Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time
First Reading: 2 Kings 5:14-17
Sometimes we all need a bath. Just this morning, my son came in the back door covered in mud. That’s not the first time! Not long ago, my other son tipped the cornstarch box off the counter and all over himself—he looked like the Pillsbury Doughboy or a ghost. The point is, all of us need a bath sometimes because we get dirty. Yet there are some types of defilement that cannot be washed away with mere water. A lot of people take baths in the Bible, but the bath of Naaman in the Jordan River is the most memorable.
Since this Sunday’s first reading only gives us a snippet of the story, which appears nowhere else in the Sunday lectionary, it’s worth recounting the backstory. The traditional enemies, Syria and Israel, are in a ceasefire, but the air is tense. One of the Syrian generals, Naaman, has a longstanding leprosy problem—probably not the notorious Hansen’s disease, but some other debilitating skin condition. From the many raids that the Syrian army has perpetrated against Israel, Naaman has a little Israelite girl as a household slave who tells him of a powerful prophet who could heal him, Elisha. Naaman, desperate for a cure, leaves his post, garners a letter of recommendation from the Syrian king, packs his bags with cash and heads for Israel. When he presents himself and his letter before the king of Israel, the king flips out and tears his clothes, sighing out loud, “Am I God?” He is worried that Syria is trying to pick a fight with Israel by asking for a miracle and not receiving one.
The Humbling of Naaman
Yet the king of Israel receives a note from the prophet Elisha who offers to heal Naaman. When Naaman arrives at his door, though, Elisha does not come to meet him—a great offense to a powerful person in the ancient honor/shame system. Instead, Elisha sends a lowly messenger with instructions for Naaman to dip in the Jordan River seven times and so be healed. Now, if you have ever been to the Holy Land or even seen pictures, you’ll know how muddy the Jordan is. The small river runs brown with silt—not exactly the best place for a bath. After hearing the messenger, Naaman is enraged by the insult to his honor and disgusted by the thought of bathing in the Jordan, preferring the rivers of his homeland. He thought that Elisha would come to heal him in person with his hands. Yet his servants wisely talk him down and convince him that Elisha is not assigning him to take an ordinary bath, but spoke “a great word” (2 Kgs 5:13). That is, Elisha is sending Naaman to get a miraculous healing.
The Healing of Naaman
After listening to his servants, Naaman relents and decides to take the special sevenfold bath. And, true to Elisha’s word, Naaman’s skin is healed and becomes like that of a “little boy.” Naaman all of the sudden looks a lot like the “little girl” who had convinced him to come to Israel in the first place. He represents what Jesus taught us, “unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 18:3 RSV). You could imagine how embarrassed Naaman would be about his initial rage, but in humility he returns to Elisha in gratitude.
Paying for a Miracle?
Now at this point in the story, it’s worth reflecting on the complex status relationships of the ancient Near East. Unlike our ostensibly egalitarian society, no one was equal. Everybody had a status that was higher or lower, relative to everyone you interacted with. One way to gain status was to give gifts. It sounds strange, but just think of the party favors you might get at a billionaire’s wedding versus a lower-middle class wedding. Gifts implied obligation to reciprocate. If you received a gift from a wealthy or powerful person, the unstated expectation was that you would help that person if he needed you.
In this context, Naaman does the right thing by going back to Elisha and offering a gift. The idea is that Elisha give him a healing, so Naaman will give him gold and then all’s square; we’re even. But Elisha will have none of it. He refuses the gifts to teach Naaman a powerful lesson: No one can be “even” with God. No one can buy a miracle. By refusing Naaman’s gift, Elisha avoids contracting any obligation to the Syrian general. Naaman is not Elisha’s benefactor. In fact, Elisha (and God!) is Naaman’s benefactor. Instead of receiving a gift from Naaman, Elisha in fact gives him an additional gift: dirt. Naaman scoops up dirt from the Holy Land, perhaps to make an altar to the Lord, or to serve as the “place” of his worship. It reminds me of St. Helena, Constantine’s mom, who brought back a shipload of dirt from Jerusalem to build a church on in Rome. It is called Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, Holy Cross “in” Jerusalem, even though it is in Rome.
The story after our reading adds a sad chapter, where Elisha’s servant Gehazi chases down Naaman, lies about Elisha changing his mind, and comes back with a pile of silver. Elisha knows through his prophetic gift that Gehazi has been duplicitous and so the servant is afflicted with Naaman’s leprosy as a punishment. Gehazi did not get the lesson that the prophet was trying to teach. Yet this lesson, of humility before God, of grace as a free gift are hugely important for us. Like Naaman, we need a bath (baptism!) to cleanse us from our sins. And we too are unable to pay God back for saving us from sin. Instead, we can rejoice like little children in a spirit of gratitude that he was willing to save us.