Monday, March 8, 2010

Athirst Is My Soul For The Living God.

Monday of the Third Week of Lent
Reading I
2 Kings 5:1-15ab
Naaman, the army commander of the king of Aram,
was highly esteemed and respected by his master,
for through him the LORD had brought victory to Aram.
But valiant as he was, the man was a leper.
Now the Arameans had captured in a raid on the land of Israel
a little girl, who became the servant of Naaman’s wife.
“If only my master would present himself to the prophet in Samaria,”
she said to her mistress, “he would cure him of his leprosy.”
Naaman went and told his lord
just what the slave girl from the land of Israel had said.
“Go,” said the king of Aram.
“I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.”
So Naaman set out, taking along ten silver talents,
six thousand gold pieces, and ten festal garments.
To the king of Israel he brought the letter, which read:
“With this letter I am sending my servant Naaman to you,
that you may cure him of his leprosy.”

When he read the letter,
the king of Israel tore his garments and exclaimed:
“Am I a god with power over life and death,
that this man should send someone to me to be cured of leprosy?
Take note! You can see he is only looking for a quarrel with me!”
When Elisha, the man of God,
heard that the king of Israel had torn his garments,
he sent word to the king:
“Why have you torn your garments?
Let him come to me and find out
that there is a prophet in Israel.”

Naaman came with his horses and chariots
and stopped at the door of Elisha’s house.
The prophet sent him the message:
“Go and wash seven times in the Jordan,
and your flesh will heal, and you will be clean.”
But Naaman went away angry, saying,
“I thought that he would surely come out and stand there
to invoke the LORD his God,
and would move his hand over the spot,
and thus cure the leprosy.
Are not the rivers of Damascus, the Abana and the Pharpar,
better than all the waters of Israel?
Could I not wash in them and be cleansed?”
With this, he turned about in anger and left.

But his servants came up and reasoned with him.
“My father,” they said,
“if the prophet had told you to do something extraordinary,
would you not have done it?
All the more now, since he said to you,
‘Wash and be clean,’ should you do as he said.”
So Naaman went down and plunged into the Jordan seven times
at the word of the man of God.
His flesh became again like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.

He returned with his whole retinue to the man of God.
On his arrival he stood before him and said,
“Now I know that there is no God in all the earth,
except in Israel.”
The central character is Naaman, an army commander from Syria under the king of Aram, probably Ben-Hadad II. He was held in high esteem by his king because of military victories, which the Bible attributes to the power of Yahweh. In the writer’s view, victory is to be attributed to the God of Israel, who is seen as the ruler and controller of the fate of all nations and not just that of Israel.

Now, Naaman was a ‘leper’. The New Jerusalem Bible calls it a ‘virulent skin disease’ because, whatever it was, it does not seem to exclude Naaman coming in close contact with people. In ancient times, real leprosy was, tragically for the victim, often confused with other chronic skin diseases.

Although Israel had concluded a peace treaty with the Aramaeans during the reign of King Ahab, there were still minor skirmishes on the borders between the two states for control of a place called Ramoth Gilead, following a battle in which King Ahab had been killed. It was as a result of one of these skirmishes that a young Israelite girl was taken captive. She would prove the link in bringing healing to Naaman. We could well stop to reflect for a few moments on this young girl. A simple slave, she plays a crucial role in the healing and, together with the austere prophet Elisha, offers a startling contrast to the ostentatious wealth of Naaman, which had no role to play in his being restored to health.

She knew about the prophet Elisha, who was living in Samaria and suggested that her master should go to him for healing. The king gave his full approval for Naaman to go to Samaria and see Elisha and promised to write a letter of introduction to King Joram of Israel. The Syrian king obviously believed that Elisha was subject to Joram and that the prophet’s services could only be bought with a generous gift. Hence the 10 talents of silver (a huge amount of money), 6,000 shekels of gold and 10 festal robes which Naaman brought with him. He thought that God’s gift of healing could only be bought with money.

On the other hand, King Joram is horrified and rends his clothes in despair. His own faith in God’s healing power was so weak that he thought that Ben-Hadad was simply looking for a pretext for war by asking the obviously impossible - the cure of a leper. But when Elisha hears of it, he scolds the king for his failure to consult his prophet.

Naaman now arrives in all the glory of someone in his exalted position with horses and chariots. He will overawe the prophet by his presence, power and show of wealth. He must then have been somewhat surprised to be told by the prophet what he must do. And what he had to do was to bathe seven times in the River Jordan. Elisha clearly indicates that the healing power comes from the power of the God of Israel but only if the general does what he is told by the prophet.

The prophet himself was not strictly speaking a healer. Ritual washings were practiced among the Eastern religions as a purification rite, and the number seven was generally known as a symbol of completeness. Naaman was to wash in the muddy waters of the Jordan River, showing that there was no natural connection between the washing and the desired healing. Perhaps it was also being suggested that one needed to pass through the Jordan, as Israel had done (Joshua 3-4), in order to obtain healing from the God of Israel. (And Jesus, too, would pass through the same waters of the Jordan to be filled with the Spirit of his Father.)

