Saturday, July 02, 2016
July 3, Proper 9, Prophecy 4: Elisha, Naaman, and the Slave Girl
2 Kings 5:1-14, Psalm 30, Gal 6:1-16, Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
Totalitarian regimes like Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia were able to compel the obedience of their people and destroy their freedom and even control their minds. They were like wolves in the midst of lambs. But for all their evident power, they were not able to cure the sick, nor tread on snakes and scorpions, nor did the spirits submit to them.
By contrast, when the Kingdom of God came near, the seventy missionaries were able to cure the sick and tread on snakes and scorpions and the spirits submitted to them and even Satan fell from heaven, yet they did not compel obedience nor cancel human freedom. They did not force themselves. The Kingdom of God, unlike most authorities, unlike even the Internal Revenue Service, both claims full sovereignty and yet gives people the freedom to accept it or reject it.
The gift of freedom to accept it or reject is often misunderstood as the Kingdom of God not claiming full sovereignty over all our lives, as if it’s only a private, personal thing. Rather, the Kingdom of God claims relevance over every single aspect of human life and culture, and yet it is so patient and so confident that it will not enforce its claims. This has to do with Love being at the center of it, and with the cross of Jesus being the emblem of its authority.
It wasn’t new with Jesus. Already in the Torah and the prophets we are faced with this constant contradiction and apparent paradox of the absolute sovereignty of God and the responsible freedom of human beings. Like, with personal salvation, does God predestine, or do you have free will? Both. Do not let the one overrule the other. Reformed theology, for example, makes the impossible claim that your free will is true and real but in no way does it condition the absolute sovereignty of God.
You see this in the story of Naaman in our first lesson. Naaman was a great man, and a big deal. Naaman was a general of the Arameans, also called the Syrians. The Syrians were the enemies of Israel and the Syrians kept defeating Israel while Naaman was their general. According to our story, this was because God was judging Israel and using Naaman to do it, though Naaman did not know it. God’s sovereign use of him did not contradict his being forceful and able to compel his enemies to submission. Naaman knew the ordinary way of power and of gods and goddesses. So it’s no wonder that he expected Elisha to heal him in that way, that Elisha would “come out of his house, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy.”
But Elisha won’t even come out. I guess he’s doing his crossword puzzle. Elisha does nothing to honor the prestige of this great man. He just sends out his message, and Naaman can take it or leave it. It’s up to Naaman now. Naaman has free will here, and his choice is up against the sovereignty of God, only this sovereignty works by invitation rather than compulsion.
There’s something about the nature of prophecy here, Biblical prophecy, compared to the oracles of other ancient cultures. In the other cultures, the gods and goddesses had their own lives and their squabbles and their sexual escapades, and they expected humans to serve them, but they were not ethically committed to humanity. The gods had many powers, but they themselves were subordinate to the greater power of Nature capital N, and Fate capital F, and Destiny capital D. So whenever the future was predicted by their oracles, the prediction was fated to be no matter what you did. Think of Oedipus, whose very attempt to avoid his fate was finally what caused his fate.
But Biblical prophecy is different, because God’s relationship to the world is absolutely different from the other ancient gods. God is not subject to Nature, nor Fate, nor Destiny. God is absolutely free within the world, but also absolutely ethical. God loves the world, and God is committed to humanity. So God while is absolutely sovereign in the world, God also gives us freedom and respects our freedom. And therefore Biblical prophecy is almost always an invitation.
What Biblical prophets say is this: “God has done this, so you should do that.” They say, “God is doing this, so why don’t you join in.” And they say, “Because God has done so and so, if you also do so and so you will get this, but if instead you do such and such you will get that.” When Biblical prophecy talks about the future, it’s not about what is fated to be, but about what God is doing, how God will act in fidelity to God’s nature and to God’s promises and to what God has already done.
And the prophet invites us to join in with God is doing, but our joining in requires our repentance, symbolized by washing. So it’s a typically prophetic thing for Elisha to give his healing message to Naaman: Here’s the offer, Naaman, take or leave it, it’s up to you.
Naaman is enraged. If not for his servants, he would have left unhealed. So actually he was not free, not from the slavery of his own pride and self-regard, nor from subservience to normal religion and its expectations of how a god should work. This is the second time he had his servants to thank, for it was the little slave girl who got the whole thing started at the beginning. She knew there was a prophet in Israel, even if the King of Israel did not. The judgments in this story are all ironic ones.
The relationship of God with us is often ironic. God loves us but is not impressed by us. God esteems us but knows that we are foolish. God gives us freedom but has no illusions on our use of it. So if we are wise to recognize the lavish grace of God within our lives, we can only echo the words of St. Paul in our epistle today, “May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”
This is important because of the other great irony in the story, that this God who claimed such sovereignty was willing to be the national God of a two-bit nation which kept losing battles! And a nation unfaithful and disloyal to God at that. Like why should we even believe in such a God? But God apparently has no pride and self-regard. God ignores the judgment of the world and ignores the world’s respectability. God does not prove Godself to us. God invites.
This story about Naaman is remarkable in that he, this Gentile, is the main character in the story, not Elisha. So the sovereignty of God and the grace of God extend beyond the boundaries of God’s people, in fact, even to an enemy of God’s people, and thus implicitly in judgment on God’s people. The reaction of the King of Israel shows this, who ends up being unable to receive the lavish gifts from the King of Aram because he had so written off the prophet who could have been assisting him. “You reap whatever you sow.” You are free, but not from your consequences! By contrast, the slave girl, even in her captivity, knows better and bears witness to the better Israel, its alternate reality.
Naaman has to get down very low to receive this prophecy. He has to dishonor himself before his retinue by stripping naked in front them. He will have to expose to them his leprosy. He servants will avert their eyes. But they’ll sneak their peeks the fourth, fifth, and sixth times he comes up out of the water to see if anything’s happened yet. When he comes up the seventh time he doesn’t care, they can look all they want at his clean skin. He’s free now, as free as a naked little boy. Freedom means risk and vulnerability. And to receive the invitation requires repentance. Indeed, repentance is a form of freedom! Then I am crucified to all the world, and all the world to me.
Did you notice that the prophecy in this story is a three-point play? It goes from the slave girl to the prophet to the servants. If not for the servants, Naaman would not have heeded Elisha, and if not for the slave girl, he never even would have come. They each had their own things to say. So then prophecy can be a communal thing, with each of us playing our parts according to our station.
This is for us. On the one hand, as I said in my second sermon in this series, the church is prophetic by always pointing to the alternate reality of the Kingdom of God, by always bearing witness to the total sovereignty of God behind the scenes, and by speaking with joy and wonder of all of its vast claims on ordinary life. But on the other hand the church should never desire to enforce those claims or desire the power of that sovereignty, but rather choose the way of the servants in this story, offering actions of service and healing and peace, even for our supposed enemies. God bless the memory of that slave girl, because she was the perfect expression of God’s love.
Copyright © 2016, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.