by Linda McMillan
2 Kings 5:1-14
We are all doing the best we can, and that’s enough.
I have a collection of rocks from some of the places I’ve been. If the place was special to me, I may have a whole bowl full of stones, shells, even twigs from that place. Why do I do it?
My grandmother used to take a few stones from the ranch and place them on the tombstones of her father and mother. Why? What is it about moving a stone from one place to another?
I know a man in Burma who brought stones back from Mecca and gave one to each of his nieces and nephews. Why? To what end?
A friend in California has a jar of dirt from her home in Ireland on her desk. She once told me that it keeps her connected to home. Dirt? Really?
I suspect that everyone has done something similar. Maybe you were at a special place and you reached down and picked up a stone and put it in your pocket. You might not have even thought much about it, but at a later time, it would become a reminder of that time and that other place.
It’s not so different from what Naaman did after he was healed of leprosy.
As a quick recap: Naaman was a rich and powerful Aramean, a highly placed soldier. He had had the good luck of firing the arrow that killed King Ahab of Israel, thus making him one of the Aramean King’s favorites. He was the ultimate insider.
Yet, despite Naaman’s insider status, and his wealth, and his power, and all the things that go with those things… despite everything, he had a skin condition which could have made him an outsider: Leprosy.
The Bible makes this story about war heroes and kings, but there is no part of it that could have happened without slaves, foreigners, women, and servants.
The first one we meet is a slave girl from Israel. She somehow let it be known that there was a prophet in Israel who could heal Naaman.
On the basis of the slave girl’s statement, Naaman went to Israel, found Elisha, and then refused to do what Elisha told him to do. Here is the thing about people of privilege: They are not used to altering their expectations. Naaman had conjured up some idea of what he thought would happen when he met Elisha, and when that didn’t happen he got mad and refused to follow the instructions relayed by Elisha’s servant. Basically, Naaman thought he was just too good to be healed — at least to be healed that way, by the word of a servant.
We’ve met the foreign slave girl and the foreign servant of the foreign prophet, and after all this foreignness, and all these people who were of lower status, poor Naaman still had leprosy and he was feeling foolish for having gone all the way to Israel just to be treated like… well, like dirt.
But, don’t worry. More servants will save the day by having a quiet talk with Naaman and convincing him to go dip himself in the Jordan River seven times as instructed. You can almost hear them say, “What have you go to lose? We’ve come all this way. Just give it a try.”
Naaman went to the Jordan River, dipped himself seven times and he was healed.
That is where the lectionary readings for today end. If you read down a little further, though, you can see how Naaman is kind of like the rest of us when it comes to moving around stones and dirt. He asked Elisha if he could take some dirt with him when he went back to Aram. Naaman didn’t just want a souvenier jar full. He asked to take back as much as he could get in his two wagons. He said he needed the dirt because from then on he would only make sacrifices to the God of Israel.
Elisha, who is now making an appearance, granted the request. And, then Naaman did something maybe some of you have done. He asked for forgiveness in advance. He confessed to Elisha that he would continue to bow to the God Rimmon when he went into the temple of Rimmon with his master. It was a sort-of, “I’m going to do it. I don’t think you’ll like it, but go easy on me.”
Now that is a mess, isn’t it? On the one hand, Naaman wants to worship the God of Israel, he makes plans to do it by gathering the dirt for an altar as a remembrance of this day and his healing. On the other hand, he intends to go on bowing to the other God.
One might think that Elisha, being the successor to the great Elijah, would have seen this as a teachable moment and given poor Naaman some instructions on the art and practice of monotheism. But, no. Elisha simply said, “Go in peace.”
He surely saw the difficulty in Naaman’s plan. After all, you can’t worship the one Lord God and another God too. But, Elisha just sent him away in peace.
This should comfort those of us who may not be doing religion “right,” or who may be confused about the whole God enterprise. There is the question that the Samaritan woman at the well asked Jesus, “Should we keep worshiping here on Mt. Gerizim, or should we go to Jerusalem and worship there?” Jesus says not to worry about that, but to worship in spirit and in truth. Today Elisha is saying something similar, “Worship where you are, in the way that you know… God will sort it out.”
Christians have been quick to burden ourselves with buildings, rituals, belief systems. Some of that may be helpful, but what Elisha is saying today is that if it sometimes doesn’t make sense, even if one belief contradicts another practice… Well, “Go in Peace.”
Linda McMillan lives in Shanghai, China.
Image: By Anonymous – ULB Darmstadt, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23962607
Notes of Possible Interest
Naaman’s disease was not the kind of leprosy we think of today. It could have been any kind of skin disorder. It may have been painful, or itchy, or just ugly. We don’t know. What we do know is that it was serious enough that Naaman wanted to be healed.
Rimmon means pomegranate, so I can’t imagine what kind of a god that must have been. Most probably, though, either a Sun God or something to do with the solar system. In any event, it was not Yahweh.
If you’re interested in the exact value of Naaman’s gifts to Elisha (which Elisha turned down) you might find this article interesting. Naaman probably used Babylonian Talents which would have been worth about 30 kilos each. Quite a lot. But, the weight of a talent varies over time, and in different places too. I think it’s too tricky for me to make a good guess.