Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 3, 2022
2 Kings 5:1-14 Commentary
Martin Luther King, Jr., once preached a sermon on this text from 2 Kings 5, and I’m grateful to Richard Lischer for calling attention to it in a lecture he gave while working on his book The Preacher King. In the classic style of preaching that Dr. King so well embodied, he picked up on one part of this text and used it as a broader lesson for all of us to learn. The sermon was titled “Great . . . But” and was punctuated by the refrain “Now Naaman was a great man . . . but he was a leper.”
From there the sermon pondered what constitutes true greatness and the ways by which it is so often true that short of having a right relationship with God, it can be said of any one of us that we may be great in the eyes of the world, we may be great in the eyes of society, we may be great in the world of commerce, or we may be great in amassing worldly power to ourselves . . . but there will always be co-existing with that greatness something to pull us down, something to make our greatness just less than so great after all.
Indeed, this whole story is fraught with tensions between who’s really powerful and who is not. Naaman is a great man but . . . he can do nothing without the help of a lowly servant girl. This was a girl who was doubly or triply disadvantaged in that she is but a girl, she is a slave, and she is in a foreign land to which she had been carried off as some of the spoils of war. To say she has no status is to say not just the merely obvious but the incredibly obvious. Yet when this lowly one sees her master suffering from the cruel torments of leprosy, instead of sniffing the air with a sense of satisfaction that this man who had captured and enslaved her was getting his just deserts, she actually reaches out to him and recommends someone who can help him and probably heal him.
Naaman then goes to his king who in turn writes a letter to Israel’s king based on the apparently mistaken idea that Israel’s king could himself effect this healing (or he at the very least would surely know who could do so). But when Israel’s king gets the letter, he proves to be as spiritually clueless as Ahab and other recent monarchs had been and so has no idea to whom the letter might be referring and so becomes convinced it’s a trick designed to get him in trouble with the king of Aram. The king of Israel was a great man but . . . he did not know the Lord or who was really who in God’s grand pecking order. He did not know, as Elisha will say, “that there is a prophet in Israel,” that God was on the loose, that there was a power active in Israel that no political might or social prestige could hold a candle to. When the king throws his little hissy-fit over all this, Elisha takes over and has Naaman come to the house of the true prophet in Israel.
I like to picture Elisha living in the Ancient Near Eastern equivalent of a run-down looking mobile home out in some overgrown field somewhere. Today you would not expect the presidential motorcade to come roaring up to such a trailer in the middle of nowhere replete with police motorcycles, flashers flashing, sirens blaring, Secret Service cars, and the presidential black limo itself. But that’s kind of what we see in 2 Kings 5: Elisha lives in a hovel in front of which suddenly roars up Naaman’s whole entourage of horses and chariots and what-all-not. Probably he had some trumpeter herald his arrival even as servants unrolled a strip of red carpet for Naaman to walk on after regally disembarking from his chariot.
But then—just to keep this interplay between the lofty and the lowly going a bit more—we are told that Elisha just sends a messenger to tell Naaman what to do. The trumpet blares to announce the great man’s arrival, he walks to Elisha’s front door on the red carpet, but then . . . the door opens a crack and some lowlife servant peers out over top of the door’s security chain to tell Naaman to go to the river to wash seven times. And no sooner does the mealy-mouthed little servant say this and he quickly re-closes the door.
Naaman is furious! What an insult! What a slight! This guy is a five-star general. He is the one who is supposed to send intermediaries to people on the lower rungs of the social ladder. The folks down there are not supposed to send him second-tier messengers and servants. Naaman wanted Elisha himself to come out and do a little song-and-dance routine, recite an incantation or two, make a big show of it all. But instead Naaman gets dismissed from the premises without even seeing the prophet in person and is told to do the unlikely-to-be-helpful thing of taking a bath in a muddy river. Naaman could feel the multiple infections setting in already once that mucky Israelite river water seeped around his open sores.
