Friday, 4 October 2013

Contrasts and Parallels, A Remarkable Story!

Lectionary Passages for Oct. 13, Thanksgiving Sunday.  2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c, Psalm 111, 2 Tim. 2:8-15, Luke 17:11-19
Donita Wiebe-Neufeld

Who would ever, in reading 'Goldilocks and the Three Bears' to children, stop at the part where Goldilocks happily settles into a soft bed? The story isn't over! We need to find out how the bears react, and what Goldilocks does/learns. So why do we quit reading the story of Naaman at the point where he is healed? The story isn't over at all, there's still a reconciliation, a conversion, greed, and betrayal yet to come.

This story of healing is remarkably complex and well told. It kicks off with the striking contrast between Naaman, the mighty warrior who has the direct ear of King Aram and the little girl taken from defeated Israel and slave to Naaman's wife. The slave girl is as unimportant as a person can be, yet she knows how to solve something that stymies "all the kings horses and all the kings men". Even more remarkably, she cares enough to offer her knowledge. Naaman, like many with incurable disease, is willing to try anything, even listening to a slave girls advice.

Naaman is desperate, but still rather full of himself, his position, and the assumed superiority of his people. He shows up at Elisha's with a full military escort, expecting to be treated like the royalty he is. Elisha doesn't even come out of the house, and insultingly, sends Naaman to wash in the muddy Jordan as if Israel's water is better than that of the foreigners. Of course, Naaman is enraged. (I wonder how scared Elisha's messenger was when he/she delivered the news? This could have ended very badly for everyone!)

In a parallel to the slave girls advice, Naaman's servants (not his advisors!) urge him to follow the simple, if humiliating, advice. Remarkably, maybe out of desperation, he listens and is healed. Now the story gets even more interesting! Naaman's rage evaporates, replaced by deep gratitude and reverence for the God of Israel. Naaman's conceit is gone, and he is reconciled to Elisha. He offers gifts, which Elisha refuses. (A commentator, Richard Nelson, makes a neat observation; saying that as Naaman stand in humility before Elisha, so Elisha stands in humility before God, refusing to take payment for something that is God's doing). In another fun parallel, Naaman's humble request for two mule-loads of dirt stands in beautiful contrast to his earlier disgust with the muddy Jordan. The dirt allows him to bring a bit of Israel's land home to Syria-that he might worship the God of that land.

Finally, there is a little parallel story about one of Elisha's servants. While Naaman's servants are portrayed as honourable and helpful, Elisha's servant, Gehazi, is devious and greedy. He goes behind Elisha's back to take the gifts Elisha refused. Why this little postscript of a story?  I can't help but think it's there to guard against Elisha's people claiming any sort of superiority for themselves. Naaman was brought "down to earth", and God's people are supposed to stay firmly planted on earth as well. They are not to take on airs of superiority or claim they are any better than their enemies. Wherever there are people, there are temptations, problems, and dysfunction. No group of people is exempt from humanities struggles.

Thanksgiving day. How do the lectionary passages tie in to our celebration of Thanksgiving? The Luke piece, about the ten healed lepers where only one comes back to say thank you, is obvious, likely many preachers are going to go for this scripture for Thanksgiving Sunday. In a neat parallel to the Naaman story, however, it is again the outsider who "gets it" and responds with gratitude. Perhaps there is something here for us regarding humility. Are we truly grateful for what we have or do we think we are deserving? Like Elisha, we might have to be careful of the attitudes we carry within our own houses!

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