Who's in this story? There's Naaman, the great warrior. There are two kings, one who was so upset that he tore his clothes. There's Elisha, the man of God. He was probably a bit of a wild man like his mentor Elijah.
Who did I leave out? Naaman's wife, but she doesn't even have a speaking part, and the servants. Without the servants, there'd be no story, no cure, no happy ending. Nothing remembered. And this story was remembered through the centuries. Jesus knew this story was so familiar that he could refer to it when he preached his first sermon in his hometown of Nazareth. "Now there were many lepers in Israel at the time of the prophet Elisha," Jesus said, "but none of them was cleansed except Naaman, the Syrian." Jesus didn't mention the servants, but he wouldn't have known the story without them.
The story does begin with Naaman, commander of the army of the king, a great man in high favor with his master. The narrator paints a very big picture. This is an important man, a four-star general, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, decorated for military victories, in favor with the king, one of the inner circle. Naaman was somebody to reckon with. That's how the narrator begins. We have to see that this man is powerful in every way, but then the story takes a turn. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy. The picture of Naaman shifts in our mind. All the greatness described at the start can't change this one terrible truth. He suffers from leprosy. A mighty warrior but infected with a disease so devastating that his skin seemed to be rotting on his bones.
Then someone else enters the story-very different from the mighty warrior. She is a slave, carried off in a raid into Israel. Mighty warriors were accustomed to such booty-gold, silver, chariots, horses, and slaves. They could have what they wanted. This particular slave girl had been carried from her home and now served Naaman's wife. She is as small as Naaman is big. The power he has is the power she lacks. Yet, she is not silent. "If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria," she told her mistress, "he would cure him of his leprosy." Now why did this young girl care about this man whose army had carried her away from her own people? That's one question, but here's another. Why did Naaman and the king listen to what this slave girl said?
The text doesn't tell us such things-only that the king gave Naaman permission to go. So Naaman departs with lots of gifts and a letter of introduction from his king. But when the king of Israel reads the letter, he's distressed to the core. "Am I God," he asks, "to give life or death that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy?" It doesn't occur to the king that he wasn't in the center of things. "This is between kings," he thought. "The king of Aram is trying to trick me!"
Enter Elisha, the prophet. "Stop tearing your clothes," he tells the king. "You're not the only one around here, you know. Send the man to me so that he may learn there's a prophet in Israel." With that, the king drops out of the picture, his clothes ripped to shreds. The mighty warrior and his chariots and horses and gifts of gold and silver head to Elisha's house. Oh, this is a great scene! Elisha doesn't even come out of his house! He sends his servant out with a message for Naaman. "Go, wash seven times in the Jordan and you will be clean." Well, Naaman isn't used to this. He's a man with authority. He's accustomed to speaking with kings, his own king and the kings of other nations. Who does Elisha think he is? Naaman has no intention of washing in the muddy Jordan. "Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel?" If Israel's prophet is going to dis Naaman by not even coming out to meet him, then Naaman is going to dis Israel's river. With that outburst, the mighty warrior turns toward home. And that would have been the end of it. Except for the servants.
Naaman's servants are horrified with their master's behavior. "Father," they said, "if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more when all he said to you was, 'Wash, and be clean?" Ahh, they know how to get to their master. Of course, he'd do something difficult. He had done many difficult things before. He was, after all, a mighty warrior. So he's surely brave enough to wash in a muddy river. With that, Naaman turned around, went down to the Jordan, and immersed himself seven times. When he came out of the water that last time, he looked down at his hands and his feet. His flesh was like the flesh of a young boy. But none of the servants said, "I told you so."
There would be no story without the servants, without the slave girl who spoke of God's prophet, without the servants who turned Naaman's pride around. The mighty warrior was made whole by the power of God and by the intervention of the servants. We could simply say it's a wonderful story, the kind of story you tell around the fire remembering God's acts among our ancestors. But is there anything more? Is there something the mighty might learn from this story?
Our country is a mighty country. It is, in most ways, the mightiest country on earth. We cherish this country. We cherish our freedom and our wondrous diversity. Who can match our economic might? Even in a falling market, the wealth of the United States exceeds the wealth of the whole developing world. Our country is also a mighty warrior. According to the Defense Department, we have military bases in 63 other countries. Our troops are now deployed to more locations than in any time in history. Our aircraft carriers sail on every sea; our planes and satellites patrol the globe and all who live on it. The military budget for this year is $396 billion. It's very hard to wrap your mind around a number like that. But it's more than the next 25 highest spending countries put together. Do the mighty have anything to learn? Do we need to listen to anybody else in the world?
Lately, it seems that we are mighty enough to say "No" to both questions. In recent years we have refused to sign international agreements to protect the environment-even though we produce more destructive gases than any other nation. We are mighty enough to make up our own rules. We've protested the establishment of an international war crimes court unless Americans are given certain exemptions. We name those who agree with us our friends and label all others as our enemies.
What might the mighty learn from other peoples of the world? What are some questions we might ask about our own mighty, beloved country? We might ask:
How do we have the right to speak of Russian oil and Nigerian oil and Columbian oil and Saudi oil and Iraqi oil as our oil, part of America's petroleum security?
Why did the United States show so little concern about the earth summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, last year? Does it matter to us that 80 countries reported per capita incomes lower than they had a decade ago? Eighty countries poorer now than they were 10 years ago!
Does our military might mean we no longer see ourselves as part of a community of nations?
What would we learn if we listened to the poorest of the world's people and to the poorest people in our own country? Last year the number of homeless families in New York City increased so dramatically that parents and their children were housed in an abandoned city jail. How can that be?
What might the mighty learn if we risked such questions? Naaman would not have been restored to health if he hadn't listened to his servants. Millions of the world's people must feel that our country treats them like servants: sewing our clothes, drilling our oil, stitching our sneakers, and falling in line whenever we call. We are a mighty nation, but our over-consumption of the world's resources is a sign of sickness rather than health. And it has become all too clear that our military might has not made us feel safe or secure.
Ethicist Larry Rasmussen draws us back into the heart of Scripture, calling us to new ways of thinking and radically new ways of acting:
...the world as created by God is abundant, he says. It's sufficient for all if appetites are restrained. The disparities of wealth and power are not natural but the result of life going awry.
And then he says:
The prophetic call to redistribution and reordering of society is good news to the poor and it is an essential and urgent task for people of faith.
The world would be healthier if our nation could grasp a vision bigger than our might. Whoever you are, wherever you are, alone or with others, how can you and I help this mighty nation learn to listen? Naaman was a mighty warrior, but all his might could not restore him to health. He would never have been healed if he hadn't listened to those who had no power.
God help us. God heal us. Amen.