Updated: Jan 31
Three weeks ago, Paul told the Galatians, “We are not Gentile sinners.” Today, we meet Naaman, who can be seen as an example of a “Gentile sinner.”
Naaman was a commander of the army for the king of Aram.
Aram was the Hebrew word describing what we know today as Syria. The word means “high” or “elevated,” which describes Syria as the land north of Israel. However, it is rooted in a word that makes it also mean “citadel,” which is a fortress in a commanding position near a city. Thus, the king of Aram was the leader of a strong nation. The Assyrians would overrun and destroy the Northern Kingdom, about 150 years after the Elisha and Naaman story took place, so they can be seen as on a rise in power.
Every Gentile has its day.
Naaman was a great man in high favor with the king of Aram. We are told this is because the LORD had given victory to Naaman’s troops. Despite Naaman being a “mighty warrior,” he suffered from leprosy. Leprosy can be read as a noticeable skin deformity, such as cysts and boils on his hands and face, the visible parts not covered by clothes and armor. This means, for all his greatness Naaman was one ugly dude. He did not look great.
It has to be understood that the Jews of Jesus’ time made those who were “impure,” such as those possessed by evil spirits, those who were deaf and/or blind, and those who had obvious skin lesions as outcasts. They were seen as not being in good standing with the LORD. Their sins had brought that curse upon them.
Now, let’s take a moment to look at what we know about Naaman. He is a Gentile, because he is not one of the children of Israel. Yet, he is a great warrior who the LORD of Israel had led to victory. The LORD of Israel rules over Gentiles, just as He rules over Jews, but Gentiles do not recognize that.
That lack of recognition can then be seen as explaining why Paul would say, “We Jews are not Gentile sinners.” Sin can then be seen as a symptom of disrespect of God.
So, Naaman was something of an enigma. The LORD had blessed him with greatness as a warrior, but had cursed him with leprosy as a sinner. Naaman’s leprosy can then be seen as a sign of his not giving the LORD of Israel credit for his victory.
Naaman probably did not know he was doing anything wrong. He probably gave some Ba’al credit for his victories as a warrior, just not the One God. He probably knew his leprosy was an obvious drawback to his greatness, something that was kept him from winning lots of friends and influencing lots of strangers; but he seems able to accept the good with the bad. It was the cost of doing business.
We read that it was young girl who had been captive from the land of Israel who told Naaman that a prophet in Samaria could cure him of his leprosy. A captive Israelite shows that all was not fully well between the Northern Kingdom and Syria. Probably some border clash led to her being captive. The use of “Samaria,” references the capitol of the Northern Kingdom, where the king of Israel would live, along with his prophets. The girl believed in the prophet Elisha and in the LORD of Israel, regardless of her captivity and servitude to a Gentile sinner. She wanted to help cure him of his obvious sin.
In the reading from Paul today we hear him say, “If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh.” He went on to write, “Whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.” Even though Paul wrote that letter to the Galatians nearly a thousand years after the story of Naaman and Elisha, that captive Israelite girl recognized and lived what Paul would later explain. She recognized that Naaman had reaped a corruption from the flesh, which could be cured through faith in the LORD.
She also knew, as Paul wrote, “All must test their own work; then that work, rather than their neighbor’s work, will become a cause for pride.” If only Naaman would carry his own load to Israel and ask for guidance from the prophet Elisha, he could realize a skin that he would be proud of. Thus, as Paul wrote, “Those who are taught the word must share in all good things with their teacher.” Elisha would be the teacher, and Naaman would be the one taught the word.
This teacher-student relationship is then found in the Gospel reading from Luke, as the commission of the seventy. Jesus sent disciples out with the “authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy,” such that they were protected from harm. The captive Israelite slave girl was likewise in a dangerous position, but she was safe in her recommendation to Naaman to go see the prophet of Israel.
Remember, Aram and Israel were not on the best of terms, due to border clashes. Neither was at a point of strength to overtake the other, so they lived as neighboring wolf packs. The girl was recommending that Naaman go out like a lamb into the midst of wolves. He did that by taking with him all kinds of booty as an offering for the King of Israel. Naaman took ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. He came like a lamb of peace, bearing gifts.
The wealth of the king of Aram was seen as an insult. It was perceived as, “What? Are you trying to pick a quarrel with me by trying to bribe our LORD to cleanse you of your sins?” This is why Jesus told the seventy, “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road.” He was instructing them to go meekly to where no one knows them and announce, “the kingdom of God has come near.” Naaman was instead announcing, “The kingdom of Aram has come near.” That was insulting to the king of Israel.
However, Elisha head the words of Naaman as would a disciple of Jesus. A Gentile full of sin had come near the kingdom of God, like a lamb in the midst of wolves. Elisha heard the words of Naaman as would Paul, an Apostle of Christ, hearing one wanted to carry his own load, to test his own works and to bear his own burdens.”
Elisha eased the anger of the king of Israel and then said, “Have him come by my place. If it is the LORD he wants, then I will tell him where to go to be near the kingdom of God.”
We know the ending of the story. Naaman’s flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy. He was cleansed of his sin. In the words of Paul, “A new creation is everything!” And Naaman was a new creation to the LORD of Israel.
Naaman listened and acted as instructed, albeit with some coaxing from his servants. Jesus told his disciples, “Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.” Naaman did not reject the word of the one who sent Elisha, who is the same one who sent Jesus.
One can imagine that Naaman was filled with joy when he was cleansed of sin. The seventy returned with joy reporting how demons submitted to the name of Jesus. Paul said, “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.” Boast of a new creation! Rejoice that a name has been written in heaven! Be joyful that sins have been cleansed!
What we might miss in the Naaman story is the aspect of him having to bathe seven times in the River Jordan. Think about the number seven for a moment. How many days are there in a week? Seven, right? What if that meant bathe every day of the week in the Lord of Israel, the river of the Holy Spirit?
Maybe that is why Paul wrote, “Let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest-time, if we do not give up.” Jesus said, “The harvest is plentiful,” there are lots of sinners out there. “But the laborers are few,” meaning too many do not do the works necessary, from faith. All one has to do is keep a daily regimen, and “Go on your way.” “Peace to this house!” Peace and mercy upon those who follow the rule of Christ.
Peace be with you.