From the Most Unexpected Place
Rev. Fritz Ritsch
2 Kings 5: 1-14; Luke 10: 17-24
“A thing long expected takes the form of the unexpected when at last it comes.”–Mark Twain (Samuel Clemmons), 1835-1910, American Author, Social Commentator, and Humorist
Our Old Testament reading is the story of how a misunderstanding almost led to an international diplomatic crisis, and how one act of compassion and another act of humility averted said diplomatic crisis. It is a story about how our prejudices shape our expectations and how by abandoning our prejudices and expecting the unexpected, new possibilities can emerge.
Naaman is the commander of the Aramean army. Israel had been at war with the Arameans in the past, but now apparently they are in a cautious cease-fire. We don’t really know the nature of the war they had. What we do know is that they are neighbors, directly on Israel’s border, and that their greatest general, Naaman had leprosy.
The first thing to understand about leprosy then is that it was not like leprosy now. Today’s leprosy is also known as Hansen’s Disease. It is a mildly infectious disease that kills the nerves and cripples hands, feet, and other parts of the body. That’s not what Naaman had. What the Bible normally means by leprosy isn’t fully clear, but it sounds like any number of skin diseases and rashes, such as eczema and psoriasis, could fit the bill. These diseases weren’t contagious but they could get out of hand in the pre-medical ancient world. In many cases people afflicted with Biblical leprosy are described as “snow white” from head to toe. This was a serious illness.
Yet Naaman, a brilliant general and a member of the royal court of Aram, could function freely and effectively with it. This in itself is striking, because if he’d lived in Israel, he would have been treated very differently. He would be considered ritually impure and shunned from social engagement of any sort. But as we learn in Naaman’s story, he personally escorts the Aramean king by arm when they go to their god’s temple together. Naaman is highly regarded and able to function fully in his society, and frankly that makes one think that by comparison Israel, with its strict treatment of lepers, looks closed minded and superstitious.
Naaman gets word that there is a prophet in Samaria, Elisha, who could cure him of his leprosy. He goes to his friend the King of Aram and asks him to intercede for him. And this is where the first misunderstanding begins. The king of Aram misunderstands the situation and thinks Elisha is a member of the court of Jehoram, the king of Israel, and sends Naaman to Jerusalem with a letter asking the king of Israel to cure him.
King Jehoram of Israel is confused, angry, and afraid when he receives this letter. How am I supposed to cure this general? The King fumes. To him, it looks like the King of Aram is deliberately setting him up for failure as a pretext for war. After all, Israel and the Arameans have been at war before. It is a pretty common reality for nations to drum up impossible demands of other nations and then use them as a pretext for war. King Jehoram is an experienced politician and he knows how things work. When someone asks you for something impossible, you just assume it’s a way to start a war, and ninety-nine times out of a hundred you’re right.
An enormous number of diplomatic squabbles and major wars can be traced back to simple misunderstandings. In fact, research has determined that the greatest cause of conflict in any of our relationships is simple misunderstanding. We misinterpret one another. Often our misunderstandings come about because of our already-established prejudices and presumptions. He’s had trouble with Aram before, so the king of Israel just assumes Aram means trouble this time. How many of us have gotten into a fight with a spouse or a loved one because we assumed something that wasn’t true?
The entire “Fake News” phenomena is based on exactly this. Purveyors of “Fake news” often write the most outlandish, outrageous stories, but they play on our prejudices. Liberals assume the worst of conservatives and conservatives assume the worst about liberals. So all you need to do is post a story that confirms their prejudices in the most exaggerated terms and people will believe it, because it just confirms their prejudices. And so fires of misunderstanding are constantly stoked by misinformation and people actually come to believe that the people with whom they disagree are not people at all, but monsters.
Thankfully, word gets to Elisha of this request and he intervenes. I can heal Naaman, he says. Send him on over. Naaman, all excited, heads over with his entourage to the gate of Elisha’s house. There he waits for the proper Middle Eastern greeting to one of his station. And he imagines Elisha performing an elaborate ceremony, calling loudly upon the name of his God, dancing and bowing. The show, Naaman knew, would be just that—a show to impress this prestigious foreign dignitary. But when you are as important as Naaman, you expect a show. You expect to be entertained by the Elishas of the world because they are so honored that you are there and they want to make it worth your while. So Naaman waits. And waits. And waits.
