Compare and contrast. A favorite learning method of all teachers and professors. Take two items; find what is similar between them and especially what is different. By examining how two things are alike and particularly unlike, the student discovers truth through the process of identifying similarities and variances. If the world consisted of reality that was all of one hue and texture, then hue and texture become meaningless and learning is a stagnant process. But when there is disparity then real learning is possible. Without pain we would never understand the concept of pleasure.
One of the most compelling ways through which we learn God’s truth as it is offered to us through the written Word is by examining passages of Scripture with our lens of comparison and contrast fully engaged. Few passages offer a more ideal opportunity to engage this learning technique than the one before us in 2 Kings 5:1-14. With this discovery tool in hand, we move into this familiar Old Testament story.
Naaman. A commander of the army of the country of Aram, a bordering area to the northeast of Israel. Today this country falls into the area belonging to Syria; then like today Damascus served as its capital city. Then, like today, the two countries were often at war with one another. Naaman is strong leader of a strong nation. He is a “great man” and “highly regarded.” Yet already we see a surprising contrast: the biblical writer specifically points out that this army chief from a pagan country had arrived at his successes because the Lord, Israel’s God, had given him victory. But the more dramatic contrast is yet to be revealed. This valiant warrior, who in the Hebrew text is literally “lifted of face,” is startlingly given another descriptor: leper! The word jars us. The man whose face was lifted up with respect was bowed by shame. The stigma of leprosy was strong in biblical times. To have this malady was to be disgraced and, for many, to be outcast. The man Naaman, whose name meant “pleasant” was ugly.
Hardly before this striking contrast has time to settle into our mind’s eye, another contrast pours out of the storyline. A raiding party had entered Israel and had come back with a prize, a young maiden. This girl was given to Naaman’s wife as a servant. But this girl is far from helpless and powerless. She serves a God who is strong enough to allow Naaman to win battles and is strong enough to erase the dishonor that the honorable Naaman wore on his face. The little girl gives a would-be command to the great commander: Go see the man of God in Israel; he will make you whole. The faith of the simple servant girl. A faith so innocent and so bold that stops the army commander in his tracks.
Naaman knows his options are few. Why not heed these words of the Israelite. Could her promise of healing be based in truth? What did he have to lose but the curse he wore every day? He goes to his king and his king writes a letter to Israel’s king. The letter asks if Israel’s king might tend to the matter with Naaman. And with the letter comes the anticipated payment for this leprosy reversement. Money, literally tens of thousands in today’s currency, and clothing fit for a king. These two kings provide comical relief in this otherwise gripping story. They are cut from the same cloth. One thinks he can buy the miracle of healing and other, so engrossed in his own self-preservation, sees this letter as a pretense for war! Neither of them understand the dynamics that the simple servant girl understands and that Naaman himself will soon understand.
Now enters the true hero of this story, the man almost larger than life. Elisha: the man of God! While his own king worries about his own hide, Elisha carries with him the word and the power of almighty God himself. These petty kings know nothing of true authority. But Elisha does. He served well under Elijah, the great prophet of Israel in the years before. And Elisha, requesting and receiving a double portion of Elijah’s prophetic influence, would go on to prove through word and deed that One alone is worthy of honor. That is Yahweh, the God of Israel. With a word, he ends his king’s anxiety and takes on himself the situation of this foreigner named Naaman. The worried king; the calm prophet.
Naaman travels to the house of Elisha, with all the pomp and circumstance a military leader could muster. The humble abode of Elisha stands in stark contrast to the marital parade outside his door. Elisha is not impressed and simply sends word through a messenger. Mighty Naaman: Go wash yourself in the Jordan River and your problem is solved. Your stains will be washed away. Simple words for a mighty problem. Naaman is not impressed. Why would the prophet command him to wash in a filthy river to rid himself of this own filth. This was sheer disrespect! He would not humble himself in this way. His pride was too strong, even stronger than his disgrace. He would not!
Go or stay? Follow the command of the man of God or follow your own will? Allow God to heal or stubbornly stay sick? Quite a study in contrasts here as we look into the mind of Naaman.
Then another set of characters leap into the scripture and the servants of Naaman, just like the servant girl to Naaman’s wife, save the day. They carefully but confidently persuade their master to follow the words of Elisha. Again, what could it hurt? And what alternatives did he really have besides?
So the great Naaman, goes to the dirty, distasteful river and allows his strong warrior body to be enveloped by the waters. The miracle is hardly found in the Jordan itself lest we make this a story of magic. The true miracle is found in the simple decision of Naaman to heed the words of the prophet, to let go of his pride, and to find healing for his troubled skin but more so for his troubled soul. Indeed in the verses that follow we see Naaman understands quite well what happened when he first saw his skin like that of a young man again. He knew the God of Elisha was the God he must serve above any king or any other god. His skin had been washed but most importantly his soul was cleansed from the inside out.
So what is the main point of this passage? What is the great truth that we should preach? We could talk about the servant girl’s simple faith in the midst of commanders and kings, and our many opportunities to do the same. Or we could talk about the lack of spiritual discernment in the kings of Israel and the placement of prophets at the right time to continue to share God’s words with his people, and our openings to share good news with people around us today. We might settle in on Naaman’s physical healing and understand that God is still able to heal our diseases today. We could learn that every person, no matter how confident and strong they seem on the outside, always has something they wish they could change or erase. We could teach about free grace that cannot be purchased with the highest of prices. We could even preach the message that God desire all people regardless of nationality and background to come to him. Indeed Jesus used this very passage to teach a message about God’s wide-ranging love for all humanity. These are all themes found in the Naaman episode.
But maybe the greatest message of all from this passage is the simple truth that God still calls people who are disfigured by the ravages of sin to humble themselves before God and allow him to cleanse them from the despair and hopelessness that sin always breeds. Maybe this story, like so many in the Bible, is a retelling of the central story of God’s word: For God so loved the world… The answer to our deepest need will always and only be found in God’s command: Go wash and be made clean! But instead of washing in the River Jordan we are told to be washed by the blood of the Lamb of God himself. His suffering, dishonor, disfigurement becomes our balm and indeed our life.
Sin and salvation. The ultimate contrasting pair of words. Faith and grace. Despair and hope, Pride and humility. They are all found here in Naaman’s story. They are part of our story today, everyday, every person. The optimism of grace rings clear like a church bell, from Naaman and Elisha to us. Be cleansed, by healed, be whole: body, soul and spirit.