Monday, March 16, 2009

Go Bathe In The River Seven Times, And You Will Be Healed.

Naaman was the commanding general of the armies of the King of Aram. He was held in high esteem, because under his leadership, Aram had won great victories over its foes. Unfortunately, Naaman was afflicted with a serious skin disease. It so happened that among the housemaids of Naaman’s wife was a young girl from Israel, who said to her mistress, “Oh, if only the master could meet the prophet of Samaria, he would be healed.”

When Naaman learned of this, he went to the King and told him what the Israelite girl had said. “Go to Israel then”, said the King. “I’ll give you a letter of introduction to the King of Israel.” So off he went, taking with him gifts of silver and gold, as well as ten fine ceremonial robes.

Naaman presented to the King of Israel this letter: “By these presents, you will know that I have sent my servant Naaman to you, to be healed of his disease.” When the King read the message, he was terribly upset, “Do they think that I have power over life and death, and can command that this man be healed? Or is the King of Aram trying to start a war against Israel?”

Elisha, in Samaria, heard what was happening, and sent word to the King, “Send him to me, and he will learn that there’s a prophet in Israel.” So Naaman and his retinue went up from Jerusalem to Samaria to meet the prophet. When he got there, Elisha sent him this message: “Go down to the River Jordan and bathe your body in the river seven times, and you will be healed.” Naaman was furious, “I thought he would come and meet me face to face, and call upon the name of his God, wave his hand over the diseased spot, and heal it. The rivers in Damascus are a lot cleaner that any river in Israel. I should go home and bathe in them. At the very least, I’ll get clean.”

But his servants came to him and said, “If the prophet had asked you to something extraordinary, wouldn’t you have obeyed his orders? So, why not this simply “Go bathe in the river, and be cleansed?” So he did it. He went down to the Jordan, and bathed in it seven times, on the orders of the man of God. And his flesh became as smooth of as a baby’s skin, and he was good as new.

He went back to Jerusalem, he and his retinue, and said, “Now, I know that there is no God on earth, except in Israel.” (2 Kings, 5:1-15)

Jesus spoke to the people in the synagogue at Nazareth: “Let me tell you something: No prophet is welcome in his home town. There were many lepers is Israel at the time of Elisha the prophet, but the only one healed was Naaman the Syrian.” When the people in the synagogue heard him say this, they were furious. They threw him out of town, and took him to a hilltop at the edge of the village. They intended to throw him headlong from the cliff. But he gave them the slip, and went on his way. (Luke 4:-24-30)

In Nazareth, Jesus was recognized a teacher, and he was called “rabbi”. It was not uncommon for him to make references to the Scriptures, and cite them in his teaching. Jesus also was known as a healer, a wonder worker. So, it is not surprising that he refers to the story of Naaman’s healing in his teaching to the people of his home town.

One aspect of the story I find especially interesting is the attitudes and reactions of the characters. The Israelite servant girl expresses simple faith and trust in the healing power of God. The King of Israel, on the other hand, is furious, and suspicious that the King of Aram is just looking for a fight. Naaman is disturbed that he had to come to the Jordan, when he could have taken a dip in the Abana or the Pharphar. Water is water, after all, and besides, the waste water treatment plants in Aram are more effective than those in Israel.

Especially significant, it seems to me, is the role that servants and slaves play in this drama. It was a serving girl in the household of Naaman’s wife who suggested that her master go to Israel to be healed. It was the servants that accompanied the general who persuaded him to follow the prescription of the prophet. It often seems, in both the Hebrew Scriptures and in the Gospels, that the needy, the oppressed, the poor have better access to God than the people of means and privilege, perhaps because we tend to place our confidence in ourselves, and leave little room for trust in God. “Blessed are the poor in spirit”, said the Teacher, “for the Kingdom of God is theirs.” And it is evident from the gospel stories that it is more likely that the “poor in spirit” are also “poor indeed”.

Which brings us to the gospel! Jesus, who, in the words of Saint Paul, left his lofty place at the right hand of God and became a slave, challenges us, “Anyone who wishes to be great among you must become the servant of the others”. He chides the people of his home town for their lack of faith. He points out that widows, orphans, foreigners, even enemy generals, were healed by the prophets because they placed their faith, their trust, in God. It is too much for them! They drive him out of town and try to throw him off the cliff the town is built on!

There is a scripture in which Jesus says to one of ten lepers, “Your faith has healed you”. But, if we look closely at the context, we must consider fate of the other nine, who were not healed. Our faith cannot be in our own gifts, or in our ability to use the gifts God gives us. If that were the case, the King of Aram and the King of Israel would have been able to work wonders all by themselves, by using the power they possessed. No, what is needed is trust. “If you want to, you can heal me”, said another leper in the gospel. God wants each and every one of us to be spiritually healthy. On the other hand, Jesus also chooses to share the redemptive power of physical and emotional suffering with his sisters and brothers in this life, “in atonement for our sins, and those of the whole world.” “If this is the way you treat your friends …” (Do you ever wonder what Teresa's tone of voice was? I sure do!)

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