Now Naaman was a great man but . . . he is still hung up on his own pitiful and pathetic power and prestige. He is at the mercy of Almighty God for his healing and God works through the lowly of the earth but Naaman has not yet got that figured out.
So Naaman stalks off in a huff only to once again be brought back to reality by a lowly servant who points out that had Elisha told Naaman to whistle a tune while eating soda crackers or some other gimmicky thing, then Naaman surely would have done it had healing been the reward for the stunt. So what’s the big deal about taking a sevenfold dip in a river?! The servant got through to Naaman who stops off at the Jordan River after all. But I still imagine that Naaman griped and muttered his way in and out of the river seven times with dark musings along the lines of “This won’t work. This can’t work. This is stupid,” passing his pouting and pursed lips.
But, of course, it does work and so in the end it’s the words of the lowly that help Naaman, not the words of the high and mighty (himself included because had it been up to him, he would have ridden clear back to Damascus in a snit). By the time Naaman arrives back at Elisha’s place, the prophet is sitting on a rocker on the front porch looking rather wistful. Naaman is a changed man. The leprosy is gone, but so is the attitude.
At the end of verse 14 we are told that Naaman’s skin got restored to the skin of “a young boy.” Probably it was similar to the skin of the young servant girl who had sent him to Elisha in the first place. It’s a picture of conversion in its own way, of restoration not only of body but of soul and of heart. But it’s also a reminder that we never know just how or why God is going to do what he does.
Why does this foreign general—who works for a nation that is Israel’s enemy and that will soon besiege Israel yet again (cf. 2 Kings 6-7)—why does he warrant all this attention and this great healing too? We don’t know and we’re not told. But it is a reminder that God is often at work among people and in ways we don’t at first suspect: lowly servants and simple acts like taking a dip in a dirty river can sometimes lead to surprising outbreaks of God’s power. Indeed, God’s power can break through to us from such surprising quarters sometimes that our whole world gets upended in the process and we see people—and ourselves—in a whole new way.
Jesus once said, “Whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.” Naaman was long gone, dead, and buried by the time Jesus uttered those words. But you get the sense that if he heard such sentiments from Jesus, Naaman would know exactly what the Lord was talking about.
In our North American society, image is everything, money talks, power rules, and so most people don’t bat an eye over advertisements for cars, clothing, and BBQ grills that promise that this is the product that will help you reach the next level. In 2003 the Range Rover SUV ad simply said, “Higher Ground.” That’s all it needed to say because the presumption is that what life is all about is power, is climbing higher, reaching that next level of sophistication and elegance.
Most people, if they are honest, admit that they like power, they like influence, they like perks. According to Robert Caro, in the mid-twentieth century, the United States Senate was a haven for power-hungry men in love with prestige. Senator Carl Hayden of Arizona was known to enter the Senate cafeteria and lay his cane on whatever table he chose to sit at for lunch. Often that chosen table would already have a clutch of secretaries or Senate staffers sitting there eating, but everyone knew that if Hayden laid his cane on your table, you had all better be gone by the time he returned with his lunch a few minutes later.
Most Senators also insisted that when they wanted the elevator in the Senate Office Building, they wanted that elevator immediately! To let elevator operators know that it was a Senator waiting, the Senator would buzz the elevator’s call button three times. When that signal was heard, the operator was to skip all other stops (even if others already in the elevator needed a certain floor) and pick up the waiting Senator without delay. Once when Senator McCarran of Nevada heard the car pass him by after he had rung three times, he turned on his heel, stomped back to his office, called the Sergeant-at-Arms, and ordered the hapless young elevator operator fired on the spot (which he was).
Of course Robert Caro has been writing principally about Lyndon B. Johnson for the last 40 years and LBJ was himself an artist in the exercise of political power. Johnson was tall enough that he could tower over most people, bend them backwards a bit, and give them “The Johnson Treatment,” thumping their chests with his index finger to demand they do what he wanted. And they usually did.
Society tells us that this is what true greatness and power are all about. But is it?
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