Elisha: Love Your Enemies..."Even This Guy?"
This week we pick up where the story of Elisha left off last week – Elijah, the great prophet, passes on the prophetic mantle to Elisha. And Elisha goes on to have his own impressive prophetic career, though he was constantly overshadowed by Elijah.
This week is really the only story that pops up in the lectionary, and I’ve been trying all week to think of a modern-day example that might parallel with this one. In any case, Aram (roughly the equivalent of modern-day Syria and Lebanon) is a military powerhouse; on one of their raids into Israel (roughly the equivalent of the northern part of modern-day Israel and the West Bank), Aram has seized a young Israelite girl, who now finds herself in the service of Naaman, commander of the Aramean army. Naaman is this imposing figure in the story; no doubt he was legendary not only in Aram but in Israel as well. And yet, he is plagued by some kind of skin disease. For whatever reason he listens to the advice of this slave girl who suggests he seek healing from the prophet in Israel. Being a man of power, he plies the channels of power: his king sends a note to the king of Israel, who assumes the worst, that this is some kind of trick. He won’t be able to heal Naaman, and Aram will have an excuse to strike.
Fortunately, Elisha overhears and calls for Naaman to come visit him. And yet he doesn’t even bother to see him face-to-face but tells him to go down to the River Jordan and wash. This irritates Naaman not only because he is powerful and used to being treated with respect, but because he senses a national arrogance on Elisha’s part that stirs up his own. “That pathetic little river? We’ve got two near Damascus which are more impressive than that!” And he’s pretty much right. Even so, his servants convince him to give it a shot. He does and is cured.
The lectionary stops there, but the rest of the story fascinates me. It’s mostly about the attempt of Naaman to provide Elisha with a gift for services rendered. Elisha refuses; but Naaman carts off several loads of soil, the thought being that, if he’s going to have to accompany the King of Aram to worship Rimmon (or Hadad, the fertility god of the Arameans), he can scatter a little Israelite soil first so that he’s actually worshiping the one god in whom he believes, Yahweh, the God of Israel.
Like I said, I tried to find a current example that could help open up this story for us. First, I had to answer a series of questions: if it’s U.S., then are we Israel? Do we have something to offer the rest of the world? Or are we Aram, the massive military power? And if we are in the story, who is our enemy? Is it Al Qaeda? Iran? North Korea? Russia? If you’ve got an idea, I’d be happy to hear it; but the best I could do was this:
Vladimir Putin visits the White House and says to Barack Obama, “When I lift my arm like this, it hurts…” And Obama sends him to the Surgeon General.
Oh well. No parallel. But perhaps if we dig into the meaning of the text it might help. Aram is powerful; Israel is scared. They’ve been beaten in battle before. And the King of Israel is worried about a Trojan horse of source, a trick to attack and conquer. It is a time of national and tribal gods; each king, each nation has their own god; and each military battle is really celestial combat among the many divine powers. It’s because of this that Naaman goes to the king first, not the prophet; because it’s the king who rules the nation. And God, the God of Scriptures, Yahweh, is the national god of Israel and Judah. The miracle is that, even though Yahweh’s people are defeated – and, in fact, in the time of Jesus are conquered and occupied – it is this god that triumphs as God of all nations through the ages. What we see as defeat is not always a loss in God’s book.
Perhaps there’s no parallel because history has moved on from this last point. In our own nation, the idea of “separation of church and state” has a powerful place in our identity (despite debates over what this exactly means). There are some nations that still claim a national deity or faith, but no longer do we see these as polytheistic battles. Even in a place like the Islamic Republic of Iran, there is at last acknowledgement that there are minority religious communities that have some sense of citizenship and rights…imperfect, yes, but they’re not seen as worshiping another god.
