What are you preaching? Peace or Profit?
Today our Old Testament reading is about Naaman, the commander of the Syrian army, and Elisha, the prophet of God. The story is 27 verses, the entire 5th chapter of the 2nd Book of Kings. But, we only get 3 verses in the Lectionary. I would guess that most people are not familiar with the “rest of the story”, and it is a fascinating story. Some of these ideas came from Walter Brueggemann, a well known author & scholar of the Old Testament, and I thought they were worth sharing.
Naaman was highly respected by the King of Syria, for he was a skilled leader and very successful in battle. BUT, he was “a leper”, with repulsive sores and flakey, scaly skin. It would cost him his military/political career and his social position if he didn’t find a cure.
In an ironic twist, Naaman’s wife had a slave girl from Israel, captured in a raid, and this slave knew of the miracles done by the prophet Elisha. So the King of Syrian gave Naaman a letter of introduction to the King of Israel, and Naaman set off, loaded with 10 silver coins, 6,000 gold pieces and 10 expensive sets of clothing, a fortune really, to buy his healing.
Well, the King of Israel tore his clothing in despair, thinking this must be an excuse for the Syrians to invade and destroy Israel, because clearly, no one could cure leprosy. But Elisha heard about the ruckus, and suggested that the king send Naaman to him.
When Naaman arrived at Elisha’s door, Elisha didn’t even bother to come out. He just sent someone else to tell Naaman to wash 7 times in the muddy old river Jordon. Naaman was infuriated. He was certain Elisha would at least wave his hands over him, say prayers, and invoke the Israelite God to cure him. So Naaman was in a rage, “We have better, cleaner rivers in Damascus, I could have stayed home and washed in a river!” He turned to leave, but his servants reasoned with him. “It’s a simple thing to do. You would have done something difficult if he told you to, why not at least try?” He did, and he was not only healed, but his skin was as smooth and clean as a child’s.
Now, no story is complete until you place it in the culture of the time, and in the Middle East then, you always had to reciprocate for any favor. So Naaman returns to pay Elisha. And Naaman even adds a confession of faith, “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth, except in Israel.” Elisha refuses any payment. No co-pay, no professional fees, no deductable, no monthly premium, no bill to be sent in the mail. And then, Naaman has a curious request – could he please take 2 mule loads of dirt, so he can worship no other god except the Lord, on Israeli soil, at home, in Syria. People equated worship with a physical and geographical place, and Naaman wanted some of that “place” to take home.
He also added one little caveat to the deal. He would still have to enter the Damascus temple of the idol Rimmon with the King, and he wanted forgiveness in advance for bowing down to that idol for social and political reasons, with the understanding that he believed the Lord was the one true God. Now, what do you suppose Elisha’s reply to that was?
Elisha said, “Go in peace.” “Go in Peace”?? That was not what I expected. I was waiting for a fiery, “If the Lord is God, bow to HIM!! Why would Elisha be so calm about pre-planned idolatry from this man whose life has just been saved by God? I find it amazing.
Elisha was not in the business of selling health care, after all. He was in the business of peace. He brought peace to Naaman, who came knowing only fear and death.
Elisha brought peace to many people by healing a dreaded disease; he contributed to the common good by overcoming suffering.
Elisha brought peace because now a powerful and well known leader has confessed that the Lord is the only source of power and healing.
Elisha contributed to a step toward peace between Israel and Syria. If more people did that, our world would be a different place today.
Elisha gave us all a reminder of the abundance of God’s love and healing, which is freely, abundantly given to all. Elisha, like God, did not hire a staff that counts our failures or the times we feel we must bow to some idol. God does not barter for peace. The peace of God, like rain, falls on the just and the rest of us.
Finally, Elisha chose to remain free to move on in peace himself, not bound by any missteps by others. He had God’s work to do; he would focus on the good & not concern himself with judgments. He would stay free to let God’s spirit move as and when it would.
My grandchildren tell me they don’t like Christians because they’re in your face and pushy about their religion, but yet don’t seem to know much about their faith. It sounds like the Christians they meet aren’t in the peace business. Are they looking for some kind of paybacks, such as increasing church attendance and donations? Are they unfamiliar with the work of God’s Spirit?
Even if we were the only ones in town in the peace business, the only ones who seem interested in freely handing out the sacraments without barriers, feeding the hungry, distributing laundry baskets, and caring for the elderly, that’s all right. We can be the only ones who end every encounter with peace, who move on to the next encounter without noting the failures of our brothers and sisters. We can affirm each other, complete with those idols we each cling to. We can spend less time and effort worrying about our scales and our flakey-ness, and focus instead on something constructive.
Peace is the gift that heals us all, but peace spreads by our contact with each other, one at a time. Then we are ready to praise and worship the God of love and healing and peace.