Fourth Sunday After Pentecost, July 7, 2019
What is the miracle of the story of Naaman? Is it the healing of his leprosy? Is it the aversion of war with Syria? Is it the conversion of a man from the worship of Syrian gods to the worship of the one true God of Israel? All of these things happen in this story. Naaman does go down into the river Jordan to wash seven times, and his flesh is restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he is clean. He does leave Israel in peace, even though at first he becomes angry and leaves Elisha in a rage. And he does become a devoted servant of the one true God, saying to Elisha, “I shall never again make burnt offerings and sacrifices to any other god but the LORD.”
All of these are wondrous events, but they are not, as it were, the heart of the story. The heart of the story—like the heart of anything—is not perceptible and is, therefore, easily missed. It comes in that space between question and response, when Naaman’s servants hold up a mirror for him, and he takes a good, hard look at himself:
[Naaman’s] servants approached and said to him, “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’?” So [Naaman] went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan.
Naaman was a mighty warrior: great, highly favored, victorious. Close your eyes and imagine what he must have looked like as he approached first the king of Israel and then Elisha’s house: I see him heavily armored, riding a large horse or driving an armored chariot, surrounded by a host of soldiers and servants, girded with all the trappings of power and wealth: ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. I can see how the king’s heart must have frozen with terror as Naaman approached, how he must have felt trapped by the Naaman’s request, how he grieved the only outcome he could imagine.
Naaman was a proud man. He takes great offense when Elisha sends out a servant to tell him what to do to be healed. He becomes angry and leaves in a rage. What he wants is for Elisha to make just as much a show of healing as Naaman made in his request. He wants Elisha himself to come out of the house, call upon God—perhaps with some complex and mysterious incantation—and wave his hands dramatically over Naaman’s decayed flesh. Naaman is an imposing and important man, and he wants to be treated that way. It offends him that his cure should be so simple as to bathe in so unimportant a stream as the Jordan in so unimportant a kingdom as Israel. He wants his cure to be as impressive and imposing as he is.
“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’?” So [Naaman] went down and immersed himself.
That space between question and response holds Naaman’s miracle. To be sure, it was a well-crafted question. “Father,” his servants call him. By appealing to the more tender role of protector of his retinue, the servants lower his defenses so that he can hear the truth embedded in their question: “If the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it?” This question lays bare Naaman’s pride. It strips him down to who he actually is before God so that he can receive God’s healing. Only after Naaman is stripped of his pride, can he be stripped of his armor and washed clean of his disease in the Jordan.
That inner transformation is the miracle that makes all of the outer transformations—the healing, the peace, the worship—possible.
Thomas Merton wrote, “Humility consists in being precisely the person you actually are before God, and since no two people are alike, if you have the humility to be yourself you will not be like anyone else in the whole universe. But this individuality will not necessarily assert itself on the surface of everyday life. It will not be a matter of mere appearances, or opinions, or tastes, or ways of doing things. It is something deep in the soul.” (New Seeds of Contemplation)
Being precisely the person you actually are before God is a much deeper calling than “Be yourself.” It penetrates our own armor of respectability, reputation, carefully curated Facebook identities, self-deception, and all of the other things that we put between ourselves and God—or ourselves and each other, for that matter. It even penetrates the armor of “good” things that we think we have to load ourselves up with before we feel worthy to stand before God. Things like piety, prayer, regular scripture reading, perfect attendance at church, moral uprightness, wisdom, courage, faith, hope, love.
Yes, we want and need all of those things. But God grant us the grace to stand—like Naaman—naked and defenseless before God and be healed. Amen.