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“That Dirty Water”

October 9, 2022 Seventeenth Sunday After Trinity The text is Quell 46/2 Kings 1-3, 7-15c.

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[Jesus said,] “Strive to enter by the narrow door, for many, I tell you, will try to enter it and will not be able. Once the owner of the house has locked the door, you will stand outside, knock at the door and say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will say to you, ‘I do not know where you are from. Get away from me, all you unrighteous people.’”

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Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master because by him the LORD had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from a skin disease. 2 Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. 3 She said to her mistress, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his skin disease.” 7 When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, “Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his skin disease? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.”

8 But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, “Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.” 9 So Naaman came with his horses and chariots and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house. 10 Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored, and you shall be clean.” 11 But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, “I thought that for me he would surely come out and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God and would wave his hand over the spot and cure the skin disease! 12 Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be clean?” He turned and went away in a rage. 13 But his servants approached and said to him, “Father, 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’?” 14 So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.

15 Then he returned to the man of God, he and all his company; he came and stood before him and said, “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel; please accept a present from your servant.”

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May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.

Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

In verse seven of this morning’s reading in 2 Kings we read that the king of Israel “read the letter” sent on behalf of Naaman, the great Aramean general, from the king of Aram.  And we also read of Israel’s king tearing his clothes in angst when he read the contents.  Which begs the question, “what was written in this letter that so upset the king of Israel?”  For reasons unknown, the people whose task it is to select the readings each week for the wider church chose to omit verses four through six, which outline just what this letter contained.  And they also include a list of what Naaman brought with him on his journey in search of healing from this “man of God” in his slave girl’s homeland.  These verses read, So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said.  And the king of Aram said, ‘Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.’  He went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments.  He brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, ‘When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy.’ 

Not taking the cost of ten sets of presumably hand-made luxury clothing ensembles into account, we can however determine the value of the ten talents of silver and the six thousand shekels of gold.  Both shekel and talent refer to units of weight measurement used in the ancient Middle East.  After a small exercise using the valuations listed on the silver and gold commodity markets for this week it turns out that the combined value of these metals was around $4,430,00 dollars in today’s money.  Quite a hefty sum for an office visit to the dermatologist! 

While the chosen Scripture reading omits the king’s letter and the treasure he brings, it certainly doesn’t gloss over the fact that Naaman is indeed a man of great power and influence.  Being the commander of the Aramean king’s army, he has the ear of his sovereign; and he’s not shy about asking his king for a favor.

And, he’s also not above making a show of his power, along with his wealth.  He shows up at the door of the prophet Elisha’s house, riding in a chariot and accompanied by a large group of soldiers on horseback.  Chariots and mounted soldiers were the war machines of the day.  The modern equivalent would be a five-star general arriving in a Sherman tank with a battalion of Special Forces soldiers in armored vehicles behind him.  Naaman intended for his visit to be a blatant display of his wealth and power; surely this Hebrew prophet, Elisha would be suitably impressed and be willing to cure Naaman of his affliction.  After all, Elisha’s Jewish God would have to be awestricken that Naaman, the commander of all the armies of Aram arrived with treasure, and horses and chariots to offer himself to this Hebrew God for healing.  This would surely make Israel’s God look pretty impressive, considering that such a big shot like Naaman chose him to be his healer.  Well, it seems that Elisha isn’t impressed at all; he doesn’t even bother to come out of his house to greet Naaman and his military entourage.  He sends out a messenger to tell Naaman to wash seven times in the muddy Jordan River.      

Let’s take a look at the historical context of this this narrative.  Aram was the ancient name of what was a powerful country in the time of 2 Kings; it is more or less modern-day Syria.  And Aram and Israel had already been engaged in a long struggle for power in the region.  In fact, the young girl captive who served Naaman’s wife was taken as a slave from Israel as part of the spoils from some earlier raid.  She was the one who suggested to his wife that Naaman should seek out this “man of God” in her home country; he would surely be able to cure Naaman’s disease.  He must have been suffering greatly if he took advice from his wife, who originally heard of this healer from her slave girl.  This type of thing just wasn’t done, yet the great commander of a mighty army approached his king and then travelled to Israel in a show of excessive military might and immeasurable wealth.  All because a captured slave told his wife that Elisha could help him.  One would think that because he was in such a dire condition that some shred of humility might have found its way into his demeanor.  But no, Naaman arrives in a chariot laden with treasure, and in a show of superiority he expects the prophet to simply do as he is told.

