The Cleansing of Naaman

The Narrative Lectionary points us to 2 Kings 5:1-15, the story of Elisha healing Naaman of leprosy.  This story has several great elements. Following are some initial thoughts on the text for the week. 

Naaman is painted as a great man who is an effective commander of an army. He has experienced victories for the King of Adam and was “a valiant solider”. Even so, we may never have heard of Naaman except for the one thing he did not want to be known for. He had leprosy. Outside of this text we do not read of Naaman, except in one New Testament text I’ll mention later. We do know that Naaman was married because it was a young Israelite slave girl who told Naaman’s wife that there was a prophet in Samaria who could cure him of leprosy. 

Great and powerful men approach the problems of life like great and powerful men. They make treaties. They offer wealth and they make deals. Naaman takes a letter from the King of Aram, gold, silver, and  clothing to the King of Israel. The King of Israel reacts with fear and is afraid that he is the next target of the victorious King of Aram. 

When Elisha hears about this situation he has the King of Israel to send Naaman to him so “he will know that there is a prophet in Israel“. 

There’s a lot of chest beating in all of this. Powerful successful king of Aram sends his valiant commander to the King of Israel with a bunch of gold and silver and stuff. Everyone’s trying to outdo one another and demonstrate who is the greatest. So Elisha really does let the air out of Naaman’s balloon when he sends a messenger to tell him to go wash seven times in the Jordan in order to be cleansed.  Naaman’s pride is hurt and he huffs and puffs about a messenger being sent, and about the instructions. 

Again servants (slaves) play a role in this story by suggesting to Naaman to just give it a try. What does he have to lose? The cleansing was effective!  Naaman humbles himself to go to Elisha and he says, “Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel.”

This is not the end of the story but it’s the end of our text for this week. Gehazi the greedy glut chases Naaman down later, lies to him, and ends up getting in trouble. But that’s another sermon. 

How to approach this text … there are several possibilities.

There is a Pride / Humility theme here. Naaman and the two kings sure think highly of themselves. But it is only when Naaman humbles himself to wash in the muddy Jordan that he experiences healing. How many times have we allowed pride to keep us from obedience, only to find later than when we submitted to the Lord life got a lot better?

There is a theme here about the power of the humble.  The powerful valiant solider has two slaves to thank for being freed from leprosy. How many times does God use the humble ones of the world to make a huge difference? Jesus  even identifies himself with ‘the least of these’. 

This is Elisha’s story. Although the story has some very interesting characters, this is a story about Elisha. It comes between the story of the widow’s unending supply of oil (2 Kings 4) and the amazing story of Elisha opening the eyes of his servant to see that “Those who are with us are more than those who are with them” (2 Kings 5). It is important to Elisha that the King of Adam know that “there is a prophet in Israel”. Indeed, this is Naaman’s confession at the end. So the sermon of the week could center around Elisha and what we know about him and how he functioned in God’s story. 

It is an episode that demonstrates the power of obedience. I remember many years ago preaching a sermon on obedience using this text. I believe it was entitled “Six Dips Won’t Do!“. After six dips in the Jordan, Naaman still was not cleansed. In what ways is our obedience falling short of God’s will, resulting in a lack of blessing? In relation to this, a friend preached a sermon using the KJV language when Naaman was incensed that Elisha didn’t come out and perform some great ceremony for him. He said “Behold I thought” (vs 11). Perhaps on the day of judgment we will recount for the Lord what we “thought” was really true. I don’t recommend that exegetically, but you could stir the dust homiletically. 

The sermon could be about the element of leprosy, which is an excellent analogy for sin – but I don’t think it has center stage here in the text.

How did Jesus use this story?

One Sabbath day Jesus claimed to be the Messiah in Nazareth. This raised quite a stir. In talking about this, he remembered Elisha and Naaman. 

Luke 4: 24-27 “Truly I tell you,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown. 25 I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. 26 Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. 27 And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.”

Although the drought affected many in Israel, Elijah and Elisha were ministering to those outside of Israel. Why? They were receptive – willing to hear from the prophets. Israel was not. This message was met with such rejection that the people tried to kill Jesus right then and there.

If we take Luke’s account as a cue, the story is really about God who responds to all who are willing to have faith, even if the ones who should have faith fail to do so. In which category do we find ourselves?

The Narrative Lectionary includes a gospel reading at Matthew 8:2-3:

A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately he was cleansed of his leprosy.

Yes, Jesus is willing. Elisha was willing. God was willing. I pray we will all find ourselves the recipients of every good gift that our willing God desires to give us.

Thanks for reading. You can join in a conversation on the weekly text and see resources posted in my Facebook group called Narrative Lectionarians