Lessons for the Day: 2 Kings 5:1-14; Psalm 30; Galatians 6:1-16; and, Luke 10:1-10, 16-20
The story of Naaman and Elisha in the Second Book of Kings is a strange and unique story, particularly so with respect to how the plot is driven. The protagonists in the story are Naaman, the Aramean warrior, who has “leprosy”; and the prophet Elisha of Israel, chosen successor to Elijah. However, while the story is ostensibly about these two, these two protagonists never actually meet. Even the appearance of the powerful kings of Aram and Israel is brief and inconspicuous. None of them drive the action or force resolution. The story is unique because the plot is directed by a series of nameless servants. Indeed, the seemingly unimportant, nameless ones in service to others do more in the story any others.
As the story unfolds, the hearer is told that Naaman’s wife has a servant girl from the land of Israel who suggests that the Naaman ought to seek “the prophet who is in Samaria, who would cure him of his leprosy.” The story would have gone nowhere without her suggestion. With the Aramean king’s blessing, Naaman goes to Samaria, the capital of Israel (the Northern Kingdom), bringing with him a great quantity of gold and silver, and “ten sets of garments.” It seems as if Naaman was expecting an expensive and elaborate production.
Even at the entrance to his house, Elisha and Naaman would not meet; but, instead, Elisha sent another nameless servant to instruct Naaman,
“Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.”2 Kings 5:10
Offended by the lack of greeting, Naaman becomes angry and turns to leave in a rage. Then, more nameless servants courageously approach Naaman, persuading him to do as instructed. The warrior listens, and is cured – just as the nameless servant girl had indicated, just as nameless servant had instructed, and just as Naaman’s own nameless servants had persuaded him.
The healing challenged Naaman’s apparent expectations. Elisha is not present! There are no prayers, incantations, or no laying on of hands! There were none of the trapping that one might have associated with a healing during the days of the Kings. But, the God of Israel is present, and has very strong powers indeed, acting immediately without power brokers or mediators. And, not to be brushed aside, this story (as with several in the Elijah cycle) demonstrates that God shows no partiality, healing to foreigners as well as to the people of Israel. Saint Paul will indicate this several hundred years later when he writes to the Galatian:
“…neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!”Galatians 6:15
Luke’s account of the sending of the seventy* echoes the theme of divine authority and power found in Elijah. In the narrative flow, Jesus had just sent out The Twelve, with “power and authority” and to “proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal” (Luke 9:1-2). Now, the Twelve having returned, Jesus sends out seventy of his disciples “to every town and place where he himself intended to go” (Luke 10:1). The seventy go out, bearing divine authority even though Jesus is not physically present with them. This is what Jesus when he tells them,
“Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.”Luke 10:16
Both of the narratives from Second Kings and Luke are demonstrations of divine authority and power. Even Paul’s letter to the Galatians demonstrates this as he talks of being made a new creation in Jesus Christ. The narratives, though, demonstrate something even more amazing: There is a shocking generosity in our God to hand over holy stuff to human actors.
In the Elisha narrative, Elisha and the nameless servants act as divine and holy instruments, making Naaman whole. Through the activity of the prophet and the servants, God proclaimed his presence and power. The seventy are sent, and they came back from their missionary journeys filled with joy and chattering, “Lord! In your name even the demons submit to us!” (Luke 10:17). The holy gift of God was present with them so that even evil fled before them. But Jesus reminds, “Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.’ (Luke 10:20). They are part of the kingdom.
God hands over holy stuff to human actors in order to connect people to an amazing love and peace and hope. It’s not just Elijah and Elisha and the great prophets, though! It’s not just the seventy who had sat at Jesus feet, witnessed what Jesus did, and listened to him teach. Indeed! This is the story of all of us, witnesses to our baptismal covenant.
It’s the story of prophetic witness found in Harriet Beecher Stowe (feast day – July 1), abolitionist and author.
It’s the story of prophetic witness of Walter Rauschenbusch, Washington Gladden, and Jacob Riis (feast day – July 2), three clergymen active at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries who sought “to seek and serve Christ in all persons” and who strove for “justice and peace among all
It’s the story of the prophetic witness of חֲסִידֵי אֻמּוֹת הָעוֹלָם – the Righteous Gentiles (feast day – July 16), who risked their lives during the Holocaust to save Jews from extermination by the Nazis.
It’s the story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Amelia Bloomer, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Ross Tubman (feast day – July 20), abolitionists and women’s rights advocates who gave of themselves for the building of the kingdom in seeking the common good, “for all are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)
It’s the story of Albert John Luthuli (feast day – July 21), whose prophetic witness to the Prince of Peace gave rise to the non-violent, anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.
It’s the story of the prophetic witness exemplified by Pauli Murray (feast day – July 1). Inspired by a Christian faith, Murray was compelled to seek gender equality in America, co-founding the National Organization of Women in 1966. Then, inspired by connections in the Episcopal Church, Murray entered the seminary, and in 1977 would become the first African-American female ordained in the Episcopal Church. In addition to women’s issues, Murray endured in the struggle for acceptance, welcome, and inclusion of the LGBTQ community in the church, struggling as Murray did with her own gender identity and sexuality. At the service of inclusion of Pauli Murray into the Episcopal Holy Women, Holy Men, the then bishop of North Carolina, Michael Curry said,
“[This recognition] honors people whose lives have exemplified what it means to follow in the footsteps of Jesus and make a difference in the world.”Michael Curry, TEC General Convention Address 2012
How many of those saints have you heard of? Now, how many of them do you think were known before they donned the mantle of Elijah, and bore the Spirit of Jesus? We tend to think of prophets as “great communicators;” however, the lives of Elijah and Elisha correct this emphasis. You see, they weren’t so much “communicators” and “connectors.” Those men and women in we note as Holy Women, Holy Men, they weren’t so much great communicators, charismatic leaders, or bold prophets, they were men and women like us who chose to take up their baptismal covenant. Prophetic activity can be any activity that breaks through human boundaries, connecting the power of God’s presence to all people, even foreigners beyond our land.
This role of connecting the power of God to the people of the world is supremely and fully embodied in Jesus. By derivation and gift, the same role of connecting is ours as well. We don’t all have to be “great communicators,” but we can all be great connectors. As the old song goes,
They lived not only in ages past;Hymnal 1982 # 293 (verse 3)
there are hundreds of thousands still;
the world is bright with the joyous saints
who love to do Jesus’ will.
You can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea,|
in church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea;
for the saints of God are just folk like me,
and I mean to be one too.
Like the nameless servants who drive the story of Naaman, our job is to be the connectors of God’s extraordinary, abundant, and life-giving power to those who need it. For love, peace, and justice, and for the repair of the world’s fabric, may the Lord make it so.
Lessons from Proper 9: Luke 10:1-11,16-20; 2 Kings 5:1-14; Psalm 30; Galatians 6:(1-6)7-16
*Some translations indicate seventy-two. The early manuscripts are evenly divided. I follow the NRSV translation, not only because it is the one used in the Revised Common Lectionary, but because I think that it echoes the Lucan image of Jesus as a prophet like Moses (see Numbers 11).