Naaman finds this an affront to his dignity. He expected the prophet to come out to him, simply wave his hand magically over the afflicted spots and effect an immediate cure. Instead, he has to do what he is told by someone he regards as a foreign underling. And what is worse, he is asked to bathe in the Jordan. What was wrong with the rivers that flowed through Damascus - the Abana and Pharpar? The Abana was called the ‘Golden River’ by the Greeks and is usually identified with the Barada River today, which rises in the Anti-Lebanon Mountains and flows through the city of Damascus. The Pharpar River flows eastwards from Mount Hermon, just to the south of Damascus. In fact, the waters of these rivers were hygienically far superior to the muddy waters of the Jordan. But that was precisely the point; it was not the water which brought the healing.

Deeply insulted, Naaman turns round to go home. But his servants plead with him. After all, if Naaman had been asked to do something difficult, he would have done so. Why not obey the prophet when he asks something so easy? Naaman put his pride behind him, goes to the river seven times and emerges with his skin like that of a new-born child. He is both physically and spiritually reborn.

However, we need to be aware, that there is a deeper meaning to the story. Naaman, the Gentile submitting to the command of Yahweh through his prophet, is put forward as a contrast to a disobedient Israel, which still wavered in its divided allegiance to Yahweh and to Baal. God’s blessings are only to be found in total submission to his will and his commands. In today’s Gospel Jesus will bring up this point himself, much to the anger of the Jews to whom he was speaking.

The clear lesson of the story is given in the last sentence when, after being cured, Naaman goes back in gratitude to Elisha and says, “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.”

A minor lesson for all of us arises from Naaman’s indignation at being told to bathe seven times in the river Jordan. Wisdom comes from the slaves in his household, “If the prophet had asked you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? All the more reason, then, when he says to you ‘Bathe, and you will become clean’.”

How often we cannot see God coming into our lives because of our prejudices and blind spots?

It is clear, too, that the true healer is not Elisha nor the muddy waters of the Jordan river but God himself. And the healing is the result not of the washing in the river but in Naaman’s eventual submission and obedience to God’s spokesman.

It was exactly the lack of this attitude on the part of the people of Nazareth (spoken of in today’s Gospel) that prevented Jesus from healing the people of his own town.
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Psalm 42
Athirst is my soul for the living God.
When shall I go and behold the face of God?
As the hind longs for the running waters,
so my soul longs for you, O God.
Athirst is my soul for the living God.
When shall I go and behold the face of God?
Athirst is my soul for God, the living God.
When shall I go and behold the face of God?
Athirst is my soul for the living God.
When shall I go and behold the face of God?
Send forth your light and your fidelity;
they shall lead me on
And bring me to your holy mountain,
to your dwelling-place.
Athirst is my soul for the living God.
When shall I go and behold the face of God?
Then will I go in to the altar of God,
the God of my gladness and joy;
Then will I give you thanks upon the harp,
O God, my God!
Athirst is my soul for the living God.
When shall I go and behold the face of God?
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Luke 4:24-30
Jesus said to the people in the synagogue at Nazareth:
“Amen, I say to you,
no prophet is accepted in his own native place.
Indeed, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel
in the days of Elijah
when the sky was closed for three and a half years
and a severe famine spread over the entire land.
It was to none of these that Elijah was sent,
but only to a widow in Zarephath in the land of Sidon.
Again, there were many lepers in Israel
during the time of Elisha the prophet;
yet not one of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.”
When the people in the synagogue heard this,
they were all filled with fury.
They rose up, drove him out of the town,
and led him to the brow of the hill
on which their town had been built,
to hurl him down headlong.
But he passed through the midst of them and went away.
Both readings today are linked by the story told in the First Reading about Naaman, a Syrian general, who was miraculously cured by Elisha the prophet.

The Gospel is the second part of the scene in the synagogue in Nazareth where Jesus officially announces his mission as Messiah, Saviour and Liberator. The first reaction was one of amazement that Jesus, their townsman, could speak with such power. “Where did he get it all?” There was amazement but no real faith in him. Familiarity had blinded them to his true identity. Basically they reject him. For them he is just “Joe the carpenter’s boy”.

Jesus says he is not surprised by this reception. “No prophet is ever accepted in his own country.” He then goes on to give two examples taken from the lives of two well-known Old Testament prophets. They are not quite examples of prophets not being received by their own people but rather of prophets reaching out to other peoples, non-believers.

When there was a great famine among the Israelites, it was a Sidonian widow who was helped by Elijah. Sidon was the place where Jesus would heal a Gentile woman’s daughter. There were many leprous people in Israel, says Jesus, but Elisha was sent to cure Naaman the Syrian, another Gentile.

Jesus’ hearers are incensed by what appear to them arrogant and insulting words. In their minds, they were not rejecting a prophet but an impostor. His remarks about Elijah and Elisha they find highly objectionable.

The references to Elijah and Elisha help to emphasise Luke’s image of Jesus as a prophet like those who went before him. They also lay the foundation for the future mission to the Gentiles.

We, too, can very easily fail to recognise the voice of God in certain people who in fact - whether they are aware of it or not - are bringing a message from him. Like the people of Nazareth, we can think we know them too well to have to listen to them. We feel it would be inconceivable that God could speak to us through such people. This probably happens most of all with people we meet every day of our lives.

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