2 Kings 5: 1-14
I have a clip for you this morning. Don’t worry. It is not the press conference about P.K. Subban’s trade. It comes from the movie Up in the Air in which George Clooney plays a man whose job is to travel across the United States to fire people. That’s what he does. He flies in, gets to the office of some company, fires those who has to be fired, and he flies out to his next assignment. In the following clip, the character explains to his new assistant, and potential love interest, one of his ultimate goals in life.
I have 10 million miles. I got my Ph.D. in astrophysics from Harvard. I was named the volunteer of the year in 2005. I am in charge of my company’s sales department. I was the chair of the Planning & Agenda Committee of the 41st General Council of the United Church of Canada. Those kinds of statements regularly pop in our conversations because we live in a world in which position, status, diplomas and titles give a sense of worth to an individual. Usually, when we meet someone new, these are the kind of information we exchange first. We know they do not tell the full story of a person. And yet, we find these facts very important and we value them. One reason for this might be that our accomplishments give us small perks here and there. They make us feel special and unique. We like the prestige and credibility that come with them. They make us feel powerful, different and, let’s be honest, a little better than the rest of the people.
In today’s reading from the second book of Kings, we meet Naaman. Naaman was the commander in chief of the army of the king of Aram, one of Israel’s major enemies at that time. This general was a big shot, surely a respected celebrity because he fought and won many battles for his people. All his accomplishments made him a powerful man. Naaman was highly favoured by his king. I would not be surprised if they were on a first name basis. He was also a rich man who did not travel light. For his trip to the kingdom of Israel, we are told he brought with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten full sets of sumptuous garments. It is always difficult to calculate in modern terms just how much all this would be. Let us just say the 6,000 shekels was the equivalent of 150 pounds of gold and the ten talents of silver must have weighed some 750 pounds. So, you can use your imagination.
Naaman had everything for him: power, fame, wealth, a wife… The only thing missing in his life was health. The great warrior was a leper. We always have to be careful when we read the words leper and leprosy in the Bible, because they translate a Hebrew concept that includes several skin diseases, some of them being incurable. Regardless of Naaman’s real affliction, skin disease is an embarrassing condition because it is very hard to hide. It is not like diabetes. It is in your face all the time, quite literally sometimes. No wonder when Naaman learns that a prophet in the town of Samaria can heal him, he decides to look for this Elisha. After all, he could afford the best cure possible. What is the point to have all this power and wealth if you cannot pull one string or two so you can obtain what you need?
Naaman finally arrives at Elisha’s house with all his horses and chariots. But surprisingly, the prophet does not come out to meet his guest. Instead Elisha sends a simple messenger to tell the renowned military officer to wash himself seven times in the Jordan River. Naaman is not particularly happy by this apparent lack of respect. After all, he might be a leper, but he is still Naama, the great general, the nightmare of his enemies and the first among his own people. This so-called prophet could have made an effort. He could have come out of his shack and do something, I do not know, like calling upon the name of his god, wave his hands over his scars or utter some magical mumbo-jumbo in a strange language, anything that would be impressive, dramatic and appropriate for a man of his rank. But, no! Go soak yourself in the nearby muddy river, as if there is no rivers back home, as if he never washed his body before. Naaman is not staying there and being humiliated further. He has spent too long building his reputation for greatness, too long accumulating his vast wealth to be treated like this.
Today’s adventure could have easily ended here. Naaman would still be considered a leper. The kingdoms Israel and Aram would once again be at war due to this diplomatic incident and who knows what would have happened to Elisha. However, the dramatic fulfilling of this story does occur through the interventions of all the small and unnamed people we hardly notice when we read of this text. They are the ones who move things along. Without a young slave girl, Naaman would never have heard of Elisha and look for him. Without Elisha’s messenger, he would not know the cure for his disease. Without his servants, Naaman would never be cured. They are the ones who understand the possibility that the moment holds. They are the ones who coax their master Naaman into forgetting his own importance and going for what will really matter. They are the ones who point that Naaman would likely stand on one foot for a day or recite sacred texts backward if the prophet asked him. So what is the big deal with a quick wash in a small body of water? What does he have to lose? At the end of the day, the ones who live their lives in the shadow of power and magnificence are the main reason for the materialization of transformation and renewal.
Too often most of us assume we are not smart or important enough to make a difference in the world. We believe it is a privilege reserved for those who are rich, powerful or holding prestigious offices like a president or a prime minister. We believe history is written by famous individuals and families after whom buildings will be named in the future. We believe that people like you and I cannot influence our world. We cannot do anything because we are not in charge. We do not have any power, prestige or credibility. We do not have 10 million miles in our account, a Ph.D. from a prestigious university or an award that would give us name recognition.
However today’s story teaches us otherwise. After all who makes things happen? Who are the real heroes? Who has real power? Yes, power. Power is often not what we imagine or assume. It can take many shapes, be found in diverse places and is accessible to most of us. For example, there is real power in the courage of speaking up against the unjust redistribution of resources in our society. There is real power in the perseverance of writing regularly letters denouncing the violation of human rights by repressive regimes. There is real power in the determination to raise money to bring families of refugees in Canada. There is real power in the hope of our prayers for a just and peaceful world. In the long run, nobody will probably know what we have done. Nobody might remember our names. But it does not matter. We used our power to change our neighbourhood. We use our power to create a better world for all God’s children. We use our power because it is what God calls us to do.
Like it happens so often in the Bible, the story of Naaman is a clash between the famous and the nameless, between those who have privileges and those who can see beyond them. We are reminded that we can indulge ourselves in our resources, assets and titles to the point they become a goal in itself, to the point they distract us from what is really important for us. On some days, we need to open our minds and listen to those who have the power and the wisdom to see the opportunities surrounding us. On some days, we need to stop hoarding our points and to use them to do something meaningful. Amen.