Tuesday, July 10, 2007

So You Think You're a Big Deal? (2 Kings 5:1-14)

Naaman the Aramean has a problem.

He’s a great general for the King of Aram. He’s a mighty warrior. But he has leprosy. Now, the ancient world lumped several things together under the word we translate “leprosy.” One of them is the actual disease of that name, which kills nerve tissue and causes surrounding flesh to die as well. From it come the extreme disfigurements we usually connect with the disease, and the idea of exiling its sufferers from regular society to protect people from it.

But several other skin diseases are called leprosy in the Bible, and not all of them forced people into exile. Naaman suffers from one of these, very likely something like psoriasis.

Even though he can continue his life, whatever’s wrong with him is certainly uncomfortable and irritating. And here’s where we learn Naaman must be a pretty good guy. A young Israelite girl, captured in a raid, works for his wife as a maid. Naaman’s discomfort bothers her enough to tell her mistress about the prophet Elisha, who could probably cure it.

Naaman listens to this idea, likes it, and asks permission from his king to see the prophet. The king agrees and sends a letter to the king of Israel, which is always a good idea when you send your best general into someone else’s country on business other than conquest.

The king of Israel freaks. The letter, you see, leaves out the prophet and seems to imply the king of Aram wants the king of Israel to cure Naaman. The king of Israel knows he can’t cure anyone of anything and figures this as a pretext for an invasion.

Elisha learns of the king’s public freak-out and sends a message of his own. What’s with all the drama? Send him to me so he can learn there is a prophet in Israel. The king, eager to pass the buck, does so.

Naaman arrives at Elisha’s house, where Elisha’s servant greets him with instructions. Wash in the Jordan seven times and be cured of your disease.

This ticks Naaman off somewhat. He’s an important general, and this prophet not only didn’t come out to greet him or invite him into his home, he told him to wash himself in some muddy creek that only passes for a river because Israelites haven’t ever seen real rivers.

But his servants point out he would have done something hard to bring a cure, so why not do something easy? Naaman shows his intelligence by listening to them and following their advice to do what the prophet said. And as the prophet said, he is cured. In the verses following this passage, we learn that he begins to worship and serve God.

Naaman’s irritation came from being treated as less important than he though he was. He was a general and a warrior, used to respect, obedience and deference. He was not used to being told what to do by a messenger from some foreign prophet who had never met him face to face.

We might take the message home that Naaman was shown his unimportance, and that he should learn he’s not that big a deal in God’s sight. Partially true, I suppose, but God thought Naaman important enough to cure him.

Maybe the whole lesson involves Naaman learning the true source of his worth. It’s not his military career or his position of authority – in short, it’s not anything that he did. God values him because God created him. God seems not to recognize Naaman’s external signs of importance when Elisha the prophet doesn’t pay any attention to them.

But God shows he does value Naaman by sending him the cure for his disease. He just has different reasons for valuing him.

Today, I suspect I learn the same lesson many times over. God values me and loves me for one reason alone – God created me. No matter how much good I might do or how many great things I might accomplish, God will value me just as much as someone who never does anything, or even just as much as someone who does great wrong.

That message makes me – and maybe a lot of us – uncomfortable sometimes. After all, we value people differently based on what they do or for a whole host of reasons. The suggestion God values us as little as he values some criminal or some lazy lump who never did anything makes us uneasy.

Of course, that’s not God’s point of view in the matter. He doesn’t reduce everyone to the same low value. He wants to raise everyone to the same high value. What value might that be? What worth does God give us?

Well, check out the third chapter of John, verse 16, see what he gave for us, and base your answer on that.

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