2 Kings 5:1-15
Leprosy is a skin disease, though, in the Bible it is considered a state of ‘uncleanness’, rather than an illness. A person afflicted with leprosy is encouraged to present themselves to the priest, and not the physician. Leprosy is a spiritual condition, and we can understand it as a metaphor for an inward state of alienation. Unlovely, unwanted, lepers are relegated to the fringes of society, and are to be avoided. But most of us know that an unattractive skin disease is not a necessary condition for feeling estranged. Feelings of alienation, being misunderstood, not fitting-in, feeling “less-than”, and apart-from, being on the outside looking in, this is a real experience for many people. Alienation, the experience of not feeling as if one belongs, is a spiritual condition that Jesus came to save us from. Jesus came to save outcasts and sinners. The Bible often characterizes alienation metaphorically, as leprosy, which brings us to the story of Naaman from our first reading.[i]
Naaman was the commander of an army. A great man, and highly regarded; a mighty warrior with success in battle (the scripture says) but he has leprosy. That’s the thing about leprosy. It doesn’t discriminate. Feelings of alienation have nothing to do with success, or lack of success, with attractiveness, or smarts, with being raised in a loving family, or a not so loving family. Anyone (I might say all of us) can sometimes get the feeling that we don’t quite belong. Someone might look good on the outside, like Naaman, they may appear confident, and have it all together; but inside, it’s a different story. It’s one reason why in monasticism, we say, “Comparisons are odious.” Or as a friend of mine likes to put it, “You will never find anyone that looks as bad as you feel.” Everyone is susceptible to the experience of not measuring up, and not fitting in, though unlike leprosy you can’t tell by looking at someone what their spiritual condition is. Comparisons are odious. No one is immune from feeling alienated and estranged, and that’s the condition Naaman is in.
But good news! Naaman’s wife has a slave girl who was taken captive from a neighboring tribe. She says there is a prophet in Israel who can cure Naaman of his leprosy. Naaman is intrigued, and as a man of influence and means, a dispatch is sent to the King of Israel asking him to cure Naaman.
Now, for Naaman, a powerful person accustomed to winning in battle, to have taken the recommendation of a slave girl and implore the king of a rival tribe with a foreign God for help, he must have been pretty desperate. For all his power and resources, Naaman recognizes that his leprosy is something that he cannot change himself. Nor can we. We cannot change our own spiritual condition no matter how hard we try. When we feel alienated, like we are unwanted, and don’t belong, the first step to transformation is asking for help. As another friend of mine says, “The answer to loneliness is not isolation.” Asking for help is the beginning of transformation. But, Naaman soon finds out that the King of Israel – also a powerful person, perhaps the most powerful person in the land – the King of Israel cannot cure Naaman’s leprosy, either. The King cries, “Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy?*”
Only God can transform our spiritual condition, but God does work through other people, which is why asking for help is so important. The prophet Elisha hears of Naaman’s plight, and recognizes the opportunity to demonstrate the power of the God of Israel. Elisha sends for Naaman, who arrives at Elisha’s house expecting to be cured, but Elisha doesn’t even come out to greet him. Instead, he sends a messenger, who tells Naaman, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.” Naaman is angry. He replies, “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy!*”
Asking for help is a great beginning, but sometimes the help that is offered is not what is expected; sometimes the help that is presented can even appear to be of inferior quality. Expectations are the enemy of the spiritual life. The truth is, it is often the thing we want to do the least that has the potential to transform us the most. Again, I’ll quote a friend, who says, “Liking it is not a requirement.”
Thank God for friends. Naaman’s servants say 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?’” God works through other people. Other people can help us see our blind spots, and identify where our expectations are getting in the way.
At a certain point, if we want to change, and we’ve asked for help, it helps if we lay aside our expectations, throw up our hands, and simply say, “I don’t know,” and trust that the help that is offered is the right kind of help even if it doesn’t seem that way at first.
“Naaman went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God,” and the scripture says, “his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.”
When God cleanses us from feelings of alienation the first place we feel as if we belong is in our own skin. We may not have felt at home there because we weren’t “right-sized” (either too big or too small for our skin, so we don’t fit). Asking for help can make us “right-sized”, and feel as if we belong in our own skin because asking for help is grounded in the truth of our humanity that we need help. Asking for help liberates us from the feeling that we have to do it ourselves, that it all depends on us, because that just isn’t true. Also implicit in asking for help, is the truth that we are worthy of receiving help. God wants to help us. God works through other people. God helps us in unexpected and unlikely ways; ways that may sometimes seem quite mundane. God helps us, because we belong to God.
The second thing that can make us “right-sized” and feel at home in our own skin is, “I don’t know”. “I don’t know what’s best for me.” “I don’t know how to change myself.” “I don’t know” liberates us from thinking that we need to have all the answers. “I don’t know” frees us from the need to figure “it” out. “I don’t know” frees us up to trust God; trust that God is conspiring to give us what we need in ways and forms we would never expect.
There is a third thing that vanquishes alienation, and makes us feel at home in our own skin: “I was wrong.” The scripture says, “Naaman returned to the man of God, he and all his company; he came and stood before [Elisha] and said, ‘Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.’”
“I was wrong” makes us “right-sized” because it liberates us from the need to be right!
Bathing in the Jordan seven times did restore Naaman’s flesh. God did that for him. Naaman returned to Elisha with all his company to admit that he was wrong. Naaman recognizes now that he belongs to God, he feels at home in his own skin, and he is a part of community – with all his company. Alienated no more.
“I need help.” “I don’t know.” “I was wrong.” Three phrases that invite God’s power to transform us because we belong to God. Three phrases that make us “right-sized” so we fit in our own skin. Three phrases that enable us to become a part of community – Christian community. Jesus came to save outcasts and sinners. Jesus calls into community those who recognize their need for help, those who say they don’t know, and those who admit when they are wrong. No matter who we are, no matter what we have done, no matter how else we may identify, we belong to one another. The reality of Christian community is that we are people who need help, we are people who can say we don’t know, and we are people who can admit when we are wrong.
“I need help.” “I don’t know.” “I was wrong.” Welcome home!
[i] All Scripture references are from 2 Kings 5:1-15.
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