Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, "The Hard Way," 2 Kings 5:1-14 (Proper 9C, Ordinary 14C)
2 Kings 5:1-14
The Hard Way
I’ve been thinking about the way we talk about whether the situations we experience in life are hard or easy and what kind of value we place on those words. For example, sometimes we talk with disdain about someone trying to “take the easy way out.” Or we might say, “Oh, that person had it so easy.” Right now, for example, I’m preparing for some exams in my schoolwork, and I feel like it has been a lot of work. But there are some students (including my roommate) in a different area of my program, - the people who are in Biblical Studies - and their exam structure is much different than my area’s exams. And I will admit I’ve said something along the lines of “you have it so easy” to my roommate. On the other hand, we might say, “hey, take it easy!” if someone is getting too angry about something, or giving someone else a hard time. We might say, “go easy on them!” if we fear someone will give another person too severe of a reprimand or punishment. We talk about the value of hard work and hard workers. But we also sometimes find ourselves wondering at someone: why do you have to do everything the hard way? When we see someone making a situation complicated that could have been very easy, we’re baffled. I think of my mom: she has a terrible sense of direction. But she can memorize how to get from one place to another. But she can’t connect the different sets of directions she’s learned. So sometimes she’ll drive from point A to point B - a path she knows - and then from point B to point C - another path she knows - when it actually would have been much faster and simpler and easier - to go directly from point A to point C. I’d say she’s doing things the hard way. Of course, for my mom, navigating a new path is the hard way, and going on a path she’s memorized, even if it is longer, is the easy way. Either way, it seems we don’t have a clear or consistent sense of whether we think people should be trying to do things the easy way or the hard way. Are they foolish for making things harder than they need to be? Or lazy for trying to take the easy way out? We don’t seem to know.
I’ve been thinking about the hard way and the easy way as I studied our scripture text for today. In the book of 2 Kings, a history book of the Bible, we read about a man named Naaman. Naaman was a commander in the army of the king of Aram. Aram was an enemy of Israel, and the Arameans have caused a lot of “violence, loss of life, homes, and livelihood, and untold suffering to the people of Israel.” (1) Naaman, as their army’s commander, would have been disliked and feared, to put it mildly.
Naaman, we read, has leprosy. Leprosy is a word used in the Bible to describe several kinds of diseases, especially skin diseases. You might remember that in the gospels, Jesus heals lepers, who were sometimes ostracized from society, considered unclean because of their disease. But that kind of isolation, separation from community usually only happened in advanced stages. (2) Although Naaman has leprosy, it hasn’t yet kept him isolated from society. Still, he suffers from his disease.
And then, an unexpected figure intervenes: a child, a young Israelite girl, who has been captured and enslaved by the Arameans, is a servant to Naaman’s wife. As with so many women in the Bible, we don’t learn this young girl’s name. But, despite her circumstances, she speaks up with boldness, telling Naaman’s wife that there is a prophet in Samaria who could cure Naaman’s leprosy. In other words: in the lands where she came from, in the lands where Naaman has been leading violent acts of war, there is someone who could cure Naaman. A cure is at hand - but what a hard way to have to get it - from your enemy!
Still, Naaman seizes the opportunity. He tells the king what the young girl has said, and the king sends Naaman and a letter to the king of Israel, along with a hefty “payment” - silver and gold and supplies. In the letter, the king of Aram asks the king of Israel to cure Naaman’s leprosy.
Receiving the letter, the king of Israel seems to feel helpless. He, the king, cannot heal Naaman, and he feels like the king of Aram is trying to start a fight. The king of Israel seems to dread that this is all some ruse for further acts of military aggression against Israel. But Elisha, a prophet of God, hears about the letter. Elisha is the successor to the prophet Elijah, and he, like Elijah, is known for his relationship with God, for his ability to demonstrate God’s power and authority. Elisha tells the king to have Naaman sent to him. So, Naaman and his entourage and all the gifts from the king of Aram locate to Elisha’s front entrance - but they don’t go in. And Elisha doesn’t come out Perhaps Elisha, though ready to act in his role as prophet - doesn’t want to invite someone who has harmed the Israelites so deeply into his home. (2) And perhaps Naaman is not eager to show himself in a position of weakness, and doesn’t want to have to be a “guest” inside Elisha’s house, relying on Elisha’s hospitality. So even though Naaman is at Elisha’s door, Elisha sends word to Naaman through a messenger. Elisha says, “wash in the Jordan river seven times, and you’ll be clean, you’ll be healed.”
Rather than rejoicing at this news of a cure, Naaman is angry. He’s angry that Elisha didn’t come out to speak to him, angry that there was no spectacle where Elisah called on his God, and waved his arms around to make a cure. He’s angry that Elisha seems to imply the waters in Israel are curing, but not the waters of Aram. He’s enraged. He’s ready to leave, uncured, unwilling to try. But his servants boldly speak up. They say to him, “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”?” In other words, “why are you making things so hard?” Naaman finally concedes. He goes to the Jordan, washes seven times, and, just as Elisha says, he is healed completely.
