2 Kings 5:1
“Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Syria, was a great man with his master and in high favor, because by him the LORD had given victory to Syria. He was a mighty man of valor, but he was a leper.”
After decades of struggle and a year of debate in congress, you probably know that health reform is now the law of the land. From what I understand, the new law has some good aspects. More people will be covered by insurance, people with pre-existing conditions can no longer be denied insurance, small businesses will get tax cuts to pay for employee insurance. However, I would add that the new national health law is a huge package that I certainly do not claim to fully understand; furthermore I am not sure anyone else understands it either. But the latest reform proves one thing. We as a nation are obsessed with the power to heal. Just look at the reverence that we hold for doctors and the way that we reward them financially. The health care industry is big business--mega-hospitals, insurance companies, drug companies. we are a medicated society--prescription drugs, supplements, vitamins. This is not necessarily bad. The power to heal is the power to survive, to thrive. Other powers mean nothing if we succumb to disease or brokenness.
That is the situation that Naaman found himself in. By the way, the name “Naaman” means “pleasantness” in Hebrew. I have always thought that was a strange name for a warrior. Can't you just see this big tough guy, in full armor, wearing a sword, and he says, “My name is Mr. Nice.” Or rather General Nice. He was a commander of the armies of Ben-Hadad II in the time of Joram, king of Israel. Ben Hadad ruled Aram, which today we call Syria. Assyrian tablets indicate that Ben-Hadad II was part of a coalition that waged war against the Assyrians and were decisively defeated by the Assyrian king Shalmaneser around 853 B.C. We do not know exactly when the healing of Naaman took place but probably sometimes during middle of the 9th century BC.
We know also that Israel had gone to war with Aram and lost, so most Israelites regarded Arameans as bad guys, and Naaman was a bad guy general. Surely then, most Israelites thought, God would not care for such a one. Wrong. God loves everyone and that includes people we do not like. God loves Osama Ben Ladin. That statement may not sit very well with us, but it is true nevertheless. But back to Naaman.
He was a powerful man in charge of a powerful army; however, he suffered from leprosy. Now in ancient times this was a generic term used for any kind of skin disease. It is unlikely that Naaman had modern-day leprosy, or Hansen’s disease. Instead, he suffered from psoriasis or another skin ailment. Perhaps he had patches of reddish skin covered with silvery scales.
Probably he was a general before he got the disease. We are not told the sequence of events here, but it seems likely that he had a distinguished military career, which was interrupted by this loathsome and painful disease.
We imagine he consulted doctors, the medical establishment of Aram. Money was no problem. Unfortunately they could not heal him. It was a slave girl who pointed the way to healing. Catch the significance here: this was a young female slave. If anyone in Damascus, the capital of Aram, had pointed out the weakest, most powerless person in the city, he would probably have chosen this slave girl, who had been taken prisoner during a raid into Israel.
She said, “I know someone who can help you. There is a man in Israel who is known for great deeds. He is the man who has healed the water of Jericho, bringing life back to their well and their land. He is the man who miraculously filled jars and jars of oil for a poor widow to sell and thus survive. He is the man who fed a hundred men from only twenty loaves. This man, this prophet of God, can help you.” In a twist of irony, it is the powerless, the slave girl, who points the way to the power to heal.
Probably Naaman was desperate. He would try anything. So he asked permission of his king, who gave him a diplomatic letter of request for the king of Israel and Naaman was on his way to find healing.
When he got to Israel the king smelled a rat. He had just lost a war, and here was his enemy’s general – the man who defeated his army – on his front steps. The king of Israel thought for sure it was a trap, a way for the Aramean king to say, “I heard you had the power to heal this man, so if you don’t, I can only assume it is a slap in the face and I must respond with force.” So the king of Israel tore his clothes in grief. He was afraid that the enemy was going to resume the war.
So Naaman could not heal himself and the doctors of Aram could not help him and now the king of Israel cannot help either. All the powerful ones are powerless to heal.
Then came Elisha. Finally we get to someone who can do something. Elisha is the prophet of Yahweh , The miracle worker. He is the one who spoke the word of the Lord. He offered to help. So Naaman and his entourage traveled to Elisha’s house to receive his healing.
Naaman had doubtless heard about such healings before. There would be some ritual and Elisha would wave his hands over the effected area and pronounce some magical words and maybe do a dance or something, and he would be healed. So imagine his surprise when Naaman sent his servant to the door, and Elisha did not even show up. Elisha merely sent his own servant with simple instructions: Go down to the waters of the Jordan and immerse yourself seven times. Then you will be healed. You can imagine Naaman’s response: “What? A bath? I came all the way down here for this healer to tell me to take a bath? Why do I need to bathe in these waters when I can bathe in the waters of the Abana or the Pharpar?” [the Abana and the Pharpar were rivers that flowed to the North and the South of Damascus]. Naaman's patriotism was wounded. The Jordan was a piddling little river, not to be compared to the fine rivers of Aram. And he was offended personally. He was a great man. He expected a great ceremony of healing.
Again, though, when the powerful show their inability to heal, it is the powerless that point the way. The servants of Naaman reason with him, saying, “If the prophet had demanded some big task, you would have done it. Why not do this little task? After all, what do you have to lose?” So begrudgingly, Naaman enters the waters of the Jordan and dips himself seven times, and, v14 says, “his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy and he was clean.”