And even when the prescription for healing is given, because it seemed too easy, he is enraged that he had travelled all the way to Israel when could have simply bathed in one of the rivers in Aram.  His servants convince him to try the suggestion made by Elisha, so he reluctantly bathes seven times in the waters of the Jordan and is made clean.  Filled with joy at his healing he once again gathers together his great entourage and returns to Elisha, this time proclaiming there is only one true God, the God of Israel.

It’s a sure bet that Naaman didn’t get it, he couldn’t fathom that great wealth and a show of power weren’t necessary to receive the grace and mercy of God.  But the slave girl understood, so did Naaman’s wife, those who served him in the military ranks, and Elisha, the prophet.  They all knew, even if Naaman didn’t, that God isn’t impressed by a show of power, great wealth, or influence.  God isn’t compelled to act with mercy and grace by these or any other human means of persuasion.  God acts as he does simply because he is God!  The slave girl, Naaman’s wife, his servants, and Elisha know as we do that…God is good.  (All the time).  And all the time.  (God is good).  No persuasion is required!    

God makes a habit of reversing things, most often in a way that reveals that the supposed realities of this world are the direct opposite in the one to come, when the kingdom of heaven will be fulfilled.  Riches and power in God’s kingdom cannot guarantee healing; the whispered suggestion of a young captive servant girl holds greater sway than war machines and mobilized armed soldiers; the simplest act may have more impact than a more sweeping gesture.  Washing in a murky river in Israel may result in a miraculous curing of disease in spite of an earlier hesitation and a refusal to believe.  Humility and a sincere desire for cleansing, healing, and yes salvation hold greater significance for God, who isn’t impressed by privilege or power. 

And this reversal of the way we humans think things are supposed to work and the truth of how God acts was revealed through every aspect of the mission and ministry of Christ.  Jesus, God-in-flesh, turned everything upside-down.  The King of Kings, the Savior of the world was born not in a palace, but a feeding trough. 

He comforted the poor, the downtrodden, and the ones everyone else considered to be unworthy; while spurning the rich, the powerful, and those whose influence and lack of humility weren’t the attributes that matter to God.  And Jesus wasn’t elevated to sit on a lofty golden throne, but hoisted up to die upon a wooden cross.  For this is how things work in the kingdom of God; wealth and power won’t get you healed.  Great influence doesn’t guarantee salvation.  Demanding action from others doesn’t result in getting want you want.  And often the simplest action may have the greatest impact on your life. 

God works in unexpected ways, and Jesus makes this clear to us.  The work of Christ on the cross has secured salvation for all who believe in the reversal that God promises.  God’s will and Christ’s sacrifice have assured that illness, despair, and doubt may be overcome through healing, hope, and faith.  And all are welcome to participate in the abundant life that is God’s desire for everyone; from the wealthy and powerful to those whom the world dismisses.  For the only thing that impresses God is a willingness to acknowledge that there is nothing we can do to sway God’s actions.  For, in the ultimate turning upside-down of how the world perceives the way things are, the truth is that the greatest gifts of all, the grace and mercy of God, cannot be purchased; they are freely given.  And in the end it appears that Naaman did come to understand this, after all.                

Will you pray with me?  Good, and gracious, and holy God, help us to realize that your love for us isn’t dependent upon what we have, but how we act in love toward others.  Remind us that your grace is freely given and that we need not display anything other than faith and humility.  Teach us that the words of the disenfranchised often speak greater truth than those of the mighty.  And we pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, the One whose resurrection has restored us to righteousness with God; no persuasion is needed.  Amen.

God is good, all the time!  All the time, God is good!

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