That’s where our text ends, although there is more to the story that you can read in the rest of chapter 5. Naaman commits to worshiping Elisha’s God, and wants Elisha to accept all the gifts he has brought. Elisha refuses any payment but sends Naaman in peace. However, a servant of Elisha’s named Gehazi is filled with greed, upset that Elisha let Naaman off so easy without taking any of the gifts Naaman brought. He tricks Naaman into giving him some of the items after all, and when Elisha finds out about the deception, he curses Gehazi with the leprosy that once clung to Naaman.
When I read this story, I’m struck by how Naaman was sure that the means for his healing had to be complicated and difficult. And I think he was sure of that for two reasons: first, I think Naaman believes that someone of his status - a prestigious military leader - someone of his status would “deserve” a complicated healing ritual, complex and dazzling and befitting of his importance. Surely, he should have to do something special that “ordinary people” wouldn’t have to do. And second, and perhaps more importantly, I think Naaman has this idea that God makes us “jump through hoops,” so to speak, in order to receive healing, wholeness, salvation. Surely, God can’t just offer something as a gift without strings attached! So Naaman can’t believe that he can be healed of something that has plagued him for so long because this God that Elisha serves is more generous that Naaman can understand.
What about you? What about us? I wonder if we’re so different from Naaman. Sure, hopefully we don’t believe that we’re so special that we require God to work for us only through dazzling displays of power. But I think we, too, sometimes can’t believe that God is ready to be so easily generous with us, especially when we feel undeserving of God’s generosity. I think when we’re tempted to make bargains and engage in mental negotiations with God, if we could just get God to do what we want, we’re choosing the “hard way.” We’re imagining that we have to manipulate and persuade God into doing what we want. Instead, God seeks to do not necessarily what we want, but that which will bring us life, abundance, wholeness, peace, and joy, and God wants to do it out of love, goodness, and generosity. The “easy way” with God is to trust God and put our lives and hearts into God’s hands. So often, though, we make things harder, expecting God to behave in the same sort of ways we act with each other, always keeping track of status and position and power.
The other aspect of this text that strikes me is how we see power and status at work throughout the story. We have two kings, a general, a prophet, and several servants, including a young captive girl far from home. The king of Israel, leader of a nation, expresses his sense of powerlessness. What could he do to help? He can only lament that he is not God - he doesn’t have God’s powers, and without that, he sees nothing he can do to help. He only sees potential danger, despite an enemy seeking aid from him. On the other hand, anonymous servants, unnamed, who should be the people with the least power, are the ones who make almost everything in this story happen. Naaman only accepted the “easy way” of healing offered to him by Elisha because of his servants boldly speaking up. And of course, he only knew about it because of an enslaved child. I’m not sure what motivation they all had for helping Naaman. Naaman wouldn’t have known what he was missing. But even though they seem to be “powerless,” despite their low status, these servants, this young girl - they are the reason that Naaman is healed. Sure, Elisha offers the healing treatment. And yes, God is the healer. But in this story, the servants are the ones with the wisdom, and the kings and typically powerful leaders are the ones who seem afraid and helpless.
When we are feeling powerless, unable to change the world around us that seems so very broken, what if we remembered this young girl, who despite her status, claims her agency and takes action? And what if, when we’re sure that we have the power and status and know what’s best, we learned to listen to wisdom from those who usually get overlooked? After all, that’s the way of Jesus, who teaches that the first is last and last is first, the exalted are humbled and humbled are exalted. In our broken world, whose voices have we been drowning out? Whose voices, whose wisdom, should we be listening to? In what unexpected places can we find the voice of God, speaking through others? Who has knowledge and wisdom that could help us draw closer to God? What are we missing out on by only listening to voices at the center, that represent power or status or position?
The hard way, the easy way. Which way does God want us to take? I don’t think the answer to that is, well, easy. But hopefully our journey with Naaman, Elisha, and these bold, unnamed, but not forgotten servants, helps us to claim both our own wisdom and power, when we need to speak up against injustice, when we need to witness to the ways we see God at work in the world. Hopefully their voices help us to listen for the wisdom and knowledge we’ve overlooked when we put ourselves or figures of power and position at the center and neglect those on the margins. And hopefully, our journey with Naaman and his quest for healing reminds us that we are children of a God who loves us and seeks our thriving, giving to us with generosity and joy. Whether our way is easy or our path is hard, God is with us. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Haslam, Chris, “Comments,” http://montreal.anglican.org/comments/cpr14m.shtml
Hawk, L. Daniel, “Commentary on 2 Kings 5:1-14,” The Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-14-3/commentary-on-2-kings-51-14-8