And finally word comes from Elisha via a servant. “Go wash in the River Jordan seven times and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be made clean.”
And Naaman is furious. This lowly prophet won’t even come out of his house! And then the arrogant jerk orders me to go dive into the dirty Jordan river—an ISRAELITE river! There are great rivers in Aram that make the Jordan look like a muddy creek. I’d much prefer my Aramean rivers to his stupid Israelite rivers! How dare he! Outraged, and filled with patriotic pride in the flag of Aram and the exceptional rivers of Aram, he turns around in a huff and starts back home.
Fortunately, Naaman is not Aram’s greatest general for nothing. Deep down he is a wise man, and wise people surround themselves with wise counselors, and a couple of these wise counselors come to Naaman and whisper gently in his ear, “Father, if the prophet asked you to do something hard, you’d have done it, wouldn’t you? Now the prophet has asked you to do something simple. Will you refuse to do it simply because of your pride?”
And so grudgingly, but pragmatically, Naaman pushes his pride to the side and goes to the Jordan, and washes seven times, and the Bible says his “flesh is restored like that of a young boy.”
Once again, prejudices and assumptions nearly led to disaster. It’s quite possible that Naaman just assumed that Israel would be so nervous about getting into another war with Aram that they’d do anything to appease him—that they’d bend over backwards to accommodate him. So when the prophet doesn’t even deign to speak to him directly, that comes across to Naaman as a diplomatic affront of the highest order. And then for the prophet to order him to bathe in the Jordan could be taken to mean “Naaman, in order to be healed, you have to admit that Aram’s rivers are inferior to Israel’s rivers, and that therefore Israel is superior to Aram!” For all Naaman knew there’d be scores of reporters and photographers waiting by the river to capture this moment that the great Aramean general Naaman admits that Israel and Israel’s God are better than Aram and Aram’s god.
Because you don’t expect your help to come from your former enemy. And you don’t expect that someone who insults you actually means you good. And all of us believe that our country is better than anyone else’s country and we hate it when someone says, “Actually Canada is better than the US at this, and Burkina Faso is better than the United States at that.” And sometimes we turn down the opportunity to learn something new, or to experience a benefit we’ve never had, simply because we can’t believe that some person who I’ve never thought was as smart as me may have a good idea; or suddenly our own child is giving us advice that we don’t want to admit is good advice; or that nation who we’ve always thought was backward is the one from which the newest and most significant cure for a disease comes from. Often we miss opportunities for things we desperately want because the help that is offered comes from a source that’s suspicious.
Good things, godly things that come from unexpected places are the hallmark of Jesus’ own stories and his own ministry. He tells the story of a Jewish man attacked by highwaymen and left for dead by the side of the road. Priests and lawyers avoid him but the one who aids him is someone he would have considered a great enemy, and also beneath him: a Samaritan. In our gospel lesson, Jesus celebrates his disciples’ successful ministry to the countryside by thanking God that God’s wisdom has not been revealed to the wise, but to simple people. I have to admit that if I was a disciple, I might not consider myself complimented by that. But Jesus means that both the disciples who preach the Gospel and those villagers who hear the Gospel are able to preach and hear the Gospel because they aren’t afflicted by the cynicism and world-weariness of the wise, who look at the world through jaded eyes.
I think people in my generation can have that same attitude looking at younger people. We role our eyes with impatience at millennials and Gen Zs and their rejection of traditional gender stereotypes and disinterest in pursuing things we think young people should want like cars and houses. We become secretly impatient with their insistence on equality and justice and systemic change not because we don’t agree, but because we know how hard it is to fight for those things and we think their passion is impractical.
But maybe we need to put aside our pride and recognize maybe we’ve given in too much to materialism and pragmatism. Maybe we’d do well to be less world-weary and more passionate. Maybe we have something to learn from the people we think we’re better than. Maybe when we forget how wise we are we can be open to learning new things. Maybe that’s how God gets things done.