So back to the story. Initially, it’s about power – Yahweh/God v. Rimmon/Hadad. Aram has defeated Israel in battle; and yet, in this story, it is Yahweh, the god of Israel, who is more powerful than Hadad, the god of Aram. But as the story continues, the meaning of the story shifts: it’s about Naaman’s conversion. Not only does he come to believe in Yahweh by virtue of his personal experience; in fact, he comes to believe in Yahweh as THE God – not one among many, but the sole and single God above all.
Here is the story in its barest form: a man with an affliction gets advice from surprising places. He comes seeking healing in surprising places. And his life is changed forever.
Do we have the faith of Naaman? Or do we have the faith of Elisha? Do we have enough faith in our faith to be a transformative faith?
I’ve seen us share stories of miracle healings with others:
- “You’ve got arthritis? Me, too…Have you tried Glucosamine? It’s fantastic.”
- “Have you tried acupuncture? I know, I thought it was weird, too, but ever since I visited Dr. Kim…”
- “Well, my sinus issues all cleared up after I dropped wheat and dairy from my diet. It’s made all the difference…”
And it’s not just with physical health that we make these recommendations:
- “Have you read The Shack? Oh, my goodness! You have to read it! You’ll never look at life the same way again!”
- “Gran Torino – best Clint Eastwood film I’ve ever seen. If you can get past the language, it is so layered…”
- “Oh, man; the new Sufjan Stevens album takes his music to another level. Absolutely his best…”
- “You like Indian food? Well, have you ever tried Panahar? Oh, yeah, it’s right over there on Buford Highway. Amazing…”
How do we take our zeal for such things and translate it into zeal for faith? I think, if we examine our story, it takes three things:
- It takes risk. It was a risk for Naaman to cross over into enemy territory. And is was a risk for Elisha to stand up to the king and welcome Naaman without any kind of suspicion.
- It takes trust. Elisha had to trust that Naaman’s quest didn’t have some kind of hidden agenda. And he also had to trust that Elisha had the very thing that Naaman needed for his healing.
- And it takes wisdom. It takes wisdom for Naaman to listen to a foreign slave girl; it takes wisdom for him to listen to his servants again. And it takes wisdom for Elisha to know it’ll be OK to heal a foreign military leader. This wisdom, perhaps, is what ties this story in with the gospel reading from Luke. The seventy disciples, sent out by Jesus, have to figure out where to go; they have to have the wisdom to know what to proclaim; they have to know when it is time to stay and when it is time to get moving.
Do we have what it takes? Can we take a risk? Lean into trust? Rely on God’s wisdom? Above all, I think we need to remember that faith is not a panacea. Having faith in the God we know in Jesus Christ doesn’t fix everything. As the bumper sticker says, “Jesus is the answer.” But what’s the question? In my opinion, if someone is pitching faith as something that means you’ll always win, they’ve moved from religion into delusion. Faith, instead, says that God triumphs even when we’re defeated. Grace and mercy will always persist. Healing is much, much bigger than the limitations we put on it. And resurrection, the promise that there is more to this life than meets the eye, is still true.
Faith isn’t about answering everyone’s questions and defending theological treatises. It’s much more honest than that; it admits that we don’t know everything. But it shares what we have seen and realities we know in which lives are changed forever:
- “Have you heard about the Druid Hills Night Shelter? It’s an amazing to homeless man; they get off the streets and back on their feet…”
- “You should’ve seen our Habitat build; I’ve never seen a group like this gathered anywhere else – different races, different denominations, people crossing all kinds of boundaries to work with this homeowner who is willing to do what it takes to give their family another chance...”
- “You won’t believe the people that come to our church. They’re young and old, they’re conservative and liberal, they like traditional pipe organs and contemporary praise choruses. But somehow, they all love each other and trust that we’re serving God through what we do together…”
My hope for our July services is not just that we’ll create a little bit more work or that we’ll have a different kind of worship or that I don’t have to wear a tie. Instead, it is my hope that, by virtue of moving outside we’ll learn a little bit of what it means to move beyond what we know and into what God knows.