II Kings 5:1-14
The Syrian general Naaman was in big trouble. He had contracted leprosy, and the disease would be fatal. In the course of it, he would also find himself cut off from contact with others as what we would now call a public health measure. It would mean permanent quarantine. A man in his position probably would not be driven away into the wilderness, as happened to most lepers. People with his kind of power and prestige were treated slightly better. In Israel, when King Uzziah was struck with the disease, he could not stay in the palace, but they built him a separate house [II Kings 15:5] and his son Jotham ruled as regent until his death. Essentially, though, he was kept in isolation until he died. That might have been the best that Naaman could have expected – permanent solitary confinement on an aristocratic death row.
Word of his situation got around his household. His wife and his servants could see what was going on. After all, it was a disease that showed up on the skin, and eventually it would not be able to be hidden. The king had become aware of the situation already, too, and would not let Naaman stick around indefinitely, though he may have been reluctant to lose the service of someone who apparently was an effective officer. During the short window of time before it became public knowledge, Naaman must have become desperate. He grasped at straws, taking the recommendation of one of his wife’s slaves, a girl taken captive in Israel.
“She said to her mistress, ‘If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! [That would have been Elisha.] He would cure him of his leprosy.’ So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said. And the king of Aram said, ‘Go, then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.’” [II Kings 5:3-5]
So off went a sort of combined military and diplomatic expedition that showed up on the doorstep of the king of Israel, ordering Naaman’s cure. The king of Israel figured that this was a setup to provide a pretext for another invasion. He couldn’t cure this man, but if he disobeyed his overlord’s order then he risked punishment.
Enter Elisha, who heard about things and sent a message saying that he could take care of the situation. Naaman was sent on his way. He arrived at Elisha’s house with his horses and chariots [II Kings 5:9], and here’s when it got interesting. To this point it has been a story of politics. It’s about to become a story about faith.
Elisha left Naaman outside. He didn’t receive him. He didn’t greet him. He did send a servant out, who told Naaman to wash himself seven times in the Jordan and then go home. [II Kings 5:10] It’s a borderline insult, and Naaman took it as more than borderline. He was not being treated in the fashion to which he had become accustomed.
“Naaman became angry and went away, saying, ’I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy!” [II Kings 5:11]
That little “for me” says a lot. He figured he deserved special treatment. It was not enough to be blessed with life and health. He had to be recognized as the powerful, mighty Naaman! Who is this Elisha, and who is this Elisha’s God, to be so unimpressed?
It was a good thing for Naaman that his servants understood how to manage and how to handle him. You get the feeling this was not the first tantrum that he had thrown. They protected his fragile little ego, and talked him into going along with the process.
“Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean?’” [II Kings 5:13]
What they didn’t see is that Elisha had, in fact, asked him to do something difficult – at least for Naaman. That was to accept God’s gift as something unearned, as what we call “grace”. God would (and did) bless him, but it would not be because God was impressed with Naaman’s riches and power, but because God was aware of his need.
There was even a need that Naaman didn’t see. Left to progress, his leprosy would cut him off from human contact, but Naaman’s pride had already turned to arrogance toward the people around him and, left to progress, would lead him to turn away from the God who could restore him not only physically, but in relationship to those people and to God himself. On God’s behalf, Elisha had presented a true challenge to Naaman: “Get over yourself.” Only then would there be a real cure, both body and soul.
I submit to you that this is a challenge we all face. We all have to learn, one way or another, to accept God’s love at face value, pure and simple, when so much of the world tells us that what matters is our wealth or our achievement or our beauty or our intelligence or how many friends we have – pick your measure of self-worth. None of that is any measure of our God-worth. That comes from God alone, and if there is any kind of requirement for us to be restored to our fullest being, that requirement is to trust God and to take the love that he offers, a love so entire that Jesus lay down his life so that we could be enveloped by it.
When Naaman gave up on impressing anybody, he was cured.
When we accept God’s gift of grace as a gift, our life in Christ, our real life, begins.
On July 16, 2011, in St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, people had gathered from all across Europe for the funeral of Otto von Hapsburg. The service was presided over by the Archbishop of Vienna and there was a full orchestra. At the end they sang the “Kaiserhymne”, the Austrian equivalent of “God Save the King”. Soldiers in ancient uniforms picked up a coffin covered with a flag embroidered with his complicated coat of arms and in a cloud of incense hundreds of people lined up behind it to process on foot to the Capuchin monastery where the imperial crypt is found.
As had happened before at the funerals of his predecessors, when they arrived they found the front door closed and locked. The Master of Ceremonies knocked three times. A voice came from inside.
“Prior: Who desires entry?
MC: Otto of Austria; once Crown Prince of Austria-Hungary; Royal Prince of Hungary and Bohemia, of Dalmatia, Croatia, Slavonia, Galicia, Lodomeria and Illyria; Grand Duke of Tuscany and Cracow; Duke of Lorraine, Salzburg, Styria, Carinthia, Carniola and the Bukowina; Grand Prince of Transylvania, Margrave of Moravia; Duke of Upper and Lower Silesia, of Modena, Parma, Piacenza, Guastalla, of Oświęcim and Zator, Teschen, Friaul, Dubrovnik and Zadar; Princely Count of Habsburg and Tyrol, of Kyburg, Gorizia and Gradisca; Prince of Trent and Brixen; Margrave of Upper and Lower Lusatia and Istria; Count of Hohenems, Feldkirch, Bregenz, Sonnenburg etc.; Lord of Trieste, Kotor and Windic March, Grand Voivod of the Voivodeship of Serbia etc. etc.
Prior: We do not know him.
(The MC knocks thrice)
Prior: Who desires entry?
MC: Dr. Otto von Habsburg, President and Honorary President of the Paneuropean Union, Member and quondam President of the European Parliament, honorary doctor of many universities, honorary citizen of many cities in Central Europe, member of numerous venerable academies and institutes, recipient of high civil and ecclesiastical honours, awards, and medals, which were given him in recognition of his decades-long struggle for the freedom of peoples for justice and right.
Prior: We do not know him.
(The MC knocks thrice)
Prior: Who desires entry?
MC: Otto, a mortal and sinful man.
Prior: Then let him come in.”