2 Kings 5:1-19
I’ve always thought of that first story as the slave girl’s story. In a significant way, everything comes down to her. If she had not told her mistress about the prophet Elisha – if she had not believed in Elisha’s ability to heal – Naaman would have remained sick and ashamed of his disease for the rest of his life. I had a little story book about her when I was young; she was one of my biblical heroes – a young girl like I was at the time who had an impact on the lives of the great.
In fact, there’s quite a contrast between the great and the lowly in this story. Instead of going to the prophet directly himself, Naaman the great Aramaean general goes to his king – he goes to the top. Of course, considering the hereditary enmity between Aram and Israel, it was probably smart to tell his king why he wanted to enter enemy territory. Then his king writes to the Israelite king, who interprets Naaman’s request as a trumped-up excuse for the Arameans to declare war! He really gets his shirt in a knot over it – in fact, he tears his shirt in two! When Naaman receives a message that the prophet can help him, he loads up with all kinds of good stuff to buy himself some healing – after the prophet has already told him he will help him! And then, he flies into a huff because the healing doesn’t take the form he expects it to. It takes the calm, practical wisdom of more of his servants to make him see reason. Without the servants in this story – without the people whom you’d expect to be the least significant – Naaman would not be healed.
The story goes on to tell how Naaman’s healing makes him recognize the power of Israel’s God. Not only is he healed physically, but his inner being is transformed as well! He’s gone from a cynical, temperamental bigwig to a man so intent on worshipping “the God of Israel” that he asks to take two wagonloads of “Israel” back with him, just to make sure Israel’s God will continue to be with him after he goes back to Aram.
Naaman’s story is one of miraculous healing and inner transformation. The Psalmist has also experienced healing at God’s hand: physical or spiritual, we do not know. The image is of a person pulled up out of a deep pit, from the depths of the earth. He knows now that though sometimes tears may seem like they will go on forever, joy will come again. He has been transformed from one who mourns into one who dances; he has taken off his public show of devastation and has put on clothing that displays his joy. He has moved from a former self-confidence and self-sufficiency to a confidence and trust in God alone. He lives simply to praise God.
Such transformations may not seem remarkable – after all, God has intervened directly in the lives of these men; who wouldn’t be transformed? But the Bible includes stories of those who are healed externally but who refuse to change their inner most selves. Consider the story of the ten lepers healed by Jesus: only one of them returned to Jesus to thank him, and that one was a Samaritan, an outsider, a foreigner. Physical healing doesn’t always result in spiritual transformation, just as spiritual transformation doesn’t always result in physical healing.
There are those who believe that if you have enough faith, anything can be healed. The other side of that coin is a form of “blaming the victim”: if you only had more faith, a better relationship with God, this wouldn’t have happened! Some of what we find in the Bible supports that understanding. But as I’ve said before, one of the things we have to remember is that sin and sickness were considered to be inter-related in ancient times, because they didn’t know about bacteria, or cancer, or germs, or viruses, or genetic diseases. If you were sick, it was because you had sinned, or your parents or ancestors had sinned. That’s one of the reasons why Jesus’ response to pleas for healing was often: Your sins are forgiven. Sickness and sin are tied together in the Biblical worldview, and healing and salvation are also tied together – they’re even based on the same word: salve, to heal. Inner transformation and outer transformation are inseparable, in that world-view.
Today we know that sickness and disease aren’t caused by sin – at least not directly. We might say that much of the sickness and disease we humans suffer may be the result of our pollution of water, soil and air; our carelessness of the environment; the over-population of the planet, and the need for Mother Nature to exert some population control and restore the balance. In that sense, sickness might be considered a result of the sinfulness of humanity as a whole, our failure to care for the earth God gave us and the neighbours with whom we share it. In that sense, we might say that sickness is caused by sin.
But I want to say this very clearly, as I have said it before: I do not believe that sickness is a punishment from God; nor do I believe that suffering is given to us to test our faith. I believe that sickness and death are simply part of the natural order, like spring following winter. Sometimes winter comes early and spring comes late; sometimes death comes earlier than we expect, and sometimes it comes later. But death always follows life, whether or not we are the recipients of miraculous healing like Naaman was.
That probably doesn’t seem fair to you. After all, Naaman didn’t even believe in God at first and he was cured! I’m sure we have all heard stories about faith healing, prayers for healing being answered, miraculous cures occurring against all hope. Some of us may even have experienced something like that. Studies have been done that show that people who have some spiritual support or faith of any kind, heal better and faster than those without such a background. But why do faithful people get sick in the first place? And why don’t they receive a cure from the hand of God? Why aren’t my loved ones saved? Why aren’t all those poor people in Africa saved? Why is there so much wrong with the world?
How I wish I knew. My own feeling is that God very rarely intervenes in the course of nature, even when the course of nature has been disrupted by human actions, human sinfulness. We have been given freedom, and a world in which to live that freedom. The world as it is has lessons to teach us, people to love us, challenges to face, sorrows to bear, and many blessings to share. And the wonder of it all is how many blessings are packed into one short life. Even in times of sadness and pain, there are blessings to be found, if our eyes are able to perceive them. We learn how much we can love and how much we are loved; we learn to lean on God and find tremendous strength there; we see the world with new eyes, knowing how fragile it all is.
Suffering is not good; pain is not good; death is not good. But God can bring good out of all these circumstances, when we lean on God for support. One of the things that I hope each of us will learn from the lessons of pain and loss we face in life is how important it is to care for one another: to do everything we can to bring healing and wholeness to each other’s lives.
One day as he began his daily prayer, a holy hermit saw passing by, a cripple, a mother begging for food for her pathetically malnourished child, and the victim of what must have been a very severe beating. Seeing them, the holy man turned to God and said, “Great God! How is it that such a loving Creator can see so much suffering, and yet do nothing about it?” And deep within his heart he heard God reply, “I have done something about it. I made you!”
Each of us has a part to play in the healing of our friends and neighbours, and even of those faceless people we will never meet. Whether it’s donating to a society that helps with research, support and advocacy; sitting quietly and holding the hand of someone who is suffering or grieving; holding them in our prayers; or pointing them in the direction of someone who can help them, we have a mission: to bring salvation, that is, healing, to the world. If each one of us leaves here today with a new commitment to the healing of the world and its people, then something good will have come out of the loss we know and the grief we share. I pray that you will make the slave girl and her fellow servants your models: commit yourself to trusting in God, and being a part of God’s healing work. Amen.