been surprised if I’d been struck by lightening. But instead, I was gradually enfolded in this amazing sense of peace. I had turned to God with anger and frustration, and what I got back was love, acceptance and grace. When Paul talks about the “peace that passes understanding,” I believe I know what he meant.
After that, I went out to a little shop and bought a necklace with a cross on it. To me, that necklace became the symbol of my having found God, and for a while, I treated it pretty much like Naaman’s two mule-loads of earth. I wore that cross day and night for about two years. Part of me was afraid to take it off, which eventually became a problem because it started turning my neck green. I was never one for expensive jewelry. Right about that time, I had a dream. I was walking down the street and I couldn’t catch my breath. I realized that the chain I was wearing around my neck was choking me. I took it off, held it in my hand, and suddenly realized that I didn’t need it anymore. The faith that I thought resided in my necklace had become the faith of my heart and my life. The cross was no longer something I needed to wear around my neck. So, I put it in my pocket, took a deep, refreshing breath and kept walking down the road.”
As funny as Naaman’s two mule-loads of earth may sound to you, the fact is people do the same thing every day. We experience God in a particular way, or a particular place and we become superstitious about it. That place becomes sacred in and of itself. We may come to believe that the God we experience in that place is attached to it. We may go so far as to believe that God is in that place and no other. There is certainly nothing wrong with this. We attach our religious faith to particular people, places or religious artifacts because it is through these things that we have come to know God. This is part of the development of true faith. But ultimately, if we are to continue to grow in faith, we have to get to know the God who stands above and beyond and behind all our particular experiences. Ultimately, we need to realize that God is bigger than any place we can go, any cross we can wear, any creed we can write, or even any one religion. The place of God is not only our place. The people of God are not only our people. The word of God is not found only in our scriptures. God is bigger than that.
Humanly speaking, it is always a challenge for us to honor what we hold sacred without dishonoring what is held sacred by others. There is a wonderful tradition in the Hindu faith, which I really love. Greeting one another, two Hindus will put their hands together, bow to one another and say “Namaste.” Namaste roughly translates as “I acknowledge the god I experience in you, and I invite you to acknowledge the god you experience in me.” Isn’t that wonderful? This tradition embodies such a profound respect and humility, that I find myself wanting to share in it. It is always a challenge to honor the things that we take to be sacred, without dishonoring what is held sacred by others.
In this story of Naaman, it’s so interesting to me that he almost, almost, allowed his pride to get in the way of his own healing. He was almost too big and important in his own mind to acknowledge that God might be larger than he had previously imagined. There’s a wonderful story about an elephant that went on a rampage. He broke loose from the herd and charged across a little wooden bridge that stretched across a ravine. The worn out old bridge shivered and groaned barely able to support the elephant’s weight. Once it had gone safely to the other side and calmed down, a flea that had lodged itself in the elephant’s ear stuck out his head and looked around. The flea looked back and proclaimed with mighty satisfaction, “Boy, you and me sure shook the heck out of that bridge didn’t we!”
Though it doesn’t always come easily to us, a little humility can be a wonderful thing. Certainly, God is in the places we hold sacred. But just as certainly, for those who have eyes to see, God is present in all people and all places.