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 leprosy.
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. She said to her mistress, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” 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.” 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 leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.”
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.”
So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house. 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.” 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 leprosy! 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.
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’?” 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.
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.” But Elisha said, “As the LORD lives, whom I serve, I will accept nothing!” Naaman urged him to accept, but Elisha refused. Then Naaman said, “If not, please let two mule-loads of earth be given to your servant; for your servant will no longer offer burnt offering or sacrifice to any god except the LORD. But may the LORD pardon your servant on one count: when my master goes into the house of Rimmon to worship there, leaning on my arm, and I bow down in the house of Rimmon, when I do bow down in the house of Rimmon, may the LORD pardon your servant on this one count.” He said to him, “Go in peace.”
A dispute also arose among the disciples as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. But Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.
“What the Servant Sees”
Dacher Keltner, a psychologist who teaches at Cal Berkeley, tells the story of riding his bike up a hill in his hometown. After coming to a 4-way stop, he proceeded into the intersection. When he was about half-way across, a man driving a new Mercedes neglected to stop and came within about a foot of hitting Keltner. What lodged the encounter in the professor’s brain, though, was that the driver then looked at him as though he, the cyclist, were in the wrong, and should not have been there in the first place. Keltner had the impression that the driver felt that the usual rules of the road did not apply to this interaction.
The incident spurred Keltner and one of his colleagues to design an experiment, the results of which were published by the National Academy of Sciences in 2012. Here’s how the NY Times summarized their effort: “In California, where the study was conducted, state law requires motorists to stop at crosswalks when pedestrians are present, allowing them to cross the road. [The research] team selected a specific crosswalk to observe, then had a pedestrian appear on the edge of the curb as a car approached. As the pedestrian stepped into the road,… researchers, [hidden nearby] marked down the driver’s reaction to the pedestrian. This was done with 152 drivers. In addition to describing drivers’ behavior…, the researchers [were] to indicate… the age and appearance of the cars, with a “1” signifying beat-up, low-value cars and a “5” given to top-of-the-line models….”
Overall, about eight of every 10 drivers followed the law. But when the data was broken down by the value of the cars driven, the researchers noticed that nearly half of the most expensive cars proceeded through the pedestrian zone without stopping, while every single driver of the lowest-value cars stopped for the pedestrian.
This experiment is just one of many recent studies that seek to examine the effects that wealth and power may have on human interactions. Clearly, though, these are not new issues, because our passage from II Kings tells such a story more than 2500 years old.
The narrator includes all kinds of social locators in the story: age, gender, ethnicity, health and ability, wealth, social standing, military rank, political connection—and each marker is called into question before the story ends.
Think about it:
• The story is set in motion not by kings or commanders
but by the courage and compassion of a young, female captive.
• Healing is not purchased with a great display of wealth
but offered freely through an act of obedience and humility.
• Kings, who are political insiders, continually misread what is happening,
while outsiders perceive a way forward
• Nationalistic loyalties give way to God’s greater purpose,
as healing is extended to Israel’s enemy
• Finally, wisdom resides not in those who sit in the halls of power
but among those who serve.
It is this last observation that really struck me as I worked the passage this week. By my count there are 15 references to servant, master, mistress or lord in our translation. Clearly, the author of this passage is interested in such relationships, but the writer seems most especially interested in the perspectives offered by those on the margins of power.
In both Aram and Israel, it is servants far from home who light the way. The young servant from the land of Israel not only remembers the prophet Elisha, but continues to trust in God’s power and provision even as she is enslaved in a foreign land. She is moved by the suffering of her captor; and longs for the healing even of her enemy. And later, when Naaman’s rage and arrogance threaten to cut off all possibility of healing, it is the servants who have traveled with him into foreign territory who urge him to open his heart to a possibility beyond his control.
Much like Jesus’ beatitudes, the larger story of Naaman suggests that experiences of vulnerability have the capacity to open our eyes to what matters most. By letting go of the armor that protects him and the clothes that suggest his station in life, by baptism in the muddy flow of his enemy’s waters, Naaman is said to be restored to the flesh of a child. He is able to begin anew.
Such opportunities can be hard to spot, but I wonder if they are all around us. A recent visit from an old friend brought that home.
Her call came while we were out of town. She needed to be in the triangle for a few days the following week, and wondered if she might use our spare room; it was an easy ‘yes.’
We had three schedules to juggle while she was here but managed to squeeze in two leisurely dinners. At the table on Thursday we caught up with news of work and families, but Saturday night’s conversation took a more vulnerable turn, when our friend said simply “I got a DUI in January.”
One night, not far from her home, she pulled over, realizing that she shouldn’t be driving. The next thing she knew, she was waking to a flashlight shining through her window. Before long she was wearing an orange jump suit and locked inside a holding cell—a completely foreign environment. Not wanting to wake the stranger who was asleep in the lower bunk, and not sure she would be able to climb to the upper bunk, anyway, our friend pulled a plastic container called a “boat” from under the bed and curled up to get what sleep she could. As she lay there looking at the paint peeling from the cement block walls she said that she knew that this was a place for prayer.
As we listened, she rushed through other impressions of the night: talking later with the roommate, then being separated for a while. Her cellmate was no stranger to those walls and so helped our friend to know what she might expect. Before she was released the next morning, they held on to each other. She explained that her cellmate had been the face of Jesus for her through the whole surreal experience.
And then there was the aftermath: soul-searching, fines, coming clean with friends and family, and finally, 50 hours of court-mandated community service.
What you need to know about our friend is that she’s organized and overseen more community service projects for her church than you would be able to count. When she saw the list of organizations approved by the court, she realized that she was known almost everywhere. But somehow Meals on Wheels had never been on her list, so she signed up for that.
She came in early in the morning, before the office opened, and worked in the kitchen with two salty short-order cooks who gave her lots of grief. She didn’t mind that, but said it was so humbling each day to present the rumpled sheet of paper for them to sign, attesting that she had paid a few more hours of her debt to society.
She had spent so many hours in settings like that as an organizer, as the one others turned to for answers—and thanked for all her work—but this was new. The way she put it to us was “I’d been in that space so many times before, but never as a servant.”
What do all these stories have in common? I am intrigued by what the servant sees:
• by drivers who see and stop for the person in the crosswalk,
• by the ancient servant girl, who noticed the suffering of her master even from the midst of her own exile
• by Naaman’s servants, who risk the wrath of their master—in a foreign land—when they speak truth to power
• and by my friend’s willingness to offer her story this morning, with the prayer that it might prove a blessing to someone.
I am intrigued by the wisdom to be found in dislocation, and by the companions God sends to serve as our guides. Friends, nothing in our stories needs to be wasted. The places we feel most limited, most bereft, may be, in the end, the places most useful to God.
Jesus said, “Who is greater, the one who is at the table, or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.”