Philip W. Helms is an Elder and member of Crossroads Monthly Meeting of Friends.
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Mighty Men and Lepers
Now Naaman, captain of the host of the king of Syria, was a great man with his master, and honourable, because by him the Lord had given deliverance unto Syria: he was also a mighty man in valour, but he was a leper. And the Syrians had gone out by companies, and had brought away captive out of the land of Israel a little maid; and she waited on Naaman's wife. And she said unto her mistress, Would God my lord were with the prophet that is in Samaria! For he would recover him of his leprosy. And one went in, and told his lord, saying, Thus and thus said the maid that is of the land of Israel.
And the king of Syria said, Go to, go, and I will send a letter unto the king of Israel. And he departed, and took with him ten talents of silver, and six thousand pieces of gold, and ten changes of raiment. And he brought the letter to the king of Israel, saying, Now when this letter is come unto thee, behold, I have therewith sent Naaman my servant to thee, that thou mayest recover him of his leprosy. And it came to pass, when the king of Israel had read the letter, that he rent his clothes, and said, Am I God, to kill and to make alive, that this man doth send unto me to recover a man of his leprosy? Wherefore consider, I pray you, and see how he seeketh a quarrel against me.
And it was so, when Elisha the man of God had heard that the king of Israel had rent his clothes, that he sent to the king, saying, Wherefore hast thou rent thy clothes? let him come now to me, and he shall know that there is a prophet in Israel. So Naaman came with his horses and his chariot, and stood at the door of the house of Elisha. And Elisha sent a messenger unto him, saying, Go and wash in Jordan seven times, and thy flesh shall come again unto thee, and thou shalt be clean. But Naaman was wroth, and went away, and said, Behold, I thought, He will surely come out to me, and stand, and call on the name of the Lord his God, and strike his hand over the place, and recover the leper. Are not Abana and Pharpar, rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? May I not wash in them, and be clean? So he turned and went away in a rage.
And his servants came near, and spake unto him, and said, My father, if the prophet had bid thee do some great thing, wouldst thou not have done it? How much rather then, when he saith to thee, Wash, and be clean? Then he went down, and dipped himself seven times in Jordan, according to the saying of the man of God: and his flesh came again like unto the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.
And he returned to the man of God, he and all his company, and came, and stood before him: and he said, Behold, now I know that there is no God in all the earth, but in Israel: now therefore, I pray thee, take a blessing of thy servant. But he said, As the Lord liveth, before whom I stand, I will receive none. And he urged him to take it; but he refused.
- II Kings 5:1-16
Naaman was a mighty man - a great man, a national hero. Today, he would be the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff - the highest ranking general in the nation. He was the king's favorite and a hero to his people. When he was afflicted with leprosy, it must have been a terrible blow to the people who admired him. His fans were no doubt devastated by the terrible news. His health became a topic of conversation throughout Syria. A young slave girl, an Israelite, mentioned the power of the Lord, and in her faith was certain a true prophet of the Lord could be the conduit for healing. Word came to the king of Syria, and he determined immediately to send Naaman to the king of Israel for healing.
The Israelites and the Samaritans worshipped the same God, but differed in practice and in the locations they deemed proper for worship. Thus, despite close kinship in faith, there was enmity between them, referenced in the New Testament in the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37) and in Jesus's conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:6-30). It is not immediately clear why the young woman spoke of a prophet in Samaria (or of whom she spoke), though Elisha refers to himself as "a prophet in Israel." However, it is clear her intention was to refer to a prophet of the Lord. It may be noted that when she spoke of "my lord" the translation does not treat this as a reference to God, but as a reference to her master, Naaman.
In former times, it was popularly supposed that monarchs possessed healing powers, a belief which is detailed repeatedly in anecdotes contained in George Fox's Book of Miracles (edited and with an introduction and notes by Henry J. Cadbury; Quakers Uniting in Publications, 2000), and notably incorporated in The Lord of the Rings by the late J.R.R. Tolkien, where the returning king is depicted as possessing broad powers of healing. It is therefore, perhaps, not remarkable that the king of Syria sent Naaman to the king of Israel for healing, supposing that the king must be the one who possessed and controlled such powers.
Imagine the situation today: Naaman arrived, with his motorcade, retinue and security, with lavish gifts - and the demand that the king heal him. The king panicked: he had no more ability to heal than to fly, and supposed the king of Syria was attempting to provoke an international incident. If Naaman were not healed, it would become a cause celebré, with the assertion that "everyone knows the healing power is in Israel, but their king refused to help Naaman." A war could result, and Israel was not prepared or eager for such a war. When Elisha sent word to the king, "Send him to me," the king was ready to grasp at any proffered straw, and gladly sent Naaman.
Continuing the contemporary imagery, Naaman arrived by limousine, with motorcade and flags flying, at Elisha's humble abode. Elisha did not even come out to meet the great man: he only sent his servant with instructions. Naaman flew into a rage at what he perceived as a calculated insult. As a mighty man and hero, he had expected the prophet's personal attention, and a measure of deference. He supposed the act of healing would be somehow spectacular and dramatic, as befit his station in life, and the magnitude and tragedy of his affliction. It should have involved a ceremony or ritual of some sort. As his servants reminded him, he would gladly have undertaken some great task to "earn" his healing: had Elisha bid him undertake a quest of a year and a day, the mighty man would have gone gladly. Had he been sent to slay some monster or to battle a giant (or one of Don Quixote's windmills), it would have been his stock in trade - all in a day's work! Any one of the labors of Hercules would have been the very thing: it would have fit his public image as a mighty man, it would have pleased his fans, and it would have given him the sense that he had earned healing.
Yet Naaman simmered down, and his servants persuaded him to wash seven times in the Jordan River, and he was healed, despite his grumbling that the rivers of Damascus in Syria were better places to wash. He returned to Elisha, and while acknowledging the power of the Lord, he attempted to deliver the lavish gifts the king of Syria had sent. Elisha refused the king's wealth.
Healing, like grace, is not for sale. It cannot be purchased or earned. No matter how wonderful our works may seem to other people, they are as dross before the Lord. No matter how great our wealth, we cannot buy grace, healing or blessings. These are gifts freely given, to be accepted in all humility and consciousness of our unworthiness. In the eyes of the world, some may be mighty men, but before the Lord, we are all lepers. Just as Naaman had only to wash in the Jordan to be healed, so we have only to accept Jesus as our Savior and ask forgiveness of our sins to receive His grace.