The power to heal trumps all other powers. In the end, the powerful military man is healed by a young girl, a renegade prophet, and his own servants. The great have been humbled. The humble have been made great. All because of the power to heal.
But Naaman’s healing did not end there, nor does our story. Naaman was overjoyed of course. He was cured. Much like the tenth leper that Jesus healed in Luke 17, the first thing that he did was return to Elisha to thank him. When he returns, we see that the change that took place was more than physical. His healing was spiritual as well. Upon recognizing the power that Elisha recognized, Naaman immediately confessed Yahweh as his Lord, saying in v15, “Behold, I know that there is no God in all the earth but in Israel.” He was humbled before Elisha and before the Lord. We see in that moment that his healing was physical and spiritual. Now we as 21st Century Americans make a distinction between the physical and the spiritual, but that was not a distinction that the ancient Hebrews made. They did not believe in any division of body and soul. They would say a human being is one being, one person. Thus when Naaman was healed physically, he was also healed spiritually.
We know that ordinary physical healing takes time: there are pills to take for weeks perhaps, there may be therapy or different kinds of treatments. None of them are a quick fix. Even Naaman, who was healed relatively quickly, had to go through a process, traveling to see Elisha, seeking his remedy, dipping himself seven times in the Jordan. Even so, spiritually, his healing had just begun.
Like any new believer, his faith was simple and unsophisticated. He wanted to worship his new-found Lord, but he had to go back to his country. So, still not sure the rules of this new faith, he asked for two mule-loads of dirt to take back to his country. He believed that the God of Israel must be worshipped in Israel, so he took back dirt to create a mini-Israel in order to offer burnt offerings to Yahweh. We may smile at Naaman's simplicity, but it was the common belief of that time that each God ruled his own country. Before we laugh too much about that we should remember that there are plenty of people today that believe that God can only be worshiped in their particular church or synagogue or mosque, which is pretty much the same thing.
Naaman is wrestling with his new religious insight and he is trying to figure out how to incorporate his spiritual healing into his every day life. He asked Elisha: “what about this other worship that I do? After all, I am a general in the Aramean army. Rimmon is the god of our people, and I must go into his temple to worship along with the king and the rest of the leaders of Aram. Will you forgive this indiscretion that I know I must commit?” And Elisha, as wise as he was powerful, did not reject his requests, nor did he affirm them. He simply told Naaman, “Go in peace”. He knew that Naaman had room to grow in his faith. His gracious answer did not send him down the wrong path or turn him away from the right path.
But let us say more about this spiritual healing. At once, when his skin was made new like a young boy’s, Naaman lost some of his vanity and conceit and selfishness. His physical healing and his spiritual healing took place simultaneously. A psychologist, therapist, even a medical doctor will all tell you the same thing. For physical healing to begin, the patient must submit to the process of healing. An alcoholic must admit they have a problem. A heart attack victim must believe that they can change their body through diet, exercise, or medication. A widow lost in grief must believe that there is something worth hoping for.
Naaman found this out. He could have turned back to Aram and abandoned the process. He could have sent his armies to destroy the house of Elisha and the whole country, but he did not. He listened to his servants and he submitted to the process. He was the only one that could walk into the river and immerse himself time after time. He probably felt silly, until that seventh time when he rose from the waters a new man. His healing was holistic – body and soul.
So healing takes time and work, but time and work are not really the answer. Real healing comes from a connection with divine power. Oprah has talked about this connection between health and spirituality. Many articles and books have been written about it. And the results are mostly positive for religious folks. Churchgoers are 25% more likely to live longer than nonchurch goers. Religious practices like prayer and meditation help in healing. Last week I was talking about a physiology of forgiveness: those who are able to forgive are more likely to heal than those who cannot forgive another or themselves.
But the bottom line is that this connection between body and soul is not easy to understand. The power to heal physically, emotionally, and spiritually is on the fringes of science. Why are some people healed and some people are not? As a minister I have wondered why I can pray for one person to be healed and they are, and then pray for another to be healed, and they are not. Why? I do not know. I do know that prayer works and in some cases where the person was not healed, the prayer worked in ways that I did not expect. What that means is that our response to brokenness and disease of every kind must be a response of faith.
In Luke chapter 4, Jesus has a little commentary on the healing of Naaman. He says, “There were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.” (Luke 4:27). Israel had lepers. Why heal Naaman, a Syrian general? Because there is something different about Naaman. Even before he was healed, there was something different. Yes he was full of pride and arrogance, he was a general and arrogance and pride sort of go with that office. But even with all that, he was a man of faith. He believed that slave girl and then he went to all that trouble to visit this strange prophet in an enemy nation. He did not like the way Elisha treated him, but he still had faith. He listened to the advice of his own servants. Finally, he did what Elisha said—because he believed that there was a real spiritual power in Elisha.
We need to apply the lesson of Naaman. We believe God. We believe that God is a power in our lives to help us to be healed. Today, some of you need some sort of healing--physical, emotional, spiritual. If so, may we together take those first steps down the riverbank, asking God to meet us there, and asking God to heal the brokenness in us, placing our trust and hope in his healing presence.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
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