We find in the tale of Naaman the Syrian a masterfully told narrative. Immediately upon reading, we are caught up in the plot, or the problem. There is a great man, honourable man, strong man, but he has contracted a disease. However, the word for leprosy used here is not the worst kind that would separate him from everyone. It may have been something so simple as eczema or psoriasis, but any skin disease was considered suspect because after all it could be leprosy. Then we have a shock: an un-named slave girl suggests the cure. What is even more shocking is that Naaman listens to this unnamed slave girl.
The cure lies in the power of a prophet in Israel. The prophet is unnamed, but we know who it is because we have already been reading about the miracles of Elisha in chapter 4: he causes the widow’s oil lasted longer than it should have, he raises the Shunammite woman’s son, he purifies some poison stew, and he feeds 100 people with very little food, we the readers have no problem believing that Elisha can cure Naaman’s leprosy.
But there is this one little problem. Israel and Syria do not have a good relationship, if you turn over to chapter 6 you find that Syria and Israel are at war. How in the world will a commander of the army of Syria (Aram), march into Israel and ask for healing? He does it with dignity and pomp and circumstance and lots of money, like any VIP would do. Surely the king of Israel won’t turn down a load of money. 10 talents of silver A talent could weigh anything from 50-80 lbs and silver today is worth about $225 a pound. 6,000 shekels of gold would be 150 lbs of gold, gold is worth about $400 a pound today, and 10 changes of clothes in a day when most people wore their clothes until they rotted off of them. But the king of Israel takes it as a trick.
Meanwhile Elisha knows what is going on and sends a servant and says to send Naaman to him that ‘he may learn there is a prophet in Israel’. What does the VIP expect when his chariot and his entourage stops at Elisha’s door? The red carpet? Flashing paparazzi photography? Of course. After all this is the treatment that commanders receive. Instead he gets nothing but a servant, possibly a slave to deliver the healer’s message: go dip in the Jordan river seven times. And he has a righteous fit. I’ve tried to think of a similar situation and what I thought of was Donald Trump with all his money arriving at a tribal shaman’s house asking for a cure. It looks this ridiculous. And then for the healer to send a servant? That is dishonourable. This means the prophet is not even giving him the time of day to see him. This is when you have stage 4 cancer and your oncologist sends a medical assistant to give his or her orders, and you never see the doctor. But his servants see the heart of the problem. It’s just too easy. If it was difficult, would you have done it? Of course you must give a difficult task to a hero in order to make the story sell. Perhaps he will kill a giant with nothing but a slingshot, or take on the 12 tasks of Hercules that start with killing a lion, and killing the nine headed dragon… Perhaps he will have to fly a fight plane through a trench and make a precise shot to destroy the death star, or take the one ring and throw it in the fire of mount doom, At very very least he should have to lift a heavy hammer and defeat his evil brother.
Naaman hoped for such a task, instead he is told to dip in a dirty river. Talk about anticlimactic! For instance: would the so called Oklahoma river-that we know is really the Canadian make you clean? No, it might give you Ecoli. And everyone knows that Syrian’s rivers are much better than Israel’s little stream called the Jordan. His servants persuade him, just as the servant girl persuaded him to try this in the first place. He is clean, he is cured, he rejoices and wants to worship the God of Israel, which shows not only is he physically healed but spiritually as well. Elisha won’t take payment and Naaman wants dirt, probably because he believed that gods were geographically located and if he had Israel’s soil perhaps Israel’s god would give him favour. But there is a subtle message in the fact that he brought with him gold and silver and took back dirt.
In the story of Naaman, God has turned everything upside down. Social conventions, status quo, the responsibility of kings and governments, and in the midst of this we even ask ourselves the question of who has the right to health care? The story is even more topsy turvy for us, because a Syrian is a powerful man and the Syrians we know are now refugees wondering the earth. But this story addresses the issue of the nobody as the Syrians wander the earth. Who had the power in this story? Well God of course, but who has the voice of God, the authority? The servants. God’s cure is given in grace, not with difficult tasks to complete. And God has absolutely no respect for the boundaries, geographical, social, political, and economic that we humans erect.
Surely, the boundaries that we place around God’s love cannot and will not hold God back.
Jesus refers to this story in Luke 4 when he addresses the synagogue in his hometown
“Truly I tell you,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown. 25 I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. 26 Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. 27 And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.” 28 All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. 30 But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.
Is it any wonder they wanted to throw him off the cliff?