A Sermon preached Feb 12, 2012 at Southminster Presbyterian Church
2 Kings 5:1-15
Privilege is a nice thing when you have it, right? Naaman’s life with leprosy was much easier than the man who talks with Jesus, right?
They were both lepers, but Naaman was a leper with privilege.
And while the biblical limitations on people with leprosy seem harsh to our ears, they were the public health directives of their day—keeping communicable diseases from spreading. You can read most of them in Leviticus 13 and 14 if you want to know more about them.
But people with leprosy were to report themselves to the priest, who would examine them and then put them in isolation for a period of time to see if it went away. If it went away, you could resume your regularly scheduled life, but if it remained, listen to these instructions:
“The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be dishevelled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.” (Lev 13:45-46)
But Naaman isn’t living that life.
He’s the commander of the Syrian army and shows up at the King of Israel’s house with a letter from the King of Syria asking to heal Naaman.
And the king of Israel freaks out a bit. “How am I supposed to heal leprosy??!”
To fully appreciate the King of Israel’s plight, let’s look at the context of this story. It is likely that the King during this time is Jehoram, son of King Ahab.
Ahab, you might recall from the story of his wife Jezebel and the vanquished prophets of Baal on Mt Carmel, was killed by the King of Aram in battle. This same King of Aram now writes a letter to Jehoram, asking him to do the impossible—cure someone of leprosy. Now, I don’t know about you, but if someone who had killed my father asked me to cure someone of leprosy, I’d probably freak out a bit too.
Do you know how to do that?
I certainly don’t!
And he isn’t asked to cure just anyone. He’s asked to cure the General, the biggest military commander, of their biggest military opponent.
So there’s no pressure. None at all. Easy schmeazy.
Just a simple letter asking for healing and offering ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and tensets of designer clothes.
Perhaps the King of Aram could have given Jehoram a little more information, but perhaps the King of Aram was presuming that if there was a prophet in Israel who could heal people of leprosy, then the King of Israel would certainly know about him and would automatically send Naaman to him.
Elisha finds out about Naaman and instructs the King of Israel to send him to Elisha’s home.
So Naaman pulls up in Elisha’s driveway with all of his chariots, horses, and hangers on. But he doesn’t knock on the door. He just stands there—looking very impressive, I’m sure— waiting for Elisha to come out and thank him for the opportunity to heal such an auspicious man.
We don’t know what Elisha is doing in the house— Watching Downton Abbey on PBS? —but he sends his messenger out to Naaman with some simple instructions. “Go wash in the Jordan River seven times and your flesh will be restored and you will be clean.”
The next time this happens, when your yard is full of Syrian chariots, here’s a tip—don’t send your servant out to greet the General. They get a little insulted.
And, apparently, Elisha should have also come up with a more impressive cure. Don’t just send them off to do something simple—come out and make a big show of it! And if you are going to send someone to wash in a river—make sure it is an impressive body of water—and one that would have been familiar and comfortable to the General.
Because Naaman gets angry. He takes his chariots and horses and pouts off, “I thought that for me he surely would come out and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot and cure my leprosy.”
Are we like Naaman? When we are seeking healing and cures, do we put conditions on our requests? Do we have pre-conceived notions of how healing is supposed to look that get in the way of receiving the healing when it comes? Does our particular privilege, whatever it is, get in our way of receiving healing?
But then Naaman’s slaves speak wisdom to Naaman. “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’?”
Thank God for people who speak truth to us, especially when it comes with some risk to them. Slaves weren’t usually invited to point out their masters’ mistakes, I’m guessing. Yet, here, they did.
Who are the people in your life, trying to speak truths to you?
Naaman, to his credit, recognizes the truth when it is spoken by his slaves and he goes to the river to be cleansed.
His flesh was restored. He was cleansed. He was healed. He was saved. And his healing led to faith. His response to being made clean was to acknowledge, before Elisha and all of the hangers on that “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel”.
His claim about God is a big claim. This Syrian General, commander of the armies, announces that the one true God isn’t from his hometown. He has to let his partisan allegiances go to make this claim about God.
He could have said nothing, taking his healing and going silently back home to Aram.
He could have said, “thanks for the healing. For a bunch of Israelis, your God is pretty good, but now I’m going back to Aram where the gods are awesome!”
But he doesn’t. He makes a public claim for a god who is not backing his particular candidate.
But what I can’t get over is the fact that Naaman should never have been the commander of the Syrian army in the first place. Naaman’s experience should have been like our unnamed Leper in Mark’s gospel. He should have been isolated and excluded from society, tearing his clothes and walking through the streets calling “unclean”!
His privilege should certainly not have allowed him into the presence of the King of Syria or the King of Israel.
But every so often there are people like Naaman, whose particular gifts and abilities allow them to do what others don’t get to do. I think about Franklin Roosevelt who served 4 terms as President but was, by the end of his presidency, almost totally confined to a wheel chair because of polio.
You may remember the controversy a few years ago about the FDR memorial in Washington DC, where he is depicted in a wheelchair. Critics complained because FDR did not like to be seen in his wheelchair and they thought it seemed unfair to portray him that way cast in bronze.
But for people who are confined to wheelchairs, the image of a President of the United States wheelchair bound certainly carries different importance.
Photographer Barbara Green gave me permission to use this photo she took at the FDR Memorial. When she asked the person if she could take her picture, the woman answered with a heartfelt “Yes!”, then told her that FDR had been a lifelong inspiration to her.
Naaman was that sort of figure. He was a “great man”, in “high favor” with the King. He was a “mighty warrior” through whom the Lord had given victory to Aram.
And while I am thankful he acknowledged his healing came from God, I wonder if it went any further than that. I wonder if Naaman used the privilege he had to advocate for other people who were excluded by society, to extend his privilege to others. I wonder if he went to civic clubs and classrooms and encouraged people to be more welcoming. I wonder if he went to leper colonies and brought comfort.
How do people with privilege use it for more than personal gain? Especially when it allows them to break through barriers.
This made me think of Jackie Robinson, who in 1947 broke the color barrier that had excluded African Americans from playing Major League Baseball. He didn’t need healing from a disease, of course, but he lived in a world that suffered from the disease of racism. And I bet he knew what the lepers felt like when they couldn’t walk through the front door of the drug store, sit at the front of the bus, or drink at the same water fountain.
While Jackie was an extraordinary athlete—he was the first athlete to letter in 4 varsity sports at UCLA. Baseball, Basketball, Football, and Track. The year he entered the major leagues, he was rookie of the year.
But when life gave him the privilege that other African Americans did not have, he used that privilege to make other people’s lives privileged as well. He once said, “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”
He helped found Freedom National Bank, a black-owned and operated bank in Harlem. He also established a construction company to build housing for low income families.
He took the blessings he had to change people’s lives.
This week in the news, many of you heard about the JC Penney spokeswoman crisis. JC Penney hired Ellen DeGeneres to be their spokeswoman. Ellen has a daily TV show, but she may be most famous for being one of the first openly gay women in Hollywood.
As soon as her appointment was announced, a group called “One Million Moms” called on people to boycott JC Penney and asked JC Penney to fire Ellen. JC Penney said, “no. We’re sticking with Ellen.” This group wanted Ellen fired because she didn’t represent their values. So here is what Ellen said this week on her show about her values. “I stand for honesty, equality, kindness, compassion, treating people the way you want to be treated, and helping those in need. To me, those are traditional values. That’s what I stand for.”
Our Gospel story this morning is also a leprosy healing story. But our leper here is nameless and does not have the social or political power that Naaman had. He comes to Jesus and begs him, saying, “If you choose, you can make me clean.”
Jesus reaches out his hand and touches him, saying, “I do choose. Be made clean.” Immediately, he was healed. Healing is for both military generals and nameless lepers.
I’m not sure that we today can understand the gift the leper received because I’m not sure we can appreciate the stigma that came with leprosy in those days.
Ancient societies, including 1st century Palestine, operated from the assumption that uncleanness was contagious. In other words, if you touched a person who was unclean, you would also be unclean. And while there may have been a medical component to this uncleanness, the people of the day considered it to be a religious problem. Leprosy was considered a punishment for sin.
So, when Jesus reached out and touched the leper, he should have been contaminated by the man’s uncleanness. He should have been made unclean.
But that’s not what happened. When the Son of God touches someone, he makes them clean. The cleanness of Jesus is stronger than any of our uncleanness.
When Jesus reached out, touched, and healed an unclean man, the leper may or may not have consciously grasped the huge change in how the world was ordered. On some level he realized that a privilege, a gift, had been extended to him, and hopefully he was able to share that with others.
We may not be Generals in the Syrian Army, (which is probably just as well these days). And we may not be the President of the United States or Jackie Robinson or Ellen DeGeneres, but we have all been gifted with privilege too. There are many different ways we have been privileged. To live in a free and stable country, where we can live out our lives and practice our faith in freedom. To have gifts that make us unique—whether gifts of athletic prowess, or chili cook off cooking, or artistic ability, or music, or brains, or the gift of evangelism—whatever those gifts may be, they bring you the privilege to do with them what only you can do. And last, but certainly not least, we have been privileged with the gift of grace. Because it is only by grace that we are saved, that we are healed.
When the leper says to Jesus, “if you choose, you can make me clean”, Jesus’ very reply is grace. “I do choose.”
Our very privilege of being children of God, a part of the family, is a gift.
One other observation about the privileged people I have mentioned today—Naaman, FDR, Jackie Robinson, Ellen—is that I would guess none of them would have used “privileged” as the first word to describe themselves. Naaman had leprosy. FDR had polio. Jackie Robinson faced racism that is unimaginable to me. Ellen faces discrimination that is also hard for me to fathom.
So, this week, I invite you to spend some time thinking about your privilege. And consider that perhaps the difficulty in your own life that you wish weren’t there may just be your greatest strength and gift.
And how can we, as healed and privileged people share and extend the gifts we’ve been given in our own healing, so that we can bring justice to our brothers and sisters who face greater challenges than we do? Friends, let us go out and proclaim freely that there is healing to be found.
Thanks be to God.