Year B Epiphany 6: Who does he think I am?

 I’m not preaching this Sunday, but I did attend my regular weekly appointment with an ecumenical group of local preachers yesterday, and this is what struck me when I listened to the reading from 2 Kings (once more realizing that hearing the scriptures is a different experience from reading them … but more about that, perhaps, another time), and the responses of my colleagues, for whose insights I am grateful.

The story of Naaman’s healing has a surprising number of characters: Naaman, the soldiers he oversees, his wife, her maid (‘stolen” from Israel), the king of Aram, the king of Israel, Elisha, his servant, Naaman’s servants, three rivers, horses, chariots…

Some of these characters have no expectation of influence or power. Some have an overdeveloped sense of entitlement. Guess which are the most influential!

It’s not a straightforward divide, though, between powerful and powerless, I think. It has a lot to do with understanding the source of our power, our strength. Power itself is a neutral concept: it is a tool without moral agency of its own which can be used and wielded for good or evil; which can be grasped or gifted. It can be an illusion, if we believe it to be an inherent aspect of ourselves instead of shared understanding of how we have organized ourselves, subject to critique and change and ultimately belonging to God: “Thine be the kingdom, the power and the glory.”

  • The stolen child of Israel was powerless in the house of the army commander who had torn her from her family and home amid who knows what brutal violence. Yet she remembered where power comes from: she referred to a prophet, a man of God. He was a channel of God’s power for her people. He could make life better in the new household in which she was living.
  • Naaman and his king together believed that they had the power to command an outcome. They used the kind of influence they understood – personal prestige, money, politics – to attempt to sway their recent enemy to help them.
  • The king of Israel demonstrated the pitfalls of believing too deeply in your own personal power. When he was asked to do something which he couldn’t do alone, he despaired. For him, if it was not within his power, it was impossible, and ruinous.
  • Elisha understood that God used him to demonstrate a proper use of power, whether to distract an enemy, heal a beloved son, feed God’s people, or soothe the skin of an army commander. He reassured the king to rely not on his personal properties but the relationships that God had made available to him.
  • He chose not to appear in person to Naaman, but directed him to the river which represented a boundary in the relationship of the people of Israel and God; a watershed; a thin place.
  • Naaman did not understand that this prophet was not slighting him by not appearing before him, but was indicating that the power to heal was not his personal property, but a gift of God. Naaman was affronted. He was used to better treatment and proper acknowledgement. Even from a postition of petition, he wanted to wield power.
  • His servants, used to taking the road of least resistance, as the powerless often practice, said, “What’s your problem? Why go looking for difficulties? Take the gift that’s offered.”
  • God healed Naaman.

There is a lot more to the story of Naaman, Elisha, his servant, their countries and kings. It’s (always) worth reading around the passage. Naaman, for example, still after his healing wants to hold on to the power that he has experienced in his own body, still not understanding that it is not personal property to be bartered or sold (2 Kings 5: 15-19). Elisha’s servant falls into a similar trap (2 Kings 5: 19-27). Elisha continues to hold out against abuses of power when he diverts the king from committing an offence against his enemies when they are at his mercy (2 Kings 6: 8-23); the situation remains fluid and never easy to paint without shades and shadows as the kings and countries trade power, influence and violence between them.

The powerless people – and Elisha – derive their power from knowing that it comes not from their situation or position, but from God. Since each of us is beloved of God, since we each have the same value to God as God’s own creatures and children, in the context of the kingdom, the power and the glory, we each potentially wield the same influence. When we forget from whence it comes, when we grasp it for selfish or self-promoting ends, our pride is liable to come before a fall. Yet even to Naaman, gifts are given, first of healing, then of exasperated patience: “[Just] Go in peace!” (2 Kings 5:19)

And in the Markan gospel, Jesus is revealed as the One who embodies the power of God …

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