Exploring the Scripture
Elisha was different from his predecessor Elijah. Elijah was solitary and spent time in the wilderness. He was alternately fearless in confronting idolatry and injustice, and fearful, hiding in self-doubt and self-pity. Even so, he was faithful to his calling. His prophetic voice accompanied God’s fire, and at the end of his life, he ascended in a whirlwind.
Elisha, on the other hand, spent his time with the people. He interacted with the guild prophets and we seldom hear him confronting injustice and idolatry. His was a quieter, more personal ministry, often involving healing and counseling the king.
Today’s text is a story of healing. Naaman was an Aramean army commander, responsible for the victory in which King Ahab of Israel was killed. Naaman suffered from leprosy. A captured Israelite slave girl—a non-person of no value in that culture—brought the good news of the possibility of healing by Elisha.
When Naaman told the Aramean king, however, the ruler was not listening well. He arranged for Naaman to travel to Israel with a fortune in gold and silver to ask King Jehoram of Israel to heal him, not Elisha. Surely, wealth and power would bring a cure.
When Jehoram heard the impossible request, he thought it was a military trap, brought by the very commander responsible for his father’s death. Jehoram seemed unaware of the prophet who could fulfill the demand. Jehoram tore his garments in despair as a symbol of death and mourning.
Elisha heard of the king’s dilemma and sent for the foreigner, Naaman. But when the commander came, Elisha did not deal with him directly. He sent a messenger to Naaman commanding him to wash seven times in the Jordan to be cleansed of his leprosy. Naaman was insulted Elisha did not come personally, and angry that no grand gesture was involved in the cure. He could not believe God would work through seemingly average people in ordinary acts.
Naaman is upset by the instruction to go to the Jordan, a river traditionally viewed as a symbol of separation between Israel and its neighbors. For a person from Aram to immerse himself in the Jordan was to accept the cultural symbolism and meaning set in a religion alien to the Arameans.
Again, it was marginalized people in his household who urged him to obey the prophet. Because of his servants’ loyal encouragement, Naaman overcame his cultural bias, pride, and arrogance. He found the humility and courage to bathe in the Jordan.
God met Naaman’s need in that strange encounter, and Naaman was cleansed. He also found new trust in the God of Israel. Naaman declared, “…there is no God in all the earth except in Israel” (v. 15). Naaman’s grudging obedience led to his healing. But the healing led to a soul-shaking confession of faith.
Naaman’s cleansing in the Jordan foreshadows the coming of John the Baptist and his ritual of baptism for the remission of sins. Jesus himself used Naaman as an example of God’s inclusive grace and mercy when he preached in the synagogue of Nazareth: “‘… There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian” (Luke 4:27); that is to say that none were cleansed except one who was not Jewish.
God extends grace to all people, regardless of their nationality or religion.
- Often it is those with no power in common circumstances who have the wisdom and insight to perceive how God is acting in the world.
- Material advantages such as wealth, position, and status do not parallel spiritual leadership.
- God’s acts in our lives are complex and seldom match our expectations about when, how, and where those actions will occur.
- God’s grace and healing mercy are extended to all, regardless of race, nationality, or religion.
- Experiencing God’s love and power may lead to a confession of faith.
Questions to Consider
- When did you sense God acting in the world in a way that changed all your expectations?
- When did you receive spiritual insight and wisdom from someone marginalized or socially invisible?
- How do you respond to those who are different or strange when they come seeking God? Why? How would Jesus have you respond?
- How does this story relate to your understanding of the sacrament of baptism?