Priest reaching out to help a man with leprosy, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55726 Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bas%C3%ADlica_de_S%C3%A3o_Francisco_das_Chagas_(Canind%C3%A9)_-_Casa_dos_Milagres_008.JPG.
Anyone ever seen the Godfather? I’m guessing most have; it’s widely considered one of the best movies of all time for a good reason.
If you’ve seen it, you might remember a scene where Michael Corleone, is telling his girlfriend Kay a story about his father, Don Corleone,. In the story, Michael Corleone talks about how Don Corleone got his Godson, Johnny Fontaine, out of a contract. At first, the Don offered Johnny’s manager $10,000 to get out of the contract. The manager refused. The Don goes back the next day with one of his… associates, named Luca Brazi, and manages to walk out of there with Johnny released from his contract for $1,000. How, Kay asks? Michael continues: Luca held a gun to his head and the Don told him; one of two things will be on this contract- your brains or your signature.
This is basically the situation at the beginning of our second bible reading this morning, the story of Namaan’s healing.
Before we dive too deep into understanding this story, know that it’s all about power, and the many forms it takes, how it’s used, and who has it.
So let’s start by thinking about the nature of power as we understand it now.
Let’s begin by asking who is powerful?
Power: what is it?
The ability to do things, to influence the world?
What types of power are there?
Power is vitally important, yet in my experience, many in liberal and progressive circles are scared to talk about it. We’re certainly afraid to use it.
There are certainly good and bad forms of power, ways of wielding it that are destructive, violent, and coercive.
But today’s reading, like many- not all- but many of our Bible stories, tell us that there’s a different side to power than what was and is commonly believed.
Power and authority does not have to come from warrior generals and powerful kingdoms. Power can be wielded by slaves and war captives, poor prophets, and people on the margins just as effectively as any marauding army.
Indeed, I believe this story reminds us that a wise person does not run from power, but considers carefully how to apply it, and who is wielding it in each situation.
Let’s dive in.
Naaman is a general from the nearby powerful and wealthy country of Aram. He’s a mighty warrior, highly favored, but he has a problem. He has a skin disease- in those days, there were many skin diseases that were put under the blanket term of leprosy yet we would not today call them leprosy.
This was a problem in the ancient middle east, as it was seen cross culturally as a sign of divine disapproval, and must have also been very uncomfortable.
Naaman must have had had access to the best healthcare as it were in his country, yet nothing apparently worked.
I find it especially meaningful that one of the people who is most powerful in this story- and as we said before, knowledge is power- is a war captive, an enslaved Israelite who didn’t even serve Naaman, but Naaman’s wife, so who was even further down in the hierarchy of the household.
So the King of Aram sends Naaman to the Kingdom of Israel in order to get Naaman healed. He sends Naaman with an astronomical amount of wealth, something like 750 pounds of silver and an additional 150 pounds of gold, and asks that he be healed.
This is the Luca Brazi Don Corleone moment that we opened the sermon with. This terrifies the King of Israel because the gift is no real gift- it’s a threat. If the kingdom of Aram is willing to spend this much money, if it doesn’t work out, will they return with Luca Brazi and a gun? Instead of Naaman asking for help, will the next time he visits, will he be at the head of the army?
The king also freaks out because although he is king, the power to heal is not his to wield. Elisha, the prophet, who is Elijah’s successor, is not a direct servant of the king- no prophet worthy of the title is. But Elisha is not a cruel man; upon hearing of the King’s distress, he tells the king to send Naaman to him and he’ll deal with him.
Another pause here to note something about power dynamics; although today, most of us are used to traveling for medical services, in those days, and sometimes today, the wealthiest and most powerful would have sent for a physician or someone to come to them. By not going to the palace or to Aram, Elisha is already disrupting the normal ways that people expected power to work. Furthermore, when Naaman arrives at Elisha’s home, Elisha doesn’t even greet him! He sends a servant outside to tell him to do the ritual bath of the Mikveh, a very basic religious ritual that our own baptism is a descendant from. Who is this man that would seemingly mock and defy the mighty general?
If you’re getting shades of Jesus in this, don’t be surprised, much of Jesus’ ministry was in a direct line of descent from prophets like Elisha. Jesus would have known this story, known how power works and even more so, how it should work.
Naaman rants and raves about this mistreatment, but Naaman did not become a mighty general by pure strength of body. He is smart enough to take the counsel of his slaves and servants, for he knows that the force of arms- both the strength he has as a person and the men he commands- have no power here. They remind him that he was willing to submit himself to Elisha’s intervention if it was some sort of difficult procedure, so why not do it as it’s something easy?
And it works. It requires no esoteric knowledge, no religious test, no pledge of money or allegiance. It is simple, and easy, and Naaman is healed.
This story is a glimpse of how power should work; its source is God, and we tap into it by listening to the wisdom of those voices we’ve often ignored, who society tells us have no value. It shouldn’t come from how many men we can boss around, the size of our bank account, or our ability and willingness to commit violence.
Instead, it comes from our mercy, our gentleness, our ability to cooperate, not dominate. It is neither passive nor aggressive, but holds its ground, as it’s foundation is firmer than the vagaries of flesh that weakens or riches that rust away, but the mercy and lovingkindness of a God who holds us fast.