Sunday, October 6, 2013

The Difficult Leper

“But Naaman was angry, and went away, saying, ‘Behold, I thought that he would surely come out to me, and stand, and call on the name of the LORD his God, and wave his hand over the place, and cure the leper’” (2 Kgs 5:11).

Naaman is a non-believing foreigner who finds himself in dire straits and turns to the God of Israel for help. A great, powerful commander of Syrian armies, he is described as a man of valour who has God’s favour, but also a leper. In the narrative of the Bible, he is not just a sick foreigner, but unclean. His life is a study in contradiction because he is revealed as both beloved and cursed by God, his life embedded in a narrative bigger than himself.

Naaman learns of the great prophet Elisha from a girl he has kidnapped in a raid against Israel, and is sent by the Syrian king to the king of Israel to be healed. Naaman brings with him treasure and a letter from his king. He has nothing else except his belief in the holy man he’s heard about from a slave.

At first, the king of Israel freaks out, thinking the Syrian king has sent him Naaman as some kind of horrible dare: obviously, he’s trying to start a fight because I am not God and I can’t cure this man.  The funny thing about kings of Israel is that they rarely think about their own prophets.

Luckily, Elisha hears about Naaman, and tells him to come on over so that he’ll know there’s a prophet in Israel.  Naaman comes with his entourage and stops at the door of Elisha’s house, expecting great things. Like, great, explosive, amazing things, that make him feel as special as he believes he is and end with his being cured of leprosy.

Imagine his disappointment when Elisha sends out a messenger to tell him to bathe in the Jordan seven times and be cured. Naaman is angry because he thinks he rates a prophet and not a messenger. Because he thinks he rates a spectacular, Technicolor cure but instead is handed a simple task he has to do himself. He is important, and Elisha has made him feel small. He stomps off in a huff, going back to his own country.

You should check out the story for yourself, found in 2 Kings 5:1-14: there is 100% more nudity in the Bible version than mine (not really).

Naaman’s disappointment is a human one: his problem is so big, so all-consuming, and so life-defining, of almost mystical importance, that he won’t feel satisfied with a simple solution. The solution needs to be complicated, involved, and big – as big as the problem. How do you let go of something that has consumed you when the solution has no psychological resonance? You’re stuck holding the ragged ends, saying to yourself, ‘Was that it?’ A weird problem-hangover besets you…can you accept the answer that doesn’t look big enough to be an answer? How do you deal with the fallout of having suffered for so long when solving the issue turns out to be no big deal?

When our problems are big and complicated and consuming, we want big and complicated solutions. We’re looking for a kind of balance between the problem and the answer, a weight and counterbalance. How can something so simple be a solution? It’s much easier to believe in the big, messy, epic solution than in the easy one.

Naaman doesn’t believe in the solution, not at first. He is indignant, insulted: how dare you think that my problem isn’t big and real and in need of a big and real remedy? How dare you make fun of me as if I am to be trifled with? My problem will not be solved through childish, simplistic gestures.

Luckily, his servants (being cleverer than him, as servants so often are) see through his touchy feelings: “My father, if the prophet had commanded you to do some great thing, would you not have done it” (5:13)? Hearing them, Naaman goes down and dips himself seven times in the Jordan, and is made clean (5:14).

Sometimes it’s difficult to see the glory of what God is offering us because it hides in the small things, dwarfed by the struggles we live with, and we are too busy thinking we know what God’s work looks like to recognize it when it isn’t what we expect. Naaman certainly doesn’t see it.

He doesn’t see the presumption of a high-ranking officer from a neighbouring country asking a foreign God for healing – all he sees is his own power. But here, through Elisha, the God of Israel proves His might and mercy to one not chosen to be among His people.

He doesn’t see the irony of a Hebrew prophet offering healing to a man who represents their oppressors – a king strong enough to order their sovereign about. Naaman is part of an historic drama played out in the way God responds to His people’s infidelities, and Naaman does not know it.

Naaman sees an un-respectful and unconventional prophet, but he does not see his own disrespect: arriving at Elisha’s home, he sits upon his chariot and doesn’t move, expecting to be waited upon.

Told to bathe in the Jordan, all Naaman sees is its unworthiness compared to the mighty rivers of Damascus. He doesn’t know the history of these waters; that they are holy; that to enter them is to come into the promised land given to the twelve tribes whose stones are sunk in its depths; that to bathe seven times is to emerge a new creation. Naaman doesn’t see it because he’s too caught up in his idea of what a miracle should look like.

Sometimes, when living with depression, we wait for a miracle without actually doing anything about getting one. Like Naaman, we sit on our chariots, content to wait for God to come to us. But God seldom does exactly what we expect Him to do, especially when we just expect God to know what we want and give it to us.

Sometimes we’re all too eager to try the grand gesture in the hope that our depression will be cured, like climbing the stairs to St. Joseph’s Oratory on your knees (what they don’t mention in the promotional pilgrim material are all the tiny little rocks).

Sometimes we’re too caught up in looking for the Big Fix to see what God is actually offering us. Like Naaman, we have to learn to see beyond our preconceived notions and embrace the messengers God is sending us.

Wrapped up in depression and our own personal narratives, it’s easy to forget that our lives are part of something much bigger and that God’s work in our lives actually isn’t all about us. Naaman’s healing, while it obviously helps him, is more about God than it is about him. Naaman’s miracle is for the sake of God’s glory, that he – and those who hear of him – may know there is a prophet in Israel (5:8).

Naaman’s transformation is more than skin-deep: he returns to the prophet humbled, getting down off his chariot and eager to bring God’s power back to his homeland (5:15-19). God’s healing does not merely remove illness: it transforms lives. Like Naaman, we are called for God’s purposes. Like Naaman, we are called to recognize God’s work in the seemingly unworthy message from the unlikely messenger, that we might give our lives more fully over to Him in faith and trust.

Listening to God can be as easy and as difficult and going down to bathe in the Jordan. But we have to learn to swallow our pride. We have to learn to let go of our expectations. Getting to the Jordan means going through the desert, and it is never possible without God’s help.

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