Readings (Track 1)
Had we continued the Gospel reading for one more verse we would have heard this: “At that same hour Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.’”
‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants…’” In context, Jesus is thanking God for the work the seventy have just reported. These infants, not the wise and understanding who hold power in Jerusalem and the synagogues, are declaring and embodying the good news of the Kingdom. And these words identify a recurrent theme in our readings, and so serve as the backbone of this sermon.
Our first reading introduces us to Naaman: “Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Syria, was a great man with his master and in high favor, because by him the LORD had given victory to Syria. He was a mighty man of valor, but he was a leper.” Short of being king, he could not have greater honor. But his disease threatens all of that.
He learns of the possibility of healing in Israel. His king takes advantage of the situation: he sends Naaman to the Israelite king with a letter: “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you Naaman my servant, that you may cure him of his leprosy.” He’s insured that Naaman will have access to whatever’s available in Israel: if Naaman’s cured, wonderful; if not, the Israelite king’s behind the 8-ball. The Israelite king responds by rending his clothes (his own, not Naaman’s). And the story could have stayed stuck there had not Elisha heard of it and told the king to send him Naaman.
We know what happens next: “So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the door of Elisha’s house. And Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, ‘Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored, and you shall be clean.’” Naaman, of course, is furious that Elisha has slighted him by not coming out himself. His servants find a way to spin the situation to maintain Naaman’s honor, so that he washes and is cleansed from the leprosy.
Elisha could have met Naaman at the door and followed Naaman’s script (“I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy!”) That he did not is a clue that the story is not only about the Lord’s desire and power to heal—worth celebrating!—but also about the Lord’s hostility toward the human games surrounding honor. Elisha, the Lord’s prophet, refuses to play that game, and Naaman’s cure depends on his loosening his grip on it as well—even if only a little.
“The Lord’s hostility toward the human games surrounding honor.” Is that too strong a way of putting it? Maybe. Nevertheless, something like that is true, and explains, for instance, the Lord’s regular preference for the one who is not the firstborn: Abel, not Cain; Isaac, not Ishmael; Jacob, not Esau; David, not any of his older brothers. It’s part of what gives the edge to Paul’s “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).
And, of course, it prepares us for Jesus’ words: “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants.” So what happens to the wise and understanding? Look again at what happens with Naaman: his salvation comes through folk considerably below him: that little Israelite maid captured in one of the Syrian raids, the servants who accompanied him to Elisha’s house. What gifts might God be trying to give us through people we regard as below us?
Paul’s words, in turn, are helpful for understanding how Jesus’ words might play out among the Galatians, and, by extension, among us. His discussion of walking according to the Spirit and not according to the flesh (the flesh: our humanity in rebellion against God) is not designed to give us a new way of playing the honor game, an additional way of ranking people. Rather, he encourages us to guard against letting concerns for honor get in the way of more important things, to look for ways to build each other up.
One test for how we’re doing in the honor/humility department is the way we respond to insults or slights. Some are intentional; others are unintentional, byproducts of our fallibility. It is our response to them that’s important. Abba Isaiah, one of the desert fathers, said “Nothing is so useful to the beginner as insults. The beginner who bears insults is like a tree that is watered every day”. Abba Isaiah is not encouraging us to water each other—that is something we do without encouragement. He’s encouraging us to see insults, slights, etc. as opportunities to grow in humility.
In addition to giving us a window on (or maybe a mirror for) issues of honor and humility, our first lesson provides an opportunity to notice something about the means of grace, the Sacraments and Scripture in particular. “Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?” It’s a perfectly reasonable question. Elisha’s command is quite arbitrary. There is the same sort of arbitrariness in our Lord’s choice of water to give us new birth in baptism or of bread and wine to give us his own Body and Blood, or of Holy Scripture as a privileged setting for conversations with our Lord. There are so many attractive rivers out there, so many promising strategies for healing and self-improvement, so many other places to be on a Sunday morning. We come to the water, the bread and the wine, the Bible, because that’s where Jesus told us to go, and that in itself requires a certain ongoing humility.
Of course, in this story Naaman has it easier: seven dips in the Jordan and he’s cured. The means of grace sometimes have this immediate and dramatic effect, but usually it’s a long-term process: water eroding our stony hearts. And so Paul encourages us: “So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up.” It is a matter of, as Nietzsche put it, “a long obedience in the same direction.”
Paul follows that encouragement with “So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all” and with that we’ll return to the first reading, to notice the people who were pivotal in the story, or, in Jesus’ language, the infants.
Notice, first, the little maid, captured in a Syrian raid, and now serving Naaman’s wife. She could easily have kept the information about Elisha to herself, and taken a sort of joy in watching the commander waste away. She could have seen it as a sort of justice, or even as punishment from her God. She’s near the bottom of the totem pole, but she has choices, and she chooses to give Naaman the information that saves him.
Then there are Naaman’s servants. Naaman’s response to Elisha’s non-appearance suggests that he had a short fuse, and his servants would have been the first to suffer from that. Never mind whether they thought Elisha’s instructions had any merit: they could have enjoyed watching their master stymied. They’re not much up the totem pole from the little maid, but they have choices, and they chose to deal gently and honorably with their master, and he is saved.
The little maid and the servants. Nameless, they’re the heroes of the story, Scripture’s story. Scripture plays many roles; the role noticeable here is that of providing a sneak preview of the Final Judgment. The story honors them, and in so doing reminds us that there is finally only One whose opinion/honor matters. So let us seek honor, but be careful to seek it from God, who alone is in a position to truly give it. And if we do as well as the little maid, or Naaman’s servants, we will have done